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‘Abolitionists’ Stumbles Over Reenactment Line

PBS’ “The Abolitionists” — a three-part “American Experience” documentary — managed to take subject matter I’d normally find extremely compelling and mostly suck the life out of it.

Most of that had to do with the storytelling style, which involves straddling an awkward line between dramatic reenactments that approach full-blown TV-movie territory and traditional documentary elements, like expert interviews and narration.

Abolitionists-EpMainWhile the practice has become increasingly common — especially in tackling historical periods that pre-date video — coming from PBS, the home of all those terrific Ken Burns documentaries, it simply feels like a lazy, pandering way to try making history come alive.

“Abolitionists” will run over three consecutive Tuesdays beginning Jan. 8, and again, it’s a worthwhile topic, perhaps tailor-made for schools and related study guides. Those profiled include Angelina Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation family who took up the cause; Frederick
Douglass; William Lloyd Garrison, who founded the newspaper The
Liberator; author Harriet Beecher Stowe; and John
Brown, who took his zealotry to violent extremes.

But this is one of those cases where the style overwhelmed the substance, and I frankly gave up the viewing fight ater part one. So while I admire the effort and the franchise, all “The Abolitionists” demonstrates is that not every PBS or “American Experience” documentary is created equal.

 

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