PBS continues to give Henry Louis Gates Jr. an enviable platform to delve into African-American history, and the Harvard professor keeps delivering interesting but ultimately uninspired results. His latest journey, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” spans 500 years over six one-hour chapters, without bringing much fresh or new perspective to the undeniably rich material. In theory, it’s an appropriate use of public TV’s time and resources, but as told through an imperfect messenger, it falls well short of the service’s finest documentary fare.
Part of that has to do with Gates’ style as a presenter of history, which includes visiting locations with other scholars, walking and chatting in a manner that’s invariably more conversational than probing. Moreover, Gates has a way of injecting himself into the discussion, which is relaxed, yes, but at times can feel slightly offputting.
Gates’ specialty has been using genealogy and genetic science to explore the African-American experience, producing such docs as “African American Lives” and “Finding Your Roots.” Here, he tackles a more conventional chronological narrative, but the amount of ground the producers have to cover — even over the course of six hourlong episodes — is overwhelming, and one of those occasions where more is clearly less.
Chapter one, “The Black Atlantic,” races through the 300-year history of the slave trade. Part two covers the 19th century up to the start of the Civil War, and so on, with the final chapter beginning in 1968 — the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated — and carrying through the present, and how the election of the first African-American president hasn’t resolved long-simmering racial tensions.
Gates’ approach is clearly intended to make history feel alive, but the net effect is frequently the opposite — particularly compared to the vibrant way Ken Burns has constructed his body of work for PBS. And while there are intriguing anecdotes and stories scattered throughout the chapters made available, anyone reasonably well versed in African-American history will have to wade through plenty of padding to find the highlights.
Billed as a “multiplatform project” accompanied by various forms of educational outreach, “Many Rivers to Cross” extends well beyond the screen, including a companion book (by Gates and Donald Yacovone) and opportunities to coordinate with schools.
Still, this might be an instance where viewers would be better advised to skip the movie and read the book. Because watching six hours of “Many Rivers to Cross” feels like a couple of bridges too far.