Engrossing tales of the enslaved

A fresh perspective on racial history

TVPreview

February 09, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The story of John Punch, a black indentured servant in 1640s Virginia, matters as much to American history as that of Thomas Jefferson, planter and president.

That's one of the tenets on which Slavery and the Making of America, a four-hour PBS documentary premiering tonight, is based. And, agree or disagree, it makes for a fresh and illuminating exploration of the ways in which race, slavery and the American character have come together across 250 years.

Punch, who led a brutal existence working the tobacco fields on a small farm in Chesapeake Bay, Va., one day decided to make a run for freedom. He was joined by two white indentured servants. The three were captured after making it to Maryland, where they were tried before the colony's highest court.

All were found guilty, but whereas the two white men were given only a few extra years of servitude as punishment, Punch was sentenced to life as servant to his brutish Virginia master. As the film points out, it was one of the first indications that "being white came with privileges and benefits, and that skin color had the power to determine one's status and fate."

Slavery and the Making of America is not the first major production to focus on diaries, letters and slave narratives for its storytelling thrust. Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, an even more ambitious six-hour series in 1998 from award-winning producer Orlando Bagwell, was built on the same largely ignored, but wonderfully rich ground.

Like Bagwell, producer-director Dante J. James learned filmmaking from one of the masters, the late Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize), and so it is no surprise that he sees history as a series of stories and understands that power determines whose stories get told. James is nothing if not determined to empower the slaves on whose backs the American economy was built by bringing many of their biographies to life.

James starts in 1619, when English settlers in Virginia purchased 20 Africans from Dutch traders, and after telling stories like that of Punch, he moves on to New Amsterdam and the arrival of the first 11 slaves to what would become Manhattan. Two quick and insightful points are made: In addition to revealing the role skin color came to play, James shows that slavery was not a peculiarly Southern phenomenon.

Like Ken Burns (The Civil War), James uses mini-biographies as his narrative building blocks. From Punch, the film moves to Frances Driggus, a black 17-year-old indentured servant in Virginia charged with fornication by her white master after she tried to resist his sexual advances. She defended herself in court, but was sentenced to 30 lashes and two more years of servitude. She kept challenging her master in court, however, and the letter binding her to the abusive man was eventually ruled invalid. It is a tale of remarkable resistance.

From Harriet Jacobs, a slave who lived in a stifling attic space for seven years after fleeing an abusive master, to Robert Smalls, an enslaved sailor who stole a Confederate ship in Charleston Harbor and safely navigated it into Union waters, Slavery and the Making of America is chock-full of remarkable stories that make the four hours race by.

James uses extensive re-creations to make the stories even more compelling. As questionable as that practice can be, he does appear to have based his depictions of the past on the record being created during the past two decades by historians working with slave narratives. He uses 25 historians as talking-head experts in the series.

"Slavery was no sideshow in American history - it was the main event," says James Horton, one of the series' most prominent talking heads.

That's an overstatement. But, like the series itself, Horton's words make one stop and think about an institution and part of the national past that many would like to forget.

Slavery and the Making of America

When: 9 tonight and Feb. 16

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

In brief: History compellingly told through the words and lives of slaves

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