Coming to PBS in October 1998
Bagwell's history of slavery: how we arrived where we are

Newly shaped shackles emerge from steam
Shackles being made in a  forge.

Originally published in Current, June 8, 1998

By Geneva Collins

A swaying noose backlit by a red sky. Newly forged shackles engulfed in tendrils of steam. Bare, callused feet tapping time on a coarse wood floor. Smoky torches flickering in the night forest. A fancifully swagged hot-air balloon adrift over the countryside. A gravestone the color of gingerbread, topped with a round angel's face.

These are just a handful of the haunting images Orlando Bagwell uses to tell his tale of Africans in America, the four-part, six-hour WGBH documentary on slavery from Jamestown to the Civil War. The $6.5 million saga, about 10 years in the making, airs in October [1998]. Attendees at the PBS Annual Meeting can see excerpts during a luncheon June 15.

"We're asked a lot, 'Why do slavery?' It raises a lot of feelings of guilt, embarrassment, anger," said Bagwell, executive producer of the series. "[But] much of who we are today, how our society is ordered, our ideas of blacks and whites, came from slavery. We can look back and begin to understand how we arrived at the things we live with today. ... This is not black history. It's American history. Two hundred and fifty years of our 400-year history is one of enslavement."

A slave and her master
A slave and her master.
(Photo: Missouri Historical Society.)

"If you're truly a filmmaker and historian, you can't just choose subjects you know will be loved," said Bagwell's mentor and former boss, Henry Hampton, for whom Bagwell directed two episodes of Eyes on the Prize. "People doing stuff on the Holocaust suffer the same quandary," Hampton continued. "You have to believe in the power and importance of your work. Slavery has not been treated in great detail. One of the reasons films like Amistad only half succeed, even with big money and the ability of someone like Steven Spielberg, is that there are missing elements. I'm sure Orlando will bring those things that have true impact to the slavery story."

It is a story, Bagwell explained, that needs telling because until relatively recently, America's early events were portrayed almost exclusively from a white perspective. "In the last 20 years, there has been more and more primary source documentation of slave life coming out through narratives and diaries. It was these exciting parts of history that made Judy feel that there was a series here."

"Judy" is Judy Crichton, then executive producer of The American Experience, who first talked up the idea of a documentary on slavery to Jennifer Lawson, then PBS's chief programming executive, in 1988.

"I had over a period of decades become increasingly aware of how major chunks of American history were left out of the popular telling. I don't, and never did, think of this as compensatory television. I saw it as an expansion of our understanding about American history," said Crichton, who now works as a consultant for The American Experience. "Part of the thinking of Africans in America--a large measure of it--was to look at a period of development in this nation's history that had been told from a fairly narrow focus all too often. ... If you care about what the history of this country was, and what the reality of today is, you just try and keep expanding the canvas of people and stories we draw from."

Africans in America proceeds quite naturally from Bagwell's other projects, which include "Roots of Resistance: A Story of the Underground Railroad" in 1989, "Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History," and "Malcolm X: Make It Plain," both in 1994, as well as his Prize work in the mid-'80s. As vice president of Hampton's Blackside Inc., Bagwell also supervised the 1993 documentary series The Great Depression. Now head of his own company in Boston, ROJA Productions, the 47-year-old filmmaker and one-time dancer is wrapping up a tribute to Alvin Ailey, "Hymn," tentatively scheduled to air on Great Performances next February.

Not the passive people of past histories

For Crichton, the most consciousness-raising aspect of Africans in America is that it makes clear how much slaves fought to be freed. "There was from the very start an ongoing, open struggle to achieve freedom. They were not the passive people portrayed in past histories. Rebellion took many, many forms and never stopped."

The series makes that point by recounting not only the large-scale events, like Britain's abolition of slavery and a 1791 uprising in Haiti, and their tumultuous effects on America's black population, but also in the little-known stories of individuals like Venture Smith. Smith, whose angel-adorned gravestone is perhaps the dominant image of episode two (covering the Revolutionary War era), was born in West Africa and sold into slavery as a child. He developed a reputation as a troublemaker for defending himself during whippings and was often shackled. At age 36, he was able to buy his freedom, paying a sum that could have purchased 4,000 acres of land. He then spent the next several years working to free his wife and children from bondage. The unflinching documentary doesn't seek to romanticize Smith, noting that at one point he purchases an indentured laborer and then expresses anger and surprise when the man runs away.

The series uses the devices common to most documentaries about pre-photographic eras: lush scenic shots, close-ups of period artifacts, and zooming, panning shots of documents and paintings--George Washington's slave ledger, a portrait of poet/slave Phillis Wheatley--that serve as backdrops to the narration. The series' music, which includes West African chants, traditional folk tunes and early spirituals, was put together by music scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founder of the gospel group Sweet Honey in the Rock and creator of the NPR series Wade in the Water (a companion CD will be issued).

There are also the stylized, shadowy re-creations that typify Bagwell's earlier documentaries: heat-wavy images of slaves swinging scythes in the field, close-ups of mouths taking bread for Communion, a child's hand picking cotton. Faces are never shown in an identifiable way.

"As a team, we talked a lot about how do you re-create the past for people without invading their confidence in how that past life looks or feels for them. We're playing with a kind of collective memory of the past--of slavery, of colonial history," said Bagwell. "We looked at the renderings we had, whether they were photographs, after 1840, or drawings or paintings we could find, to try to find out what the past might look like. We also did site research, visited places where you had remnants of a plantation, a rice field, and figured out how to represent images of the past without getting into re-creations that invaded our sense, our dark memory, of what that period looked like. ... We would work a lot with shadows, parts of bodies, representative images rather than attempt to do specific reenactments that we could do well enough to satisfy everyone."

Reenactments may sound like they provide a bit of freedom from the static material of a pre-film age, but Crichton cautioned: "You're bound to historical obligations. You have to be very careful, because you can get hokey as hell. The whole trick is not doing anything that says to the viewer, this is fake."

"I put [Bagwell] in the same category as Ken Burns," said Hampton. "He has the same kind of talent to take inanimate situations and bring them to life. ... He knows no fear."

Historians as characters

Of course, there are the usual talking heads--the parade of historians and other observers who populate most documentaries. Africans in America's lengthy roster includes Karen Hughes White, a descendant of slaves of Thomas Jefferson; John Riley, Mount Vernon's historian; Gen. Colin Powell; Margaret Washington, associate professor of history at Cornell University; Fath Ruffins, a Smithsonian Institution historian; and novelist John Edgar Wideman.

"Interviews are a useful and important element in documentary film--they become the cast of characters," said Bagwell. "Through their telling of events, you can experience those moments. Obviously, we interviewed scholars who studied the period, but we tried to find scholars who have a clear, strong, passionate relationship with the history. The work they've done, the places their research has taken them to--through them, you get not only information about the past but also how that period has affected them, has had a meaningful impact on their lives. We also interviewed authors, like Barry Unsworth and John Edgar Wideman, who have through their fiction tried to interpret the past. These people have done extensive research to understand the people and the events, to seek a much broader meaning."

Although Africans in America has taken nearly 10 years to advance from the first funding pitch to fine cut, Crichton said it was not the qualms over the subject matter that held up the project, but its comprehensive scope.

"No one has ever written this specific history. It had to be pulled from multiple sources. There isn't one work on American history that starts with the Africans in the early 17th century and goes on to the Civil War," she said. The second major task was to compile what Crichton believes is "the single greatest data bank of pre-Civil War images of blacks in America ever assembled," a task she estimates cost $250,000.

Also, because WGBH decided fairly early on that Africans in America would be a stand-alone, not a part of The American Experience, Crichton wrote funding proposals for it on nights and weekends while she worked on other projects. Bagwell didn't begin production until about three-and-a-half years ago. Raising $6.5 million for the project began earlier and took seven years, according to WGBH publicist Judy Matthews. Costs included filming in 12 states and on three continents, staging recreations, and gathering images and purchasing rights to use them from museums and private collections.

Major funding for Africans in America comes from a $2.5 million NEH grant, supplemented by grants from Bankers Trust and the Fannie Mae, Ford, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, Rockefeller and Stratford foundations, and CPB. Matthews said an additional $1.5 million is being spent developing youth outreach activities and maintaining a web site.

Also planned is a collaboration with NPR to help promote awareness of the series, said Matthews. Segments on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Talk of the Nation will focus on the links between slavery and contemporary race relations. Teenagers participating in the series' youth outreach programs in eight cities may record radio essays for broadcast.

Bagwell said his experience at Blackside taught him to learn to enjoy the process of creation, not just the end result, but making Africans in America has been the hardest thing he's ever done. Reminded that he told Current in 1994 he didn't think he'd ever do anything as challenging as his Malcolm X biography, he laughed.

"For filmmakers, every film gets harder. I did think I would never find myself in a more difficult project than Malcolm X, but this project has challenged me in ways I never imagined."


To Current's home page

Earlier news: Profile of Orlando Bagwell, 1994.

Current Briefing about the telling of history on public TV.


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