Film Review: Slavery and the Making of America

The film Slavery and the Making of America represents one of the hardest episodes in the history of the United States, when prosperity of slavery and neglecting of racial tolerance took place. The period since the first Africans were settled on the American territory and until explosion of the civil war reflects in the frequent memoirs of the African Americans who were living during that time. The narrator takes into consideration the point of view of researchers who measure the price of slaves’ right for freedom, which was only a dream of many. The filmmakers use video reconstruct, interviews, documents, and additional resources to discuss the American slavery. The paper contains the analysis of all resources and methods of impact on the viewer, and the way the filmmakers succeeded in describing the beginning of establishment of an American democracy.

General Problematic and Historical Context

The film has three parts: “The Downward Spiral”, “Liberty in the Air”, and “Seeds of Destruction”, with each of them logically connected to the previous one. “The Downward Spiral” is dedicated to analyzing slavery and its history since the first slaves were brought from Africa. Additionally, the authors dedicated a separate topic to the brief history of the New Amsterdam, which later became the city of New York (after the British expansion). The detailed facts about the routine life and social attitude to the new coming slaves on the background of scientific tools guaranteed the authenticity of the film and granted viewers with the well-planned reconstructed reality. In the “Liberty in the Air”, the accent is put on three aspects: 1) slavery abolition and punishment for that; 2) old and new generation of the African American slaves; 3) brief precondition of Thomas Jefferson’s outlook. In this context, the authors of the film provide a separate analysis of Jefferson’s defending of the idea of human equality, dignity, and freedom. However, in his eyes, he becomes a contradictory person because the man who writes the Declaration of Independence is the man who holds on the point almost “two hundred and fifty slaves or more” (Sante n. p.). In addition, the film depicts some issues on the slavery legacy, interracial sexual relations, and the destiny of mulatto children. This part depicts some cultural conditions of the slaves and their fusion with the locals. “Seeds of Destruction” pays attention to economic preconditions and gender inequality. Some females have started to speak and to write about their role and sexual slavery they faced with. The cases of rape and judgment over African women are necessary as they took a big part of the slavery life along with the physical violation and oppression.

After watching the film, the viewer can make a clear conclusion about the period of slavery in America of 1619 – 1865. The first African slaves were brought to the British Virginia in 1619 by the British colonists. Approximately, one-third (and sometimes more) of the population inhabiting the States were slaves; and their children were also the property of the rich owners exploiting them and violently abusing. The picture has similar prospection with the classes as the concept of the racial abuse and slavery is the same. There are no contradictions between the speakers in the film as they rather add to each other’s statements. Together, they cover the issues of law, psychology, sociology, demography, sexology and religion as the major ruling aspects affecting the period of slavery in America. The film describes not only social condition but also reflects on personal relationships of slaves and their daily life when they fell in love, delivered babies, and communicated between each other about separate sophisticated issues.

Document Resources, Technical Fulfilling, and Effects

For authenticity of the facts mentioned by the experts, many of them are frequently applie to the main legal and recommendation documents ruling slavery issue on the local and national levels. One of them is The Law of Slavery that offered legal opportunities to the saves’ owners: “All servants imported and brought into the Country […] shall be slaves” (Sante n. p.). The whites inherited the services of the African Americans for many generations and defined the measure and nature of punishment for those slaves who refuse to obey.

Another document represents a progressive step made by the African American slaves towards their rights to defense: The Humble Petition of Many Slaves, which was formulated and firstly signed by Peter Bestes, Sambo Freeman, Felix Holbrook, and Chester Joie: “We have no Property. We have no Wives. No Children. We have no City. No Country” (Sante n. p.). The value of this document lies in the fact that later it allowed to promote the first edition of the Declaration of Independence (despite at first it was dismissed).

The third document is named Fugitive Slavery Law, accepted in 1850. Since the Congress proclaimed California a free state, the Deep South slaves suffered from the harshest law in the history of the United States. According to James Oliver Horton, a person accused in fugitive intentions “had no right to defense, no right to speak, to have a layer and jury trial” (Sante n. p.).

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However, legal documents are not the only one written resource the filmmakers apply to the movie. For instance, the specific accent on Thomas Jefferson provokes discussion around his book published in the 1780s – Notes of the State of Virginia. In this work, Jefferson shows his bias to the liberalization of social attitude towards African Americans. Simultaneously, he maintains the idea that genetically, the Africans and African Americans are not so skilled and intellectually developed enough to be absolutely independent and to lead some positions or to participate in important decision-making processes. That is why, the white American image within the film, concretely in the parts about Thomas Jefferson (beginning from his childhood, adolescence, and presidential cadency), has “underlined substantial contradictions” as stated by James Oliver Horton from the George Washington University. After the “Liberty in the Air” episode, Ira Berlin, from the University of Maryland, remarks about the Deep South that “Thomas Jefferson’s empire for liberty turned out to be empire for a slavery” (Sante n. p.).

The usage of maps is helpful considering some geographical issues and connection of the social movements to politics. The national policy of America between the 18th and 19th centuries included the extension of the territories to the Pacific coast. In the film, the maps allow the audience to see how the U.S. has changed in territory and population, what the logic of policy after the Californian proclamation of freedom state was and how the life of slaves has changed when New Amsterdam was renamed to New York.

Along with that, the film introduces authentic photos of some persons as evidence of their hard condition. One of the brightest examples is a photo of an African American slave after flogging: his back is all covered with horrific scars. Some additional resources, such as posters, can also be noticed (for instance, in the “Seeds of Destruction” there is one with the announcement about a public meeting on a Dred Scott case). The background is a filmed story of the characters that sometimes looks like a documentary because all details are well-planned, and sometimes it seems like the operator was standing there behind people and taking video. The background music affects cognition strongly: proper music accompaniment like military rhythms, African sound singing or instrument play (the most usable instrument was a drum in different melodic variations). With that, the largest bennefit of the film involves the technology of the voice of heroes, when some memoirs and letters sounded in a way like people from the past spoke of them.

Some Personalities and Their Importance of Being Mentioned

For authenticity of the facts and making the film closer to the auditory, provoking empathy, and demonstrating human nature in conditions of ownership and slavery, the filmmakers used many historic personalities. Among others, the special attention is paid to Harriet Jacobs, David Walker, and Elizabeth Freeman whose contribution to the movement against slavery is very considerable. The authors of the film present the story about Harriet Jacobs, who is one of the most outstanding abolitionist reformer and speaker. Her appeal to people named Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl is her mourn against racial and sexual inequality and abuse. However, her story in the film has lash precondition beginning from her childhood and until older age showing not only slave activist but also a suffering woman and a desperate mother fighting for her right to see her own children.

David Walker is another person deserving attention due to his respectful and sophisticated attitude to emancipation. He believed that church united and consolidated people. In the film, he applies to the President and the people of America appealing to the Constitutional proclamation of the equality of men. Walker encouraged not thinking about us collectively but the individual “to think of yourself as of agent of freedom” (Sante n. p.). The story of Elizabeth Freeman (Mum Bett) is fascinating because she is the first African slave who won a freedom suit in Massachusetts. The authors of the film depicted the court and the tragedy of her life in poverty and struggle to get free. Those people are real and able to prove that the real America as a capital of democracy began with their will to be free and respected as humans.

Personal Reflections

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In the Slavery and the Making of America, the narrator applies to the opinion of researchers, and this point of view does not cardinally change during the film. Their statements along with the documents and biography evidence make the materials persuasive and fundamental. However, there is not a clear statement about the policy of Thomas Jefferson, because despite his empathy to slaves, in 1803, he assigned the Louisiana act which, in fact, began horrific process: “Years after, Louisiana started purchasing the greatest expansion of American slavery ever” (Sante, “Seeds of Destruction”, n. p.).

The film has nothing left out of the story; it shows naturally beating, blood and wounds, the owners’ revenge through hanging, burning, and rape. The majority of the given facts are necessary for people to hear as they represent the true evidence of how the development of capitalism neglected humans’ life. The music seems manipulative because along with the announcer’s intonation, it empowers the attention (when the drums sounded and the singing of vowels provoked terrible state). This feeling is especially strong after the film ends, and probably the filmmakers expected this result as well as attention to the history of America which was not always so bright and heroic. However, no changes necessary in the film as it fully represents one of the darkest periods in the American history.

Conclusion

The principle of combination between video with scenes and vast interviews, which add each other, brought success to the film. That is why, it is easy to formulate own opinion about the movie and its purpose along with the conclusions that the Afro-American slaves brought the real understanding of democracy and equality through their struggle to live a free and happy life. The goal of the filmmakers was achieved on the example of historical personalities, analytical evidence, documents, while the artistic background showed the value of freedom.

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