The Awful Past

PBS documentary series examines the roots of slavery

PBS cuts right to the core of American black history with its documentary Slavery and the Making of America; it is likely there has never been a more serious assemblage of material ever presented on television during Black History Month than this four-part program, airing two consecutive Wednesdays (Feb. 9 and 16). This documentary is intended to forever change our collective understanding of slavery.

Using reenactments, photographs and comments from about two dozen historians, the Thirteen/WNET New York production focuses on slavery from the perspective of the slaves themselves. This is a different way to look at the era, notes executive producer William Grant.

Underwritten by New York Life Insurance Co., Slavery re-creates scenes, giving the program a “feel” that is different from that of a Ken Burns documentary, he says.

“Because it’s PBS and because New York Life has funded an enormous educational effort apart from the television series [including teacher guides and Web sites for both viewers and students],” he adds, “the hope is that this effort will help inform the way slavery is taught in middle schools and high schools for the generation ahead.”

Grant is convinced that even well-educated Americans are largely uninformed about the history of slavery. “I think people will find it astonishing that America was a slave-holding country longer than it has been a free one and that slavery was practiced in the North for 200 years,” he says. “Our hope was to develop a series of very strong stories from the perspective of enslaved people themselves, and we wanted to do it in a way that the largest audience possible would have the best historical understanding of slavery.”

The audience for Slavery may get a boost from airing during Black History Month, when programs about African-Americans get a good deal of attention. Nielsen Media Research reports African-American households spend about 20 hours more time watching TV each week than the average household—a total of 75 hours and 40 minutes compared with 55 hours and 26 minutes for all U.S. households.

PBS says 43% of all black households tune into it over the course of a month, but Nielsen says African-Americans spend only about 2% of their total viewing time watching the public network.

Therefore, the marketing of the series is crucial to PBS.

Last month, when it aired Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the preliminary ratings indicated that PBS nearly doubled its 1.8 Nielsen average.

PBS hopes it can attract far more black viewers, at least this month.

“For this series, it’s something of a double-edged sword to be identified as a Black History Month program,” says Grant. “A lot of the early [coverage] I’ve seen in newspapers is a listing of all PBS’ programming for the month. Being part of Black History Month gives the program more visibility. But it concerns me to the degree that it says to white viewers, 'This isn’t a program for you.’”

PBS wants the whole world to see the series. Slavery is getting a major promotional push from PBS and New York Life. In fact, the program was held back from last year’s schedule, with the hope it could generate more viewers with a larger ad budget.

“It was a happy circumstance that, between New York Life and PBS, there is something like $1.25 million or $1.5 million being spent on advertising, a significant part of which wouldn’t otherwise have been available,” Grant says.

Such promotion is backing a project unlike anything PBS has ever aired. Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, Slavery relies heavily on actors to reenact the lives of the slaves. Slavery came to an end in the middle of the 19th century, so photographs document only its final years; motion pictures didn’t exist to capture images at that time.

While reenactments are a familiar tool in many documentaries, Grant’s sharp focus on the faces of the actors is part of a deliberate decision to depict the emotional struggle of slaves that everyone—of every race—can relate to.

Slavery and the Making of America is a very conscious title that puts the history of slavery at the center of American history,” says Grant. “We want all viewers to understand this is part of our history. I’m perfectly happy for black viewers to see it positioned as part of Black History Month, but we’re working very hard to have other viewers come to it, because it’s part of their history, too.”