TV Review: ‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross’

The African Americans: Many Rivers to

Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s latest PBS documentary project offers a dry look at a rich history

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.

TV Review: 'The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross'

(Documentary series; PBS, Tues. Oct. 22, 8 p.m.)


Produced by Kunhardt McGee Prods., Thirteen Prods. and Inkwell Films in association with Ark Media.


Executive producers, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Peter Kunhardt, Dyllan McGee, Julie Anderson; senior producer, Rachel Dretzin; senior story producer, Leslie Asako Gladsjo. 6 HOURS


Host: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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  1. Lisa Canton says:

    I disagree with Mr. Lowry’s review. Dr.Gates signature walking with historians and doing the doc in storyteller mode is awesome and traditional to African culture. This series is compelling and I can’t wait to see future works from Dr. Gates. He is the modern day Gil Noble and Tony Brown. Thank you Dr. Gates for using the platform given you to teach us all. You could have kept all that knowledge just for your Harvard students. Thank God you didn’t. Sorry Mr. Lowry, we are going to have to agree to disagree.

  2. Julie Audrey Ward says:

    First and Foremost, Thank You Skipper, for bringing a wealth of informaiton, presentated in a coversational
    manner.. I have always wondered how could a researcher balance raw real situations, in a tone that would be acceptable, without receiving a litany of complaints regarding stirring mayhem.. Brian Lowry, your view has enabled me to bring forth a comment, without “pantomime:.. Without an Archive to Refer to where would we be yesterday and today

  3. ogijaz says:

    There is a serious need for more Black Americans participating in roles that are beyond sports, comedy, hip hop, reality and slavery…….How about some Black Negroid featured males acting in some traditionally white male roles with contemporary themes?!!

  4. Kendall L says:

    I have previewed the entire series and I think this review is total Bullshit! Dr. Gates is telling a story, not making a movie so there is no creative license for entertainment sake. America History is not always the apple pie story that we were taught in school, it is full of truths that we deny or don’t want to swallow. Watch the series for yourself, you might just learn something . This critic comes off more personal than professional, makes me wonder if he was at The White House drinking beer with Mr. Gates and the policeman.

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