(2017) Documentary (Passion River) Frances Causey, John Powell, Leon F. Litwack, La Tonya Lawson-Jones, Ian Harvey Lopez, Sally Holst, Jody Allen, Gerald Horne, Paul Kivel, Anne Conkling, Mike Church, Tim Duckenfield, John Adams, Nadine Stark Sims, Karen Alexander, Lorne Hammond, Richard Rothstein, Erica Tanks, Bill Blair, Maureen Gosling, Laura Willis, Judy Sims, Yolanda Wells. Directed by Frances Causey and Maureen Gosling
Race relations remain a defining issue in the United States. From slavery down to Jim Crow and into the Black Lives Matter movement today, America has been formed going all the way back to its founding by white supremacy.
Filmmaker and journalist Frances Causey grew up in a privileged neighborhood in Wilmington, North Carolina to prosperous parents. She had little contact with African-Americans beyond those that worked for the family, but she had eyes that could see and she was fully aware that her black neighbors weren’t treated the same way; they lived in terrible poverty, were prevented from drinking at the same water fountains as she, and were looked down upon as inferior to the white privileged class. It bothered her then and continues to bother her now
She is directly descended from Virginia lawyer and founding father Edmund Pendleton, who essentially wrote the verbiage into the Constitution that institutionalized slavery in the South. Because there were far more slaves in the South and far fewer whites, Pendleton came up with the 3/5 of a person compromise that gave the South disproportionate power in the Federal government for nearly a century.
Causey goes on to discuss the economic benefits of slavery that powered the engine of the slave trade; how Wall Street was essentially created to facilitate it and how the legacy of slavery informs our policies and politics now 150 years after the end of th Civil War. African Americans may have been emancipated but they continue to be victims of inequality.
Throughout Causey interjects commentary about various aspects, such as what happened to those runaway slaves who fled to Canada, an enlightened plantation owner who gradually freed his slaves and the difference it made to their descendants today. We see her horrified reaction to the massacre in the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston by a white supremacist and we see her genuine affection for her former nanny and the grown up children of her caregiver.
Causey utilizes a goodly number of academics to give some context to history and some of them, particularly John Powell (an expert on the effects of slavery on American society), historian Jody Allen (somewhat incongruously interviewed on the serene campus of the College of William and Mary considering the subject) and historian Leon Litwack who won a Pulitzer Prize on the subject. However some of the other talking heads can be a bit dry. Again, those with a personal story to tell are far more effective than those coming from a strictly academic standpoint.
The film is at its best when Causey is looking through her highly personal connection to white privilege and racism. There is no doubt she is aiming her film for white audiences in an effort to make them understand a history most of them don’t know or don’t want to know. Most of the final two thirds is really a more broad view of the reverberations of racism and violence through American history. I thought the first third was much more successful; the story of her ancestry and her experience growing up in the deep south are far more personal and relatable than the academic exercise that followed. However, that doesn’t man that interesting questions aren’t raised. For example, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1772. Could the southern founding fathers have chosen to leave British rule in order to continue slavery here and keep the economic engine of the South running?
The movie was filmed before the 2016 presidential election which makes it in many ways all the more timely but in dire need of a new chapter that brings it all together with the current expressions of white nationalism that has reared its ugly head since then. Even in the days when the film was about to be released there were instances of hate crimes (a white racist opening fire on African-Americans in a Louisville Kroger). The movie does make for a good history lesson but quite frankly much of this material is covered elsewhere, particularly in Ava DuVernay’s compelling Netflix documentary 13th.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that slavery warped the soul of this nation and continues to. Just the extent of the damage that continues to be done is something even the most progressive of white liberals (myself included) fail to understand. It’s information that African-Americans know only all too well and if there ever is going to be real change and moving forward in this country, white people will have to not only understand it but own it as well.
REASONS TO GO: The archival photos and drawings are extremely effective.
REASONS TO STAY: The film begins by connecting Causey to the slavery issue on a personal level and then veers away from that into a standard PBS-like documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing and occasionally graphic photos of brutalized slaves and lynchings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Causey worked as a journalist at CNN for 14 years; it was the events in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown that galvanized her to make this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10