February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
“Slavery was no sideshow in American history,” says Dr. James Oliver Horton about the PBS series Slavery and the Making of America, which aired as this issue went to press and is now available on DVD. “It was the main event.”
Narrated by Morgan Freeman, Slavery and the Making of America is the most ambitious nonfiction film ever attempted on the subject. “I don’t think there’s ever been so much expertise on slavery assembled in one place,” says its executive producer, William R. Grant. “We took pains to select 25 of the most prominent scholars in early American history,” among them Dr. Horton, the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University.
“Four of the best historical filmmakers have each produced, written, and directed a segment,” says Grant. The first, “The Downward Spiral,” begins with the arrival of 11 African slaves, purchased by English settlers in Virginia from Dutch traders in 1619, and ends with the horrific “Stono” slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1739. The second, “Liberty in the Air,” examines the spread of slavery in the colonies through the 1830s; “Seeds of Destruction,” the third segment, takes slavery through the election of President Lincoln, focusing on the growing chasm between Northern and Southern attitudes. The final installment, “The Challenge of Freedom,” carries slaves into the Civil War, and examines the role of ex-slaves in post-bellum society.
Viewers will immediately notice one major difference between Slavery and the Making of America and other well-known PBS documentaries: the use of dramatic re-creations. “Not only were there no photographs of slaves in the first several decades,” says Grant, “there were precious few images of any kind available.” Dr. Horton adds that “the technique of depicting the people and events with live actors is fully justified because it is all drawn from actual documentation. For instance, you can read about the life of Harriet Jacobs [a runaway slave from North Carolina], who hid for seven years in a rat-infested crawlspace under her grandmother’s roof, but you can’t appreciate what she went through until the camera takes you there.
“When I first saw the film,” Horton recalls, “I told William Grant ‘I’ so glad we can see their faces.’
“You’re going to see a world you’ve never seen before, a world so dependent on the economy of slavery that the dollar value of black human property was greater than the dollar value of all the country’s banks, railroads, and manufacturing. Above all, you’re going to be reminded that America was a slave country longer than it has been a free country and that the legacy of slavery is still very much with us.”
This powerful and innovative series is essential viewing for anyone who is interested in—or thinks that he fully understands—this legacy.