Over the last three weeks, Jonathan Wilson and Ken Owen have reviewed the PBS documentary series The Abolitionists. Their reviews of part 1, part 2, and part 3 are already available for you to read. In this final post, Wilson and Owen will discuss the series as a whole, focusing especially on its value for history professors in the classroom.
Ken: Jonathan, I thought that we might start this discussion by looking at the producers’ public statements on what they were attempting with the series. For reference, there is a video entitled ‘Why We Made The Abolitionists‘, and an article ‘From The Executive Producer‘. For me, the most striking statement of the video is the opening assertion that no transformative moment in American history ‘stems from the actions of ordinary Americans as much as the abolitionists’. The producers then say that the five characters that they chose were deliberately intended to invoke different strands of the abolitionist movement.
I’ve been reflecting on this statement quite a bit, and I’m not sure how successfully they actually portray this. In particular, the first two episodes seemed to be setting up a hero narrative – the portrayal of Grimke in particular, and Garrison and Douglass on top of that, seemed to emphasize just how exceptional these figures were. That seems to be a tension in the entire series; that in highlight what sets the five featured abolitionists apart, they often seem strangely detached from either popular politics or government. At the same time, though, the documentary makes it very clear that these are not politicians in any sort of establishment sense.
My feeling is that my uncertainty here comes from the fact that there was a failure to distinguish clearly between abolitionism and other forms of anti-slavery, and at times the documentary deliberately conflated the two terms when it was most convenient. That narrow definition meant that the emotional intensity and the political stakes of the movement weren’t adequately conveyed until the 1850s, when the stakes are so high that they can’t be ignored. If the producers had tried at an earlier stage to get across the intersection of the abolitionist leaders and the popular movement that they are trying to marshal, they would have given a more convincing story of how ordinary political activism came to define national debates.
Jonathan: I think that’s a good point; it’s never entirely clear what “movement” we’re looking at, especially in the first two episodes. The producers of The Abolitionists seem to take abolitionism for granted both as an antislavery movement and as an antislavery movement. That is, it seems to be just one movement — an abolitionist movement — and it seems to exist because these five individuals (Grimké, Garrison, Douglass, Stowe, and Brown) called it into being. Yet at other times, as when nameless black abolitionists of the 1820s or someone like Elijah Lovejoy makes an appearance, we do get glimpses of preexisting political architecture and a wider network of activists. There’s a strange inconsistency there that if anything may diminish the significance of these five figures by leaving unexplained their role as true political agents.
In other words, the influence of these five extraordinary individuals is not so much shown as assumed, but I think we’re shown enough of what’s going on in the background to know we aren’t getting the whole story of their influence. So I think this documentary really needed a better portion of political history — or anything to shed light on intellectual networks and print consumption — to support the weight it gave its stars. (Especially poor Stowe, who kind of drops out of the story after a single scene.) The film never quite makes up its mind about whether these are great representative individuals or great countercultural loners. And that’s particularly important because for the most part, these five figures aren’t “ordinary Americans.” A Garrison, a Grimké, or a Brown is a work of art.
You’re definitely right about the film succeeding better in the 1850s, when the fissures in the movement (and the wider political context) can’t be ignored any more. Apart from that moment, the troubled Douglass-Garrison relationship is the only element giving the documentary much coherence, I think. It gives us more dramatic tension than any of the individual stories do, and it suggests both the creative possibilities and the limitations of antislavery thought in a way no other element of the film does. So The Abolitionists’ narrative successes demonstrate that it would have been better for the filmmakers to abandon their assumption that the antislavery movement was unitary or simply looked to its leaders for guidance. Conflict makes for better storytelling and better political analysis than consensus.
Ken: Your comment about the Garrison-Douglass relationship really hits the mark. Indeed, the producers themselves said the series had originally been envisaged as an exploration of the relationship between Garrison and Douglass, but that it quickly became apparently that this would be an overly narrow conception of abolitionism. That much is true, but I’m not convinced how far they transcended the Garrison-Douglass relationship. That’s a shame, because the portrayals of Garrison, Douglass and Brown were excellent – but they existed in something of a vacuum. And the attempts to weave Grimké and Stowe into the story never seemed to carry the same fervor and passion of the male characters.
The portrayal of Stowe was particularly weak, I thought, on two grounds. Firstly, her character was much more weakly drawn than all the others. We see her in a brief scene observing a slave auction; we hear about her grief at the loss of her son. And then, suddenly, somehow, this leads to the inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Secondly, it seemed to be shoehorned in to the other parallel biographies in a clumsy fashion – Stowe simply doesn’t have the links that the other four characters have with each other. Clearly, accounting for the success of the abolitionists needs to have some point of connection with the wider culture of northern society; I’m far from convinced that it needed to be made as a personal story. There was clearly something significant about the fact that anti-slavery and abolitionism moved from political to popular culture after 1850, and trying to portray this as something that could only be stirred up by one author makes more leaps with historical causality than I am comfortable with.
I want to return back to the notion of dramatization sitting alongside documentary. It’s probably clear to anyone reading our previous reviews that I was very taken with many of the dramatic re-enactments; one of my frustrations with the series was where they failed to capitalize on re-enactment as a means of historical interpretation. I thought this might have been used as a means of emphasizing the links with the wider movement – showing Grimké or Douglass convincing a crowd in a long shot of a whole speech would have emphasized the quasi-missionary nature of what they did, and how that sense of a movement developed. Similarly, the only crowd that we really see is the mob that leads Garrison around by the neck. I assume that there were just budgetary problems in terms of fuller portrayal of crowd action, given how carefully the production of those scenes was staged. Yet that was also a missed opportunity for me – and it meant that some of the greatest moments of dramatic tension were a little too stylized. Do you feel they struck the right balance between documentary and drama?
Jonathan: Funny you should point that out about crowds, Ken. It struck me that most historical documentaries, especially war documentaries, work their dramatizations the other way around. They tend to show blurry, noisy clips of costumed extras to illustrate moments of mass action, and use still images (typically portraits with the sitter gazing into the camera) to depict particular people. I think that’s part of why I found some of the dramatizations a bit unsettling; they challenged my ideas about how film works to convey historical truth and historical scale. And of course, because we saw particular actors so clearly, the film’s budgetary constraints became really obvious in scenes that required masses of people.
Overall, I’m still not sure what to think about the film’s approach to reenactment. I was less taken with the dramatizations than you were, I think, except for scenes with Jeanine Serralles’s Angelina Grimké. I’m not sure why I found those scenes more effective than the others. All the other actors were skillful too; I think Neal Huff’s Garrison was realized particularly well. Their scenes just didn’t seem to add enough to justify their intrusiveness. And I fear the dramatizations did tend to thrust the rest of the movement even further into the background; the extras representing rank-and-file abolitionists tended to have nothing to do except applaud happily when Douglass or Garrison spoke.
But the dramatizations sometimes do capture exchanges between particular people quite well, as when Grimké clashes with her mother or Douglass meets clandestinely with Brown at night. These scenes may do something very important by helping viewers visualize history on a small scale. They may make it easier to comprehend the fact that nineteenth-century Americans often lived in little rooms and talked over tables by candlelight and wrote letters when they were tired or scared. Texture is a neglected aspect of history, at least in the classroom. So let me ask you: Do you think these scenes might allow a teacher to communicate something that another sort of documentary wouldn’t?
Ken: One of the things that I’ve found in my teaching is that there are certain sources that, if they are to be brought alive, need to be read aloud rather than simply read. Abolitionist texts certainly fall into this category – after all, many of the most memorable texts were designed to be heard. To that end, I thought the dramatizations did a great job of humanizing history. In some cases, that maybe made the story a little too intimate, and a little unduly focused on the five main individuals. At its best, though, the series helped convey moral authority more clearly than a mere voiceover could. Similarly, re-enactment gave a tension and sense of personal risk to the narrative that might get lost in a lecture or a secondary reading.
The abolitionists themselves were sufficiently well-drawn that the documentary would be a very useful jumping-off point for discussion. I would certainly use the last episode in class as a means of cutting across hero narratives relating to Lincoln (indeed, given the town in which I am teaching, cutting through Lincoln hagiography may well be very important in teaching the survey!). The reservation I have, though, is the absence of politics and the cursory treatment of religion. Clearly, I couldn’t devote two and a half hours of class time in a survey or a 19th century course just to one documentary series. And given the amount of time and reading I’d want to give to set up the histories of slavery, politics and religion in the period, then I’m not sure I could weave the documentary into my survey syllabus without losing more than I’d gain. But I don’t want to be quite that negative – a selection of the best scenes would go a long way.
The approach of the series would also work very well in a methods seminar. Last semester, I used A Midwife’s Tale to good effect in getting students to think about how visual means of presentation demanded different approaches to evidence. This series would fit very nicely with that – asking students how you weave overlapping and conflicting narratives together, as well as finding the right balance between narrative and interpretation. In that setting, some of the things that we’ve talked about as weaknesses of the series would actually become strengths for discussion in the classroom. How do you portray the activism of non-politicians in an effective manner? How do you approach historical causality? How far does social and cultural change dictate the political activity of certain movements? The series invites serious reflections on all of those questions.
Jonathan: It sounds, then, as if you’re saying the The Abolitionists may help students in a seminar do precisely what we’ve tried to do here. I’m inclined to agree. I’ve been thinking about what commenter Michael said about our review of Part 2: his students are often even more critical than he is when discussing history on film. In the right setting, this documentary might be a much more inviting opportunity for student critique than a more polished documentary would have been. The gaps and silences here are big enough to be useful.
I suppose that if I were to present a substantial portion of the film to students, I would focus on one crucial question: “In what sense is this a film about the abolitionists?” I don’t think the filmmakers ever answer that question persuasively. But attentive students might do a lot with it.