Ken Burns’ sizable shadow looms over “For Love of Liberty,” a four-hour documentary about the U.S. war history of African-Americans. Featuring a veritable who’s-who of marquee voices, this sober project makes a stopover on various PBS stations en route to DVD release, but it’s a wooden, almost painfully dry trip through 200-plus years of combat, eschewing any oncamera interviews to rely entirely on celebrity readings. Interesting in places, this Black History Month premiere finally feels too much like middle-school curriculum, without rising to the stirring nature of its subject matter.
“They served their nation without their nation ever serving them,” the narration notes, the money line in exploring the valorous service by African-Americans, even as they experienced rampant discrimination and abuse at home.
Still, many similar stories were covered by Burns in “The Civil War” and “The War,” with the benefit in the latter case of receiving first-person testimonials directly from those involved. Instead, “Liberty” director-producer-co-writer Frank Martin opts to let stars do all the talking, which works only intermittently — and can be distracting, frankly, when recognizable voices like Bill Cosby and the late Walter Cronkite pop up on the soundtrack.
Invariably, there are powerful stories scattered within the documentary, from the 54th Massachusetts regiment (featured in the movie “Glory”) to the Buffalo Soldiers to the anguish of African-Americans serving in Vietnam when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Ultimately, though, this production is constrained by its format, methodically moving from war to war, with host Halle Berry briefly introducing each chapter.
Notably, the press release for the documentary includes a gaudy list of high-profile endorsements, including one from Burns, who is partly to blame for making “Liberty” appear stiff and disappointing — having comparatively set the bar so high for this sort of exercise. (In his works Burns also did without dramatic recreations, which Martin uses — sometimes unnecessarily — to augment drawings and video.)
Much of the material within “For Love of Liberty” is certainly worthy of attention. It’s just that watching the four hours makes for an awfully long sit.