Slavery By Another Name: Sundance Film Review

Slavery By Another Name: Sundance Film Still - H 2012
Doc about slavery-like systems after the Civil War will open many eyes.

The documentary from director-producer Sam Pollard argues that Emancipation didn't go into full effect until World War II.

PARK CITY — Digging into a chapter in the African-American saga that history books have traditionally glossed over, Sam Pollard's Slavery By Another Name argues that Emancipation didn't quite take full effect until World War II. The revealing doc will be welcomed in educational outlets and on the small screen.

With slaves freed at the end of the Civil War, Southern whites had at least two big problems: Businessmen used to a vast pool of unpaid labor faced plummeting profits, while poor whites, who had never owned slaves, viewed blacks as unwelcome competition for work. As talking-head historians here explain, law enforcement soon became a vehicle for de facto slavery, allowing blacks imprisoned for everything from murder to the theft of a pig to be leased out to coal mines and anyone else in need of workers. To keep the supply of prison labor steady, misdemeanors were turned into felonies and nebulous crimes like vagrancy became an excuse to lock up just about anyone.

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Perversely, this "Convict Leasing" could be worse than slavery: While a slaveowner had made a long-term investment and had an interest in his slave's health, a mining company could literally work someone to death, knowing another prisoner could be sent to replace him. Blacks who avoided prison might still get ensnared in "peonage" schemes, in which debtors (whose debts might not even be legitimate) were forced into labor to pay what they owed.

We hear details of these and other outrages from scholars, in letters written by inmates and their families, and, poignantly, from descendants of those who used convict labor -- two white women who had been raised to think of their forebears as "self-made men" before discovering how their fortunes were actually made.

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Director Pollard is on firm ground when talking to historians (like Douglas Blackmon, whose book gave this film its title) and digging through old photos and letters. But he's less successful in bringing these stories to life with actors, who speak historical dialogue directly to the camera in a way that recalls the clumsy informational films one might see in a museum exhibition.

These sequences do little to diminish the movie's overall message, though, which Sundance attendees will inevitably connect to another doc here, The House I Live In -- a present-tense film arguing that, in less overtly violent and lawless ways, America continues to systematically rob black and poor white citizens of their liberty.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: tpt National Productions
Director-producer: Sam Pollard
Screenwriter: Sheila Curran Bernard
Executive producer: Catherine Allan
Director of photography: Andrew Young
Music: Michael Bacon
Editor: Jason L. Pollard
Sales: Fritz Bergmann,
No rating, 85 minutes