Sundance Review: 'Slavery By Another Name'
Post-Reconstruction doc is more informative than artistic
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Adapting literary works of fiction for narrative movies and television is always a challenge, but in many ways, adapting literary non-fiction works as documentaries is even more complicated.
Much of the authorship in documentary filmmaking comes from an almost journalistic approach to storytelling and more than a few popular non-fictiom tomes have been poorly adapted as documentaries because with a preponderance of research already done and on the page, the directors have been unable to transfer that research to the new medium in a fresh way.
In "Slavery By Another Name," playing in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, director Sam Pollard struggles with how to make Douglas A. Blackmon's Pulitzer Prize-winning book into something cinematic. At every turn, you can sense and appreciate Pollard's efforts, but he's still too reliant on talking head historians in general, and Blackmon's own insights in specific, to really open "Slavery By Another Name" up as a film.
Intellectually, "Slavery By Another Name" is sturdy and well-researched stuff and it will play well when it airs on PBS next month and it should play well in the future in classrooms, but as a film festival entry, it isn't nearly confident enough in its artistry. There's no harm in a dry history lesson, but Pollard may have hoped to achieve more than that.
More after the break...
For many Americans, the nature of race relations between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement is a bit of a blur, an amorphous dark period that can be summed up with a few easily dropped keywords like "Reconstruction" or "Plessy vs. Ferguson" or "the KKK." But there's an intellectual gap between "Gone With the Wind" and "Eyes on the Prize."
Blackmon and Pollard aim to do more than just fill that gap with "Slavery By Another Name," aspiring to education, but also outrage and guilt.
As its title indicates, "Slavery By Another Name" compellingly documents the ways in which the Southern industrial infrastructure, crushed in the Civil War, bounced back at the end of the 19th Century through a variety of means that have a lot in common with the institution that developed the powerful South in the country's early years.
While I certainly could have told you that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery, I couldn't have told you that the amendment also contains a clause that reads "except as a punishment for a crime." That meant that in the post-Reconstruction years, African-Americans could be arrested and charged with any manner of crime and could be sentenced to trumped up terms. In turn, a variety of industries could purchase the services of convicts for a handful of dollars per month and those convicts would then become unpaid laborers in coal mines or road work crews. With awareness that these indentured servants were only licensed to them for a finite amount of time, companies had no incentive to have long-term plans for their workers and conditions were often as harsh or harsher than they were in slavery.
The South also utilized a debt-driven system of peonage. A civilian could be busted for the most basic of charges and instead of jailtime, court costs might be imposed above the prisoner's ability to pay. That debt could then be purchased by a company or an individual and contracts would be drawn up requiring unpaid labor in exchange for relief of the debt.
This helped to create a disproportionately African-American prison population, which in turn was used to build the adversarial myth that freed slaves were "ill-equipted for freedom," which in turn perpetuated the system of segregation and all of the violence and atrocities associated with it. Every piece of the puzzle contributed to prejudice, which contributed to the institutionalized racism that "The Help" taught us was ended by Emma Stone in the mid-1960s.
The facts are damning at every turn. The basic treatment of information, accompanied by PBS-friendly, Ken Burns-honed still images and reprinted newspaper headlines, is simple and effective.
What Pollard does with the facts, or does beyond the facts, is significantly less impactful.
Using actual court testimony and recovered letters, Pollard stages reenactments to illustrate the human side of this system. Unfortunately, the reenactments may be powerful linguistically, but they're not very cinematic, since Pollard stages them as addresses on the witness stand.
Attempting to showcase the present-tense value of this history, Pollard has rounded up a selection of talking heads with ties to African-Americans impacted in this period. Since it goes without saying that every single African-American in the United States of America was impacted by this period in some way, you wait for some of these relatives to discuss their personal linkages in some notable way, but they almost all seem to have only learned about their distant cousin or great uncles for the purposes of this documentary. It's a very passive discovery and Pollard's occasional efforts to make the discover active flounder. One relative visits the National Archives and... nothing comes of it. Another relative literally walks a few feet off of a road, spots what may or may not be a poorly marked grave, a grave that probably has nothing to do with her kin, but represents the poorly marked graves of countless people who suffered under this near-slavery yoke. It's all too symbolic and remote to pay off and it really ought to have added something.
Also under the heading of "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is Pollard's decision to also showcase a few talking heads whose families benefited from prisoner leasing or various forms of peonage. Again, this is a tactic that serves as a reminder that the entire backbone of the industrialized South is, to this day, built on the back of racial subjugation. But Pollard doesn't want to offend and so he can't get anybody to admit to what he wants admitted. Instead, a couple people look awkward and smile with rueful misery as they recount learning how their great-great-great-grand-pappy made his money, but other than the briefest wave of shame for relatives dead for over 100 years, nobody has an interesting takeaway to share.
I always like documentaries that leave me smarter than when I sat down and "Slavery By Another Name" fulfilled that mandate, as I now know the origins of the word "peonage" and I don't have nearly as much respect for the progressive politics of Teddy Roosevelt. For fellow journalists and Sundance attendees, I wouldn't recommend moving "Slavery By Another Name" to the top of your screening list, but as 90 minutes on PBS next month? It's probably worth your time.