McQueen’s masterful film is the kind that works on multiple levels simultaneously—as pure pulp entertainment but also as a commentary on how often it feels…
The following review was written by Kinnedy Broughton, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.
Convict leasing, sharecropping, peonage—these were some of the many forms of slavery forced upon African-American people after being freed through Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Directed by Sam Pollard, produced by Catherine Allan and Douglas Blackmon and written by Sheila Curran-Bernard, “Slavery by Another Name” shines a light on the injustices occurring after African Americans were freed, specifically in the South.
Four million slaves have been freed by the 14th Amendment, with no one in charge but themselves. Separated families were reuniting, spouses were remarrying, all African Americans were hopeful for the future. The war had devastated the South's economic system. White investments, family businesses, agriculture and the system of slavery were falling apart. The 15th Amendment came along, allowing African Americans to vote, serve on juries, legally purchase and own guns. This disturbed the white majority.
The documentary shows that, by 1874, African Americans began to receive less help from the federal government. States created silly laws targeted toward African Americans. It could mean a major prison sentence to speak loudly around white women, to walk along railroad tracks, or to steal a pig. In reenactments based on John Davis’ writing, Turron Kofi Alleyne plays Davis, a man falsely accused of a crime and forced into Negro labor. Alleyne temporarily distracts us from the reality that this is a documentary with his compelling commitment to his character.
Within five years, these laws turn into federal felonies for black people. Only 10 percent of these convictions were against white males. That is where convict leasing was born. John T. Milner, known as “the father of Industrialization,” found that black labor was extremely profitable. He began forcing convicts to coal mine, where whipping and mental abuse occurred and where diseases spread because they had to drink dirty water. Some of them may never have seen daylight again. “This is a white man's government,” read a propaganda sign, and they planned to keep it that way.
Scenes display visual evidence of news headlines, letters, and satirical propaganda to back up statements given by interviewed professionals. Re-enacted scenes help those who have difficulty understanding such heavy topics like systematic injustices.
Industrialized slavery came in various other forms, as this documentary shows. Sharecropping was like an entrance with no exit. It was not slavery in the beginning, yet essentially became another form of it. Blacks agreed to help with the crops of white landowners for a certain period of time, but if they attempted to leave they were arrested.
Peonage, also known as debt slavery, was a system where white employers made African Americans work for a certain amount of time until their “debts” were paid off. It was either continue working or they'd end their lives. People were namelessly murdered and dumped in fields and lakes.
These legalized forms of slavery kept millions of African Americans in the South, even if they wanted to leave. Eventually, African-American workers realized their rights and their freedom were being undermined by fear and violence.
This documentary reveals more than a school textbook. It's a learning experience for people of all ages who fortunately did not live through the injustices of the 1800s/early 1990s. The message is clear that during that time African Americans were not free; they were far from it. The documentary exposes us to how black criminalization was born, and how prison systems were set up to become a legal form of slavery.
The documentary also highlights the men and women who were never acknowledged for the work and the pain they suffered. Ezekiel Archey wrote letters while doing labor in coal mines and exposed the violent injustices there. John Davis was falsely accused and became a victim of the illegal act of peonage.
This documentary receives four stars for the way it was written, displayed and acted out. It gave an immensely thorough amount of facts and detail, and continuously reeled me in, leaving me on the edge of my seat throughout. It triggers emotions and inspires people, specifically African Americans, to work hard with what we have and cherish it—our ancestors shed blood and tears so that we could have the rights and resources we utilize today.
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