PBS trumps Hollywood examining slavery

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Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" may have lost in most of its Golden Globes categories Sunday, but it is still one of the best films of 2012.

Having said that, it is exposition heavy. Its attention to the minutiae involved in passing the 13th Amendment comes at the expense of portraying the brutality of slavery on a personal level.

Though slavery is acknowledged as the casus belli of the Civil War, we never see actual slaves in "Lincoln," though White House servants make dutiful appearances. While the film opens with black soldiers fighting valiantly for their liberty in a muddy field, most of its African-Americans occupy the background like elegant furniture when they're not filing quietly into segregated balconies to hear their fate debated by Congress.

In "Django Unchained," director Quentin Tarantino compensates for the lack of agency by blacks in Mr. Spielberg's film by portraying the period leading up to the Civil War as an extension of blaxploitation cinema. In Mr. Tarantino's take, Django, a runaway slave, kills even more white people than the black soldiers managed in the opening scene of "Lincoln." He's an antebellum Shaft with a license to kill.

Last week, an NRA hack offered an unintentionally hilarious suggestion: If blacks had only been given access to guns after being brought to this country, slavery wouldn't have existed. "Django Unchained" embodies this revisionist notion with bloodthirsty gusto. After all, a revenge fantasy unmoored from the tyranny of history or moral responsibility is the best kind.

For good or ill, "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained" represent Hollywood's best thinking about the meaning of war and slavery as we observe the 150th anniversary of a conflict that turned America into a charnel house with more than 600,000 dead when it was all over in 1865.

Both films are entertaining, but you have to look elsewhere for a more robust explanation of the depths of the country's moral dilemma. "The Abolitionists," a three-part series on PBS this month, goes a long way in providing context about the Civil War and the decades-long battle preceding it to end slavery.

Before Lincoln saw the light, there were thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line daily to abolish slavery. "The Abolitionists" focuses on five leaders of this morally focused but often fractious movement: Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown.

The first installment aired last week and explored what motivated these abolitionists whose lives intersected at key moments between the mid-1820s and 1838. We meet the young Douglass, an intellectually precocious slave who learned to read despite the laws forbidding it. Douglass' growing literacy is inspired by Garrison's anti-slavery crusade in the nation's first abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

Tonight's installment on WQED sheds light on the years 1838 to 1854, when Douglass, who apprenticed at Garrison's side before their bitter estrangement, became the movement's most powerful spokesman. After his autobiography is published, Douglass' former master in Maryland tries to recapture him, forcing him to flee to England until supporters "buy" his freedom, making his return to America as a free man possible.

Douglass also has to navigate the ideological space between Garrison's insistence on nonviolent religious piety and the insurrection planned by John Brown, who insists only violence can cleanse America of its original sin. Meanwhile, Harriet Beecher Stowe becomes the most influential author in America with the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a novel born out of the searing loss of her first child.

All of this takes place with the 1846 war with Mexico and the Great Compromise of 1850 in the background. Once the Fugitive Slave Act is implemented, even the most committed abolitionists begin questioning whether the nation can ever be cleansed of its original sin without a violent uprising by slaves and like-minded white people.

Next week's installment chronicles the nation's sojourn from John Brown's arrest, trial and execution to Lincoln's dithering over whether to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. We rejoice with the abolitionists over the ratification of the 13th Amendment and the renewal of friendship between Douglass and Garrison. While Lincoln is given his due, there's no doubt that he was far from America's MVP when it came to ending slavery.

"The Abolitionists" reminds us that slavery in America was ended by a committed movement of troublemakers, not the noblesse oblige of one man. John Brown was wrong, after all.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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