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PBS review: 'The Abolitionists' shows long journey to ending slavery

Published: Monday, Jan. 7 2013 6:52 p.m. MST

While director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never intended to tell the complete story of end of slavery with “Lincoln,” the movie’s detractors will find much to admire in a new PBS documentary.

The popular movie is dedicated to the proposition that Lincoln freed the slaves. But the end of bondage did not come with the House of Representatives’ vote on the Thirteenth Amendment that he persuaded.

There were central roles played by a number of passionate 19th-century antislavery Americans in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

The three-part series “The Abolitionists,” airing Tuesdays on KUED on Jan. 8, 15 and 22 at 8 p.m., reveals the visions of the small band of idealists and the trials they endured. The journey to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was a long and tortuous one.

Timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the proclamation (not intentionally with the release of “Lincoln”) on Jan. 1, 1863, “The Abolitionists” shows the complexities of what it took to end slavery and clearly demonstrates the events leading to the Civil War.

Black and white, Northerners and Southerners, poor and wealthy, the passionate anti-slavery activists “tore the nation apart in order to form a more perfect union.”

“This film helps us think about the long process that preceded the Emancipation Proclamation and about the people who put their lives on the line every day by speaking out against slavery,” says Armstrong Dunbar, one of the historians who participated in the production of the film. “It’s a very nuanced view of the way abolitionists went from being considered a fringe group to becoming a force to be reckoned with.”

“The Abolitionists” focuses on five individuals — Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown — and tells their impactful, intertwined stories. The inclusion of professional filmed re-enactments is what elevates this production to be more deeply memorable above other similarly themed TV programming.

The documentary opens with a segment on the deeply religious Grimké. The vocal abolitionist had no concern about renouncing her heritage as a member of a rich, plantation-owning clan in Charleston, S.C. As a daughter of privilege, Grimké saw the horrors of slavery firsthand and became one of the most outspoken foes of slavery.

Yet for the purposes of a documentary, only two photographs of her have survived. Writer-director Rob Rapley cast a professional actress to portray Grimké and other family members, a technique he continued with the other four contributors to the anti-slavery movement.

“Law & Order” veteran Richard Brooks plays Douglass, who was born a slave and escaped to freedom. Douglass becoming a dazzling speaker and writer, one of the most eloquent in American history.

Theater and film actor Neal Huff plays Garrison, the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, one of the most influential of the antislavery newspapers throughout the north. Garrison was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Stowe, among the country’s first celebrity authors, was another who outraged many from her writings. I am embarrassed to admit that her name is mostly remembered because her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is part of the storyline of the Broadway musical “The King and I.”

The abolitionists were a “tiny, tiny band of people. It really was a fringe-fringe movement,” Rapley says. “They were up against inconceivably large obstacles, economically and socially, in terms of the received wisdom of the times.”

Without the efforts of these abolitionists exerting pressure and influence on both Congress and Abraham Lincoln, the institution of slavery may have continued for many more years. How tragic it would be if their names were forgotten.

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