Patrick White ‘Abolitionists’ fascinating look at civil rights battle

I had the pleasure of seeing “The Abolitionists Part III,” a 60-minute documentary screened by the Hastings Public Library. This documentary feature is part of the Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle film program beginning this week and continuing into the spring.

“The Abolitionists Part III” first screened on Monday and will screen again today in the Hasting Public Library auditorium at 2 p.m. On Sunday, Bob Amyot, Hastings College associate professor of political science and chair of the department, will lead a film discussion at 2 p.m. in the library auditorium.

“The Abolitionists Part III” of a three-part documentary series produced by PBS’ American Experience tells the story of an intense verbal and physical battle, which culminated in the Civil War, between individuals who were proslavery and anti-slavery. For some this feature will be a nice companion piece to an extensive historical education, but to others including myself it was an excellent re-introduction to the abolitionist movement including some recognizable faces such as Frederick Douglass and some less so (William Lloyd Garrison).

I must admit that the first 20 minutes did not pull me in as much as I would have liked, but I think that was more due to the fact that it was refreshing audiences who had watched the first two parts of the series. For newcomers the story became intriguing and disgusting when the narrator, Oliver Platt (“X-Men: First Class), told of renowned abolitionist John Brown’s bloody beating by a pro-slavery supporter. This perfectly captures the aggression between not only blacks and whites, but also whites and whites. Skin color was obviously ignored when you proudly stated you were against slavery.

“The Abolitionists Part III” suffers somewhat by using the traditional PBS documentary format. The documentary features a combination of re-enactments by capable actors who look their parts, pans and zooms into historical photos and documents, and interviews with historical scholars that provide moderately interesting anecdotes. Additionally, Platt’s voice is perfect for a documentary, because it’s not recognizable enough to be distracting and yet also somewhat conversational so the audience feels comfortable in his hands.

My favorite thing about this film is that it gives credit where credit is due and points out the flaws in individuals who have since become martyrs during the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass, one of my favorite authors, is front and center as the most influential black abolitionist and any time his voiceover is heard it is automatically entrancing, because the man had such a beautiful way with words. William Lloyd Garrison acts as the fiery power behind the movement opposite of Douglass’ reserved approach. Garrison, a lesser known but highly influential figurehead, created a newspaper “The Liberator” to fight against slavery. Eventually these fine men were successful when President Abraham Lincoln, here presented in an honest portrayal, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“The Abolitionists Part III” comes at a perfect time for film fans. Last year brought us the critically acclaimed Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” and this year Steve McQueen presents a historical masterpiece, “12 Years a Slave.” These kinds of films aren’t meant to entertain, but rather inform and “The Abolitionists Part III” succeeds in that regard.

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