Inner angst of antislavery activists

In a scene from "The Abolitionists," John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Shields Green are depicted in a dramatic reconstruction. It is important, writer-director Rob Rapley said, "that they literally are allowed to 'speak' for themselves."
In a scene from "The Abolitionists," John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Shields Green are depicted in a dramatic reconstruction. It is important, writer-director Rob Rapley said, "that they literally are allowed to 'speak' for themselves."

PBS miniseries "The Abolitionists" experiments with mix of documentary style and scripted, dramatic reenactments.

Posted: January 06, 2013

On the first day of 1863, as the Civil War raged on, President Lincoln proclaimed all the slaves in the rebellious Confederate states to be "forever free."

With his Emancipation Proclamation, whose 150th anniversary the United States celebrates this week, Lincoln made the end of slavery a Civil War goal.

As PBS's ambitious documentary miniseries The Abolitionists shows, Lincoln's words came at the end of a decadeslong antislavery campaign led by a tiny group of activists whose fervor alienated them from the mainstream of American life.

The Abolitionists will premiere Tuesday and run in three weekly, 60-minute episodes through Jan. 22. Produced under PBS's American Experience banner, the series is a genre-bending experiment that tries to combine straight documentary with extended, scripted, dramatic reconstructions.

Opening in the early 1820s, the series follows four decades in the lives and careers of five leading abolitionists: William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown, Angelina Grimké, and the movement's best-known African American leader, runaway slave and literary genius Frederick Douglass.

These men and women still inspire ambivalent feelings. Heroes to many, they continue to be attacked by some for their part in stoking the divisions that led to war.

Writer-director Rob Rapley said he felt it necessary to use actors and scripted scenes to capture their inner struggle.

"In hindsight, it seems inevitable that slavery was going to end. So it's hard for us to grasp just how unlikely it seemed even 10 years before the Civil War," Rapley said. "It's important to understand that they really grasped how long those odds were and how isolated they felt."

Rapley's gamble has lead to mixed reviews, with some critics faulting the reconstructions as distracting.

Actor Richard Brooks, who plays Douglass, applauds Rapley's approach. The show "allows the historic figures to leap off the page and come to life," he said by e-mail from London, where he is on vacation.

"Also, since much of the text and story is pieced together through the use of Douglass' and the other abolitionists' own words, it seems important that they literally are allowed to 'speak' for themselves."

The Abolitionists introduces Douglass as a 6-year-old newly assigned to serve a new master. In a brutal opening scene, we see the boy cower in a closet while his owner ties up and viciously whips a beautiful young slave girl.

The beating is described in explicit detail in Douglass' memoirs.

"It was the bloodstained gate," Brooks says in a voiceover taken from Douglass' memoir, "the entrance to the hell of slavery."

Rapley says the girl was beaten because the master "fancied her as his girlfriend [and] was jealous because a neighboring male slave was sweet on her."

Rapley said he made the scene intentionally confrontational to rouse viewers out of complacency. "We never, as white Americans, really have looked slavery in the face," he said. "It was an unbelievably savage system . . . a system also of institutionalized rape. But it's a fact we've done away with" in representations of the era.

The monumental 1970s miniseries Roots, Rapley said, made naive Americans see slaves as human individuals, but "still muted the violence."

The acts of cruelty depicted in the PBS show, Rapley said, were described in unflinching detail in the 1839 book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, a firsthand account of slavery compiled by Grimké and her husband, Theodore Dwight Weld. "You can barely read it it's so brutal and honest," Rapley said.

Weld and Grimké's book was part of a concerted print campaign to sway public opinion against slavery, including Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator, and Stowe's best-selling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is credited in The Abolitionists as the single most influential book in American history.

One of the issues explored in The Abolitionists is the schism between abolitionists who followed Garrison's call for nonviolent action and those who called for armed resistance, most notably Brown.

Raised in a strict Calvinist family, Brown was tortured all his life by the conviction that he wasn't doing enough to serve God's purpose, said University of Southern Carolina historian R. Blakeslee Gilpin, one of the half-dozen scholars who offer on-camera commentary in The Abolitionists.

"He didn't preach violence at first," Gilpin said. Brown's views changed when Congress passed a series of severe pro-slavery laws in 1850.

The debate over violence vs. nonviolence resurfaces again 100 years later during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s through the figures of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a professor of history and Black American studies at the University of Delaware.

"The civil rights movement . . . was what historians call the second civil war," said Dunbar, a Mount Airy native who in 2011 was appointed the first director of the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Another on-camera expert, Baruch College historian Carol Berkin, said she was struck by how many aspects of the abolitionist movement were repeated again in the later civil rights struggle, including the emergence of a women's movement.

"The abolition movement was the first time in American history when white and black women learned to emerge from the domestic realm and carve out a space for women's political activism," she said. "It's almost as if the spirit of this idea, the idea of reform, reached out to other groups who begin to think about the meaning of freedom."

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani

at 215-854-2164 or

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