Review: 'Traces of the Trade'


Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- Powerful is an inadequate word to describe the impact of Katrina Browne's "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," an examination of her forebears, the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island, the largest slave traders in U.S. history. This is a topic America has been avoiding for generations. Now, fittingly in this bicentennial year of the abolition of the slave trade by Thomas Jefferson, Browne's clear-headed film represents an intense and searing call for national dialogue. It also coincides with a number of political movements in and out of Congress to examine the history of race in America and the topic of reparations.

Festival dates and then theatrical distribution will start the film's exposure. But television is the best avenue for people to share the filmmaker's journey with family members into a heart of utter darkness.

A grandmother's confession alerted Browne at an early age to the family's infernal legacy. She does research. From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf ships sailed to the coast of Ghana to trade rum and other goods for slaves who were then sold in the New World or brought to family sugar plantations in Cuba. The sugar was then transported back to Bristol to make more rum in family distilleries. They had shrewdly put together what today would be described as a vertically integrated corporation.

But it wasn't just the DeWolfs. The entire town of Bristol, the historic heart of the trade, was involved. This film forever buries the myth of Southern guilt. Slavery was legal for 200 years in the North and the North dominated the trade. As a political favor, none other than President Jefferson appointed an in-law to head the Bristol customs office so the DeWolfs could continue the trade long after its abolition. Can you imagine a more depressing historical fact than that?

Browne wrote to 200 descendents, inviting them to join her on a journey to trace this legacy. Nine members did. Starting with the grand mansions, warehouses, company records, artifacts and a slave gravesite in Rhode Island, the group flies to Ghana to tour slave forts with their nearly impenetrable dungeons. They move on to Cuba, where they discover the ruins of a DeWolf plantation building.

The film is no travelogue, however. Each encounter with scholars, artists and guides who reveal more and more about the DeWolf legacy leaves family members shaken to the core. And angry. They debate and argue this legacy's meaning and what to do with this knowledge. They seek dialogue with locals in Ghana. One family member is stunned when an African-American woman refuses to shake his hand. She didn't want to encounter whites in a place she considers sacred.

They turn to the film's co-producer, Juanita Brown, who is black. She gently but firmly gives them a few hard truths about how African-Americans feel about this past and about white Americans' unwillingness to own up to the privilege they enjoy that stems in part from slavery.

The first two-thirds of the film delivers the historical shocks and often painful insights. The final third, and most important part of the film, shows the family galvanized to action, in their own church, which bears a heavy responsibility for its support of the trade, and in other political arenas. One family member, Thomas Norman DeWolf, who was on hand for the film's Sundance debut, has authored a book, "Inheriting the Trade, " that reflects his experiences during filmmaking.

The film's key point is that the nation can no longer afford collective silence and willed amnesia about slavery. It must confront these issues if race relations are ever going to progress in the U.S. "Traces of the Trade" is a place to start.

Ebb Pod Productions

Director/producer: Katrina Browne
Writers: Katrina Browne, Alla Kovgan
Executive producer: Elizabeth Delude-Dix
Director of photography: Liz Dory
Co-producer: Juanita Brown
Editor: Alla Kovgan

No MPAA rating, running time 86 minutes