Review: The Abolitionists on American Experience

One of the amazing things about my job at the National Archives and living in Philadelphia is the opportunity to attend important events.  At the time, when I received the email about the advanced screening of episode two of The Abolitionists, sponsored by the African American Museum in Philadelphia and WHYY, I signed up thinking, “This’ll be interesting.”

The Abolitionists is the final product of years worth of hard work and dedication to telling the story of 5 abolitionists from history: Frederick Douglas, William Lloyd Garrision, John Brown, Angelica Grimke, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  The decision to choose these particular abolitionists was not taken lightly as Executive Producer, Sharon Grimberg, explained in the Q & A session following the screening.  In particular, the decision to focus on two women was partly motivated by their unique story and perspective on the abolitionist movement.  Of the names mentioned, Grimke was the most unfamiliar to me.

Here’s a promo video on The Abolitionists:

At the screening in WHYY’s in-house theater, a diverse group of people varying widely by race, age, and backgrounds gathered to watch episode two of The Abolitionists. The primary focus of episode two was on the beginning of Frederick Douglass’ political career, portrayed by Richard Brooks,  and his relationship with William Lloyd Garrison.  Additionally, the episode introduced us to John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Admittedly, I had some preconceived notions of how the episode would be filmed.  At first, I thought it would be more of a reenactment of these events and we, as the audience, would be a fly on the wall as these events unfolded.  Instead, The Abolitionists is shot as a documentary with historical reenactments of key meetings, events, and introductions.  Interspersed throughout are the actual words from archival documents of these individuals as well as historic photographs.

In my opinion, their format worked.  As a bit of a history and archives nut, I like the use of archival documents.  The Abolitionists grounded the story in the words of Douglass, Garrison, Stowe, and Brown.  Their letters were the lifeblood of the production.  Interestingly, by using these individual voices, one gained an inside look into the relationship of Douglass and Garrison.  Two people united in a cause who had become friends now found themselves with wholly different opinions of how to further the abolition of slavery.  I walked away wanting to know more about these two men.

The episode, without commercials, lasted one-hour but, when watching the episode, it seemed as if there wasn’t enough time.  There wasn’t one moment where I asked myself, “how long have I been sitting here?” or “how long is this episode?” with exasperation.  When it ended, I greedily wanted to see the next episode.  As I looked at my watch, I noted with surprise that an hour had gone by.

Following the screening, there was a Q & A session with the Executive Producer, Sharon Grimberg, the actor Richard Brooks, and Dr. Lois Brown, a professor as Wesleyan University and advisor on The Abolitionists.  Within minutes after starting the Q & A, hands shot up, myself included, to ask questions of this panel.  The questions ranged from discussions of slavery to technical questions relating to the development of the screenplay.

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Like watching the episode, the Q & A flew by and it was time to wrap things up.  Two and a half hours had gone by, it seemed, in a blink.  Although I didn’t get the opportunity to ask my question during the Q & A session, I took it upon myself to speak directly to members of the panel.  In particular, I wanted to speak with Mr. Brooks as I was a fan of his, especially his episode on the short-lived scifi television show Firefly.

He couldn’t have been more gracious.  Here was my question to him:

“In working on this history project, what was something interesting that you learned about history that you didn’t know before?”

In answering, Brooks invited the thoughts and opinions of others thereby turning my simple question into an impromptu small group discussion on the institution of slavery, its economics and the politics surrounding it.  I found the discussion to be fascinating and I even learned a thing or two about history.  What can I say? I’m a bit of a history geek.  For Mr. Brooks, in preparing for the role of Douglass, it required him to get a crash course in slavery and its political development.  He found the politics of this peculiar institution to be the most interesting part of it, something he knew very little about prior to the project.

After viewing this episode, I will definitely check out The Abolitionists when it hits the small screen on January 8th, 2013 on PBS.  The three-part documentary will run the 8th, 15th, and 22nd of January.

To learn more, check out the following links:

Check out the American Experience’s website on The Abolitionists and the PBS interactive map and explore the abolitionist movement in America.


P.S. I also got a picture with Mr. Brooks!

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About the Participants on the Q & A panel:

Sharon Grimberg (Executive Producer for The Abolitionists) plays a key role in the origination,,development, acquisition, and editorial oversight of films for American Experience. Since she joined the staff in 2000, films made for the series have won more than forty honors including Peabody Awards, Primetime Emmys, Writers Guild Awards and an Oscar nomination. Grimberg was the executive producer of We Shall Remain, a multi-platform mini-series for American Experience that looks at U.S. history from a Native American perspective. She also served as supervising producer of They Made America, a series on innovation based on award-winning writer Sir Harold Evans’ book of the same title. Previously, Grimberg was a writer for CNN Headline News.  She did her undergraduate work at the London School of Economics and received an M.A. from the University of Michigan.

Richard Brooks (Frederick Douglass) is an actor, singer, and director best known for his role as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette on the NBC drama Law & Order. His television credits include performances as the notorious bounty hunter Jubal Early in Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and as the iconic Henry McNeil on the Syfy/USA network cult favorite Good vs. Evil/ G vs. E. Film roles include the arch-villain Judah in The Crow: City of Angels, the troubled Babe Brother in the award-winning To Sleep with Anger, and the battle tested sergeant OD in the critically acclaimed Vietnam War saga 84 Charlie Mopic. On stage he originated the role of Hammond Wilkes in the world premiere of August Wilson’s Radio Golf, written by the late great playwright with Brooks in mind. Upcoming roles include BET’s groundbreaking new movie/TV pilot Being Mary Jane, as the title character’s brother Patrick. Brooks also directed the feature film Johnny B, in which he starred, as well as numerous music videos.

Lois Brown is currently Visiting Professor of African American Studies at Wesleyan University. Brown has lectured widely and published articles on African American literature, women’s writing, early American education, and African American history and religion. Brown’s biography, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution, published in 2008, has been hailed as “the definitive Hopkins biography for decades to come.”

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About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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