A courageous scab-ripper of a tale about slavery, white privilege and original sin, “Traces of the Trade” takes the personal doc and turns it into an interrogation lamp. Assembling a troupe of family members and going off in search of their common roots in the slave trade, helmer Katrina Browne disturbs the propriety of her clan while raising very troubling questions about what it means to be black or white in America. Pic’s toughness is its own greatest obstacle, but PBS pickup at Sundance for “POV” will ensure wide exposure.
Browne, narrating throughout (with, unfortunately, the weary solemnity of an NPR correspondent), gives us the history: Her first American ancestor, Mark Antony DeWolf, founded what would become New England’s largest slave-trading family in Bristol, R.I., where parts of the family remain today. It’s a very extended family — 140 of the people Browne contacted never responded at all. A handful of those who did respond go on a journey of exploration — of themselves, the history of owning other people and the subtle, often unstated advantages of being white in a country where being black once marked you as property.
The family group — virtually all Ivy League grads, which is not an insignificant fact — travels the trade route from Ghana to Cuba to New England, having less-than-amicable encounters with blacks looking for their own roots and being genuinely appalled at the crimes of their progenitors.
“Their stomach for violence was extraordinary,” muses Ledlie Laughlin, an Episcopal minister. To Browne’s credit, these reflections are presented neither sanctimoniously or dismissively, but as evidence of a real desire to get at the truth — an elusive quality, as Browne and her audience finds out.
The most interesting aspect of the film is this or that family member’s inability to grasp the inherent advantages of being white. “I earned it,” one member says of his admission to Harvard. He worked very hard, he says, and yes, he surely did. But had he been black — especially given his age and the period he attended — he may have had to work a lot harder. That is the slippery issue Browne chases, sometimes to successful ends, sometimes not, but always provocatively.
Production values are adequate.