July 8, 2008

P.O.V. (Season 20, #1): Traces of the Trade

Wow, quite a start for this season of PBS' P.O.V. Documentary Series. I was a little behind in seeing the first film, Katrina Browne's Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, but the conversation isn't over at the P.O.V. blog, where the "Talking Back" post has received almost 500 comments in the last two weeks.

First time filmmaker Katrina Browne grew up in Bristol, RI, proud of her ancestry from the DeWolf family dating back to 1744. As a young adult she learned of the horrifying true history that her relatives had known about for years but never embraced: the DeWolfs were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for bringing some 10,000 Africans to the shores of Rhode Island - even as late as 1875, years after abolition and the end of the Civil War.

Stirred to action in a way her relatives had never been, Browne contacted 200 descendants of the DeWolf family nationwide in the hope that some would join her on what was sure to be a heartwrenching journey back through time. Most didn't respond at all and only nine ended up gathering for the awkward family reunion.

Their trip begins with an overview of the DeWolf family legacy in Bristol, which is comprehensive to say the least (family members are enshrined in the stained glass panes of the local Episcopalian church). The ten descendants are then off to the slave ports in Ghana and the slave trading stalls in Cuba before heading back home to their respective cities and states.

What do you think happened?

The group was steamrolled by guilt and overwhelmed with confusion about what to do next. Seek forgiveness and advocate for reparations? Talk to their white peers and family about their shared privilege and history? Talk to black Americans about their experiences? While the last section of the film focuses on the first of these options, I think I would have liked to see more of the last two.

A number of people have gone further and simply criticized Browne for focusing too much of the film on her family's guilt, but if that's what they were experiencing then how has she done wrong? Her motive was to document her family's experience, and that's exactly what she does. This is not to say Browne ignores any aspect of the bigger issue - in fact there are hardly any stones unturned or questions unasked.

The only other criticism I can direct at Traces of the Trade is perhaps unfair: Katrina Browne's narration is almost intolerable. She sounds like she's sick, miserable, half asleep or worse. Obviously the content is not something to be bright and cheery about, but her monotone reminded me of too many detached/hip commercial voiceovers.

But if that's the worst I can say about this important film, well that's not very bad at all. The real meat of this discussion has already been covered at the POV blog, and I encourage you to check out the comments over there, especially since some of the film's subjects, including James DeWolf Perry, speak up on their own behalf. It's also nice that, for the most part, flamers and IMDb-type folk have steered clear of this one.

It should be no surprise that this is an issue that still creates tension and frustration among all Americans. It might be worth spending a few minutes at least thinking about the conversation that apparently nobody wants to have.


  1. Thanks for highlighting these docs, Daniel. I keep forgetting to tune into them on PBS. I gotta do better, there.

    I, too, am a documentary lover, although I find I'm often won over by my fickle desire for entertainment, and choose a popcorn blockbuster rather than an introspective documentary.

    Just out of curiosity, what docs would you pick as your all time favorites? Mine would be (in no particular order) Capturing the Friedmans, The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, King of Kong, American Movie, and Crumb.

  2. Very cool, Evan. I can't deny that I enjoy documentaries a great deal, but contrary to popular belief they don't all strike me as relevant and/or interesting. There are actually only a handful of this season's POV films that I'm planning to set time aside to see. And let's face it, sometimes you do want to see a fictional or fantasy story and try to get those same introspective bits out of it.

    Anyway, it's to my great shame that I still haven't seen The Thin Blue Line, which I know to be considered one of the best, if not the best, documentary of all time. If you liked Capturing the Friedmans, you should get a kick out of Surfwise (for that matter, I HIGHLY recommend a Best Doc Oscar Winner from the 70's called Who Are the Debolts? - available on DVD). American Movie and King of Kong are both great, and similar, so that makes sense. I haven't seen Crumb.

    Even though this year has been unusually excellent, I won't include any of them (or last year's) in my "favorites" yet simply because they're too new. I'm weird like that. In time there are a couple of '08s that will absolutely be up there.

    At the same time, I didn't really start watching docs in earnest until the past decade (and with comprehensive regularity until the past 5 years), so I've missed a lot of classics from the 70's-90's.

    I'll just list some highlights from '03-'06:
    The Boys of Baraka
    Born Into Brothels
    The Fog of War
    Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
    The Protocols of Zion
    Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple
    Shake Hands With the Devil
    The War Tapes
    Emmanuel's Gift
    The Weather Underground

    Of course there are many more, including the accepted classics of Roger and Me and Hoop Dreams, which I saw in the theater and didn't realize how good it actually was until years later.

    I'm the first to admit that there are massive gaps in my documentary viewing history. I haven't seen nearly enough Errol Morris, nor I have seen the Up series (I'd have to take a week off of work), or even some smaller classics like When We Were Kings or Hearts and Minds. And I've been meaning to see Bus 174 for about five years now.

    Done for now. Look what you made me do.

  3. I, too, loved Spellbound, but The Weather Underground frustrated me. The filmmakers stumbled into some great material, but they didn't have the skill or experience to pull it off well. Great content - ugly package.

    You really have to set aside some time for The Thin Blue Line and Crumb. I realize we make these kinds of comments on one another's blogs all the time time, until our lists of "Must Sees" extend, unseen, into the horizon, but you REALLY need to watch those two. You will not be disappointed, especially with Crumb, which is a glorious, unbelievable, barely-watchable-at-times phantasmagorical whirlwind of a doc. I can't recommend it to many people, but it will blow your mind.

    As for the Up Series, I've seen all of them and they are a bit overrated, I think. Part of the problem is that I didn't watch them every 7 years when they were released. Because of the huge gaps, Michael Apted spends a large amount of time recapping the previous films. This makes sense if there are 7 years between each viewing experience. But when you watch them all in a row on DVD, they get really, really, really tiresome. I think I fell asleep through large portions of the later films and had zero inclination to rewind and see what I had missed. If you do ever decide to watch them, I would see the first 3 in a row (the greatest changes happen over this span), and then wait 6 months to a year to watch the next one, etc., etc.. You'll likely appreciate the whole cycle much more that way.

  4. As I was looking through an old list I saw The Weather Underground and Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. I knew neither were legendary but thought one should be on the list since they cover similar ground. Weather was simply an eye-opener for me, which I suppose was good enough.

    I really will take your recommendation on Crumb seriously, and I already know I have to see Blue. And take my vitamins.

    Funny that you mention that about Up because it's actually the reason I still haven't seen them: I wanted to wait for a time when I could watch them altogether. I think my sister reported the same repetition as you do, however, and I think your viewing schedule idea is the way I'll go.

  5. I just watched my first P.O.V. episode. It was about Marines who killed a teenage boy while being stationed on the Mexico-America border. My girlfriend informed me that that story was the basis for The Three Burials of M...." movie.

  6. Huzzah, another POV viewer! Even if it's your only one, that's cool.

    You must have seen this week's: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández. Shamefully I missed it live so have to watch the rebroadcast again. I didn't know that about the Three Burials connection. Kind of forgot about that movie altogether.

    Anyway, now that you've seen it, you might be interested in this.

  7. Great write-up Daniel! Once again POV comes through. I had recorded this and finally watched it, and I was really glad I did.

    When it started, I somehow found myself dead set on disliking the entire family and the whole horror of their past, but by the end I found myself being quite moved by the whole situation. Even when more disturbing details came out, I was invested enough in the interesting far-reaching aspects of the whole socio-economic reality, that it made the historical gravity of it all seem more ... real, and personal. I mean personal for me, because I wasn't really warmed over to the family -- Browne's focus on them had humanized the experience, but I didn't feel any sympathy towards them. And you are right about her voice, it was downright grating at times. But at least it was consistent, and it seems like she talked that way in conversation too, and does not just "narrate" that way. Anyway I don't know why it struck such a chord with me, but I really found it to be moving and intriguing.

    One scene which carried some unexpected tension for me was the one where most of the relatives are talking about their multi-generational Ivy League educational histories, and then the one (at least one I think) talked about going to the U of Oregon, and said "Go Ducks" and then there was just this awkward pause. And then the conversation did go on to talk about educational issues, and what being from their family made possible for them, but it was just an interesting moment.

    Also to realize how much every facet of that town was dependent on the continued profits and growth of the slave trade was truly chilling. But that's really just the beginning of the discussion. A great documentary all around.

  8. Cool, Josh. If you get the HD channel it's rebroadcast a lot more, too.

    I really had a hard time sympathizing with them as well, since you mention it. But somewhere along the way I warmed up to the idea that this would actually be a pretty heavy load to carry, and it was fascinating to see their attitudes change from the beginning to the end.

    The Ivy League scene is really one of the most memorable, and I saw it mentioned as I skimmed the comments on the P.O.V. blog. Actually, without that scene I think the documentary would have suffered significantly. At the same time, if I didn't know that information and it wasn't in there, the other material would have been stong enough. That doesn't make sense. Weird.


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