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Rarely have I been more frustrated by a documentary production’s formal choices and how they interfere with the engaging content of the story they’re trying…
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The six-part documentary series “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” narrated by Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., educates us about a part of American history sometimes overlooked: the hardships and tragedies Africans endured during slavery. Commentary by Gates and several historians grounds the story and makes it believable by providing accounts of slaves told by historians.
Episode 1 begins in the 1500s and is called “The Black Atlantic.” Early on, Gates showcases how detrimental slavery is for the Africans and how the aftermath of this system will impact generations of people for decades to come.
First, though, the film establishes the lives of Africans before slavery spread on a global scale by using Gates as narrator and images from the pre-slavery era. With this pairing technique, the film helps audiences see just how debasing the journey was from Africa to America. The methods in the first episode of the documentary help to show how slavery not only shaped America but the lives of so many. With the voice of Gates and the usage of artifacts like slave documents, the audience is presented with a moment in history from a flexible vantage point. We learn that Africans captured and traded their own people as slaves before this enterprise in human labor is transported from Africa to America. During the transportation scene of African slaves to slave ships, the music changed from drums to an old spiritual song as a ship travels across the ocean.
The historians provide more details that are missing from many history books. A compelling one is the story of a young girl named Priscilla, an orphan sold into slavery to Elias Ball, a rice planter. Priscilla, who works in his rice fields, is one of the 4,000 slaves he owns in July 1756. As Gates continues to elaborate on Priscilla's journey to America, he states how Charleston, North Carolina was once the center of the slave trade for the 13 colonies. Also, according to Gates, over 40 percent of all the slaves that came to America came through the town of Charleston.
Another strong point of the film underscores the dehumanization of slaves. Historian Vincent Brown describes slaves as ciphers, defined as people who have no power and are not important. White owners, who try to strip away slaves’ identities, see them as nothing more than property or expendable resources they could control to grow their wealth.
As for the cuisine of this country, Michael Twitty, a food historian, claims slaves “blackified” food as recipes flow between the slaves quarters and the master’s houses. The dishes are heavily based on European tradition. In the film, Twitty explained that while slaves were bringing in food like red beans and jambalaya to the slave master's house, the slaves were taking Western dishes back to the slave quarters. As a result of various dishes flowing between the two groups, soon there was the creation of entirely new foods and these dishes, which would eventually spread across the country.
America, a country that prides itself on freedom, was built on the backs of slaves. Were it not for slavery, none of this would exist. The film does a good job of demystifying the stories told about slavery and actually shows the roles that Africans, Europeans, and Americans played when it came to slavery. The film works because the narrator Gates brings his expertise as a scholar in African American history, and his knowledge, as well as the other historians, helps to make sense of such a dark and traumatic time in American history.
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