VIENNA, Va., January 7, 2013 — Those who equate the Civil Rights Movement with events in the 1960s, may come away from the PBS production, “The Abolitionists,” with the shocking evaluation that those folks in the Sixties were far from the originators of it. It has taken our friends at “American Experience” (who also brought us “Death in the Civil War”) to spotlight this important stage of our U.S. history, again in conjunction with the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
The first idea for the series came from executive producer Mark Samuels who read a biography of William Lloyd Garrison, described as “one of the lions of the anti-slavery movement.” Since Garrison had a lifelong relationship with the better known Frederick Douglass, it seemed perfect to provide a long lens to better examine the entire abolitionist movement.
“It’s a particularly timely story right now,” Samuels said, since this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in the history of America.
The lives and activities of other abolitionists will be introduced and expanded upon as the series begins on January 8, and continuing on the 15th and 22nd, from 9.00-10:00 p.m. on PBS stations (check your local listings.) The series was filmed in Virginia (Petersburg, of course) and Delaware.
It is through these other stories that we will meet two participants with whom few will be familiar. The stories of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whom most know only as the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and Angelina Grimke, a woman who was so imbued with the abolitionist doctrine (despite her Charleston slave-owning family) that she cheerfully left at least one church whose doctrine differed from her own, are not as well known, while John Brown’s story is familiar as is William Lloyd Garrison’s to a lesser extent.
The programs span four decades and follow its globetrotting characters from South Carolina to Maine, across the pond to England, and back. Giving kudos to the women’s part in the movement, executive producer Sharon Grimberg believes that “the women’s movement grew out of their involvement in abolition.”
The role of Angelina Grimke, played by a little known actress, Jeanine Serralles, showed how a determined woman could exile herself from the South, and yet encouraged “Southern women to stand up to the men in their lives by demanding an end to slavery.”
The episode of Tuesday, January 8 will be the lead-in, covering the years 1820 –1838. After viewing an advance copy, I found that it’s a serious, hard-hitting segment that brooks no nonsense. Director Rob Rapley has his own ideas of presentation, and much of the opening scenes seemed choppy and truncated to this viewer. Granted, no two directors approach a subject the same, but the Ric Burns treatment of “Death in the Civil War” seemed to produce a smoother piece with better transitions.
There is no way to approach abolition without wading into slavery as deep as one possibly can, and that seems to pervade this segment. While mistreatment of the slaves was a given, there appears to be no other possible interaction between master (or mistress) and slave, and even when Angelina Grimke rails at her mother over a beating she has seen her brother give a slave, there is no middle ground on the part of the mother, who tells her to “mind her own business.”
It is a segment that will arouse strong feelings on the part of those on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, with the Northern and Eastern areas doubtless finding it an unplumbed depth into slavery’s atrocities, and those in the South and Midwest most likely feeling that many of the slave cruelty scenes are over-done, not giving any attention to the number of owners to whom slaves were quasi-family.
This is an in-your-face set-up with the Abolitionists themselves coming across as harsh, strident and even anxious to carry their feelings into acts of rioting and violence not formerly hooked to the abolition wagon.
At one point William Lloyd Garrison takes his pregnant wife and heads to another state, out of fear for their safety, when the publisher’s “Liberator” office is attacked and ultimately burned.
Frederick Douglass as a lad of eight or nine witnesses a young slave girl being beaten and it sets him on a life of seeking to banish slavery forever. It makes for a strong beginning to the provocative subject and viewers should be aware that some scenes are just not suitable for small children to watch.
The episode on January 15 will spotlight 1838—1854, and it is not until the third program, on January 22 that we reach the theoretical pinnacle of the movement with the year 1854, entitled “Emancipation and Victory.”
The part of Frederick Douglass is played by Richard Brooks, best known for his role as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette on NBC drama, Law and Order. Neal Huff plays William Lloyd Garrison, while Jeanine Serralles stars as Angelina Grinke, and Kate Lyn Sheil is Harriet Beecher Stowe.
T. Ryder Smith is the actor given the difficult role of John Brown, the hard-working, dedicated in an almost schizoid sort of way, whose activities lead to his arrest at Harper’s Ferry and hanging at Charles Town, West Virginia.
“American Experience” has thrilled and impressed us with each of its presentations, and “The Abolitionists” seems to be worthy of these accolades as well.
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