PBS // 2013 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 2nd, 2013
To create a more perfect union, they tore the nation apart.
As Steven Spielberg's Lincoln arrived in theatres and offered a celebratory portrait of the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, PBS offered a three-part documentary series detailing the lives of the individuals who did much of the work to make that moment possible: The Abolitionists. By zooming in on the lives of five key members of the Abolition movement, the series offers a satisfying and moving examination of the individuals who boldly took the unpopular view that slavery was an abomination during a time in which the American south depended on slavery and in which the American north was content to look the other way.
The series is presented in a somewhat unusual way, offering a combination of staged drama and traditional documentary material. There are only so many photos and letters available related to the subject, so The Abolitionists spends a good deal of time presenting historical re-enactments -- sometimes they're silently emoting as narrator Oliver Platt (an unusual choice, but he's quite good as this sort of thing) talks about them, and sometimes they're participating in scripted scenes. There are moments in which the approach seems a little hokey, but generally these scenes stand a notch or two above the sort of footage The History Channel so frequently delivers.
The five individuals featured are Frederick Douglass (Richard Brooks, Law and Order), Angelina Grimke (Jeanine Serralles, Two Lovers), John Brown (T. Ryder Smith, Birth), Harriet Beecher Stowe (Kate Lyn Sheil, V/H/S) and William Lloyd Garrison (Neal Huff, Michael Clayton). Through these individuals, the filmmakers are able to capture a wide variety of angles on the subject: the pacifists, the feminists, the African-Americans, the aggressive militants and so on. While acknowledging that all of these individuals played a large role in the effort to free slaves, the documentary also demonstrates that their methods varied wildly and sometimes led these people into sharp conflict with one another.
Three hours may sound like a lengthy running time, but it positively flies by thanks to the absorbing construction of the documentary (which jumps back and forth between its central characters as it moves forward chronologically) and the compelling subject matter. Granted, there may be some out there who will find lengthy examinations of the philosophical differences between William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown less fascinating than I do, but the documentary really is a simultaneously accessible and deep look at a subject that often doesn't get the attention it deserves.
The series even manages to bring some tension into the proceedings despite the fact that we're full aware of the final outcome. Sure, we know that slavery will eventually be outlawed, but how many of us know whether Douglass and Garrison will ever speak to each other again after a nasty split? Over time, many abolitionists become divided over whether to protest peacefully or take violent action against slave owners. By the time the civil war arrives, the documentary has effectively demonstrated why it seemed like an inevitability to those who had spent decades fighting for the end of slavery.
Another intriguing aspect is what a crucial role religion plays in this saga. Nearly every major participant in this tale is fueled by some sense of religious conviction. Brown's murderous rampages, Stowe's novel, Douglass' speeches...they're all fueled by the conviction that this is what God wants them to be doing (never mind that most of the churches were in disagreement with them at the time). Divinely inspired or not, it seems that nearly every friend or foe of slavery felt strongly that they were on the side of righteousness. Regardless of what your own religious beliefs may be, it's refreshing to see the documentary emphasize just what a large role it once played (for good or ill -- there's plenty of both) in American society.
The DVD transfer is strong, allowing the viewer to appreciate the impressive amount of work put into the re-enactments the film offers. These scenes naturally have a more cinematic quality, while the talking head sequences have the standard digital documentary look. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track gets the job done nicely, though this is a dialogue-driven affair that doesn't offer much in the way of complex sound design. No supplements are included.
The Abolitionists is a strong, detailed examination of one of the most important movements in American history. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated