Monday, February 25, 2013

TBFF Review- Slavery by Another Name

Slavery in the United Sates of America did not end until 1942 is the declaration of the documentary Slavery by Another Name. The contention of the documentary is that officially slavery was abolished  with the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution but the actual experience of former slaves was no better and even in some cases worse under systems of sharecropping, debt servitude and especially under conscript leasing.

Narrated by Laurence Fishburne  director Sam Pollards film explores first person accounts through recollections of descendants, letters and actor portrayals of the historical events. The feature tracks events that are well known in historical circles but not tough in school or mentioned in regular community circles.

Based on the book of the same name by Douglas A Blackmon the piece shows that much of the economic post Civil War boom success was built on cheap black labour in the South. The South was also the engine of the factories, farming and mines that lead the Unites Sates out of it's internal struggles and on the path that would make it the  dominate power in the world. A reality that even northerners who were opposed to the the ways of the Southern states philosophically did not want to do anything that could jeopardize the every growing posterity of the country especially when Norther interest began to buy up the southern factories other commercial businesses.

The driving post Civil war industry was steel and the centre of the industry was in Birmingham Alabama. The labour working the mines to produced the product was made up largely of conscript labour. A practice by with the State could lease out prisoners to work in the mines for a fee.  In order to have the workforce one needed prisoners.  This was achieved by giving out long sentences to former slaves for minor offences, such as walking along side a rail road track , being caught paying a dice game, loitering, stealing a pig with the value of 1 dollar or more or stealing a wooden plank from a fence. In Alabama and other southern states the charges for these minor crimes could bring  a 5-10 year sentence.  The working conditions for these conscript labourers were so taxing that 33% of the labour force died each year. Charges that were in the past misdemeanours were suddenly turned into felonies and the South had their labour force.

The fact that they were prisoners meant you could work them longer hours, more on the weekends and more or less did not have to feed them. Their fate was worse than that of a slave as under slavery the owner had an interest in their labour force over the long haul. Under the conscript labour system you could replace one worker with the next just about whenever you wanted at a cost of as little as $9.00 per month.

Pollard's presentation does not offer any frills or sweeping innovations to the documentary world.  The story is presented plainly and may eventually end up more as an educational tool than an artistic piece of work. The accounts and stories  are presented in chronological order starting in the 1870's and working slowly and meticulously up to the start of world war two era.

A key device is the use of letters written by the conscript workers or heir family members.  Many of these letters were written to government officials or directly to Washington addressed to the political figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt or later to Eleanor Roosevelt.  Many have the same theme. A family member went to a factory or went out they did not come back home and were basically held against their will and forced to work.  These letters are in the writers own hand and were from the archives in Washington or other state houses. Some of the most powerful moments in the  picture occur when great great nieces or nephews of the author read the account the plight and living conditions of their for bearers.

The other main way to maintain the cheap labour foes was through peonage. A practice by were a debtor were forced into labour until what they owed was paid off.  The debt often did not have to be legitimate a mere accusation supported by the local judge would suffice and the major landowners had many of the local judges on their payroll. The debater was tied to the land by the courts and could not leave or face further action. The Federal government did take an interest in some of the peonage cases in the late 1890's but again the driving profits of the South outweighed any real action against the perpetrators.

The only part of the piece that does not work for the most part are the re enactments or actor portrayals of historical events.  These interludes do not ring true. The actors put on accents and dialogue from the time that does not measure up to the historical pictures, written documents and especially the hand written letters from the period.  The presentation of these vignettes look to polished and modern. They are in colour and simply ill fitted to the overall piece.

The  strongest part of the story are the accounts of the descendants many of whom are now leaders and lawmakers in the South. To see that only two or three generations back their relatives were treated worse than property and often sentenced to a certain death for minor offences such as selling cotton after dark or changing employers without the blessing of their former employer is remarkable.  In one scene a descendant now a top engineer in Alabama checks by a river for a tombstone of a relative who died in the conscript leasing system.   Often when the conscript prisoners died if they were outside of a mine and often by a riverbed if they were buried at all.  The flip side is the interviews with the descendants of the former leading business family members and overseers of the system.   They tell accounts of how their descendants were described to them as self made men who worked very hard for what they achieved.  Then when faced with the evidence from the research behind the film are soon overwhelmed and distraught.

Slavery by Another name is an important piece of work. It carefully reviewed data and antidotal evidence to provide a different account or hidden view of the events of the past. It showed how profit and national progress were put ahead of peoples rights and dignity. The material is presented directly a gives a message that should be considered and absorbed.

*** out of 4

Slavery by Another Name | Sam Pollard | U.S.A. | 2011| 90 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

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