Until recent years, genealogists assumed that African Americans hoping to trace their family histories would be blocked by slavery, the "peculiar institution” that changed slave names and dispersed families, leading to "lost, stolen, or strayed" records. In this moving four-part documentary, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes himself and eight other prominent black Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Tucker on an epic journey, using a combination of family memories and onsite research to deftly interweave the family histories of all nine, gradually working back from the present: through the seminal experience of the "great migration" of blacks from south to north in pre-WWII America, and further back to the trials of Reconstruction, before finally reaching the dark era of slavery. Gates draws on these painful experiences to illuminate a larger portrait of black survival, presenting a tale of redemption and triumph, told with understanding and humor. The video's last chapter explores how the new tools of DNA research enable blacks to trace their ancestry back to Africa, sometimes even pinpointing the region, tribe, and village of former slaves. A reminder to all, regardless of color, that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, African American Lives is a stirring and informative documentary.
Voices of Civil Rights, a collection of five documentaries on two discs, captures the scope of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, even if it often fails to plumb the depths of this important chapter in American history. Three of the programs are deeply compelling, putting a human face and anguished voice to the era: the Emmy-nominated Crossing the Bridge, which details the horrific violence that took place when Alabama state troopers assaulted nonviolent protestors at a bridge in Selma; Mississippi State Secrets, which exposes an astonishing state-government-sanctioned surveillance program that spied on up to 80,000 people involved in the Civil Rights movement; and the Peabody award-winning Save Our History: Voices of Civil Rights, a celebration of a 2004 project in which journalists and archivists spanning the country recorded firsthand accounts of the tumultuous struggle from decades earlier. Oddly, the least successful of the titles compiled here are a pair of episodes from the A&E Biography series that profile two major figures—Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall—but reduce their complexities to an almost cartoonish version of sainthood. But even with those shaky hagiographies, this bargain-priced set is still well worth purchasing.
-- P. Hall, Video Librarian