Paramount // 2008 // 222 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // August 14th, 2008
Discover the truth behind their extraordinary legacy.
That's not an idle boast. African American Lives 2 is one of the most remarkable documentaries ever made, a truly powerful mixture of historical analysis and skilled filmmaking. This is the sort of educational television that networks should make more of.
The premise of the African American Lives series (this disc compiles the series' second season) is to use historical research, scientific analysis, and interviews to trace the ancestry of various African Americans. Included are actors Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight) and Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda), comic Chris Rock (Dogma), singer Tina Turner, writer Maya Angelou, athlete Jackie Joyner Kersee, radio host Tom Joyner, Ebony and Jet publisher Linda Johnston Rice, and academics Peter Gomes, Kathleen Henderson, and Bliss Broyard. Here are the four episodes on this disc:
"The Road Home"
Tracing the participants' ancestors to the beginning of the 20th century.
"A Way Out of No Way"
Tracing the participants' ancestors from the late 1800's to the beginnings of the Civil War.
"We Come From People"
Tracing the participants' ancestors from the antebellum South to the earliest Colonial days.
"The Past is Another Country"
Tracing the participants' ancestors all the way back to their origins in Africa.
Don't be put off by the thought of turgid analysis or cheesy reenactments. African American Lives 2 is rarely less than enthralling. The show's host, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, is an engaging and intelligent personality who doesn't just help the show's participants with their genealogies, but also traces his own as well. In the process, both he and the participants learn some surprising things about their ancestors. Some were wealthy state legislators, Civil War veterans, or even prominent land owners. Others were convicted and executed for murders they may not have committed. The thorny issue of slavery is never as easy to understand as it's usually depicted. Some slaves ran as far away as possible and changed their names. Others stayed with their masters long after emancipation, even in committed long-term relationships that resulted in children. It's not possible, of course, to know now why some people made the decisions they did, but the show explains how the effects of those decisions are still being felt today.
What's extraordinary about these revelations is that they are not being depicted with flashbacks or actors. Instead, a simple look at historical records can be surprisingly informative. It's possible to see the depictions on a show like Roots and get an emotional connection to what the past was like, but there's also something jaw-dropping about seeing an old hand-scrawled document that dispassionately but clearly states a life-altering fact: the birth of a "mulatto" child, the death of a slave on a cargo ship, the sale of a young eight year old boy to one family and his mother to another. Thanks to the storytelling skills of Gates and the show's producers, these documents and relics wind up being far more evocative of the past than any reenactment could have been.
There are even some fascinating historical revelations that are not widely known. One participant's ancestors, for instance, were held as slaves not by white landowners but by an Indian tribe. Indian tribes were allowed to own, buy, and sell slaves just as if they were plantation owners, and because the tribes were independent nations, they were not subject to the Emancipation Proclamation. Consequently, many slaves held by Indian tribes were not freed even after the end of the Civil War. This is the sort of fascinating historical revelation that African American Lives 2 is full of. By the last episode, where Gates explains how the marvels of modern DNA testing can reveal almost what exact African tribes many of the participants are descended from, the show emerges as one of the best examples of how great educational television can be.
The 16:9 anamorphic transfer is pristine. Curiously, the disc has an option for a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, but the surrounds are almost entirely unused, even for music or ambient sound effects. There are no extras, but the episodes themselves are so thorough that it's hard to imagine if any more are really needed. African American Lives 2 is one of the most fascinating nonfiction DVDs available and anyone curious about history, even viewers who are not African American themselves, should seek it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 222 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site