Slavery: Making Of America

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Slavery flourished in America from 1619 till 1865, a 246-year period which lasted longer than the subsequent one since from Emancipation to the present.

Given the way in which U.S. history books have generally glossed over the ugly underbelly of this shameful legacy, most people remain blissfully unaware of the extent to which the evil institution played a protracted and pivotal role in the formation of the nation. Now PBS, with its four-part series, "Slavery and the Making of America," seeks to shed some new light on commonly held misconceptions by presenting the flip side of familiar perspectives. So, it showcases classic cultural heroes as villains, and vice-versa.

For instance, Nat Turner, who led a revolt in which over 70 slave-owners were slaughtered, is accorded relatively benign status, here, as an African American patriot perhaps deserving of Messianic status as a visionary leader inspired by the Bible to lead his people to freedom. Alternatively, the Presidency emerges a tad tarnished when you consider the fact that during 50 years of the administrations between Washington and Lincoln, the White House was occupied by a slaveholder.

When not revisiting once-revered myths, the program gives some previously suppressed voices a chance to be heard. The slave narrative of Harriet Jacobs relates what life was like for her living in a Southern plantation household, where the scent of sex was overpowering due to the master being so blinded with lust for black females that he drove his wife crazy with jealousy.

The series serves up far too many fascinating tidbits to relate them all in this space, but suffice to say that each of the four hours is informative, entertaining and worthwhile. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the program weaves archival illustrations and dramatic recreations in with the insightful observations of academic eggheads who weigh-in periodically, Ken Burns-style.

Kudos to writer/director/producer Dante James for another stellar effort, besting his earlier PBS documentaries This Far by Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys and the Emmy-nominated Marian Anderson and Politics: The New Black Power. Who knows whether wholesale mis-education on the subject can ever be undone, but a show like Slavery and the Making of America certainly represents a giant step in the right direction.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 4 hours, set to first air in two installments on PBS on
February 9th & 16th, from 9-11 PM, (check local listings)
Studio: Public Broadcasting System

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