More Than A Month More Than Just Another Documentary

Courtesy:  PBS/ITVS/National Black Programming Consortium/Sundance Institute/CPB

Courtesy: PBS/ITVS/National Black Programming Consortium/Sundance Institute/CPB

PBS has shown time and again over the course of its history why it is one of the most important networks on television with documentaries from filmmaker Ken Burns, informative programs such as Frontline and plenty of kid friendly programming on its PBS Kids affiliates.  Now with the release of More Than a Month, PBS has shown once again why it continues to be one of television’s most important networks.  More Than a Month presents to audiences the controversial discussion of whether or not America should bring an end to Black History Month.  What is most interesting about this documentary is that believe it or not, this film was written and directed by an African American.

More Than a Month opens with the now much talked about 2005 60 Minutes interview of actor Morgan Freeman by the late Mike Wallace in which Freeman openly states he felt that there should be no Black History Month.  Thus begins Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s journey in his attempt to bring an end to Black History Month.  The standard argument brought in support of ending Black History—beginning with Freeman—is that Black history is American history.  This is very true.  But in his journey to end Black History Month, Tilghman learns more about Black History, thus leading to a little bit of a change in his view.  It may even change the view of audiences, too.   Even Tilghman himself reaches the understanding that we shouldn’t end Black History Month.  Rather, we need to transcend it.  Those are his exact words.  What he means with this is that we need to reach the point at which Black history is no longer separated (or rather segregated) from American history in schools.  We need to reach the point at which what originally started as Black History Week is no longer required, but wanted to discuss.  That is one of the most interesting of the arguments raised in this entirely unbiased hour long program.

While the standard argument against Black History Month is that it is just one more form of virtual segregation, there are many other unexpected arguments raised.  However those in favor of Black History Month are just as interesting.  One of those is the point that the moment we stop making Black History Month mandatory, no one will discuss it.  We as a culture already seem to celebrate it and then sweep it under the proverbial rug.  Ironically, that is one of the arguments used in favor of abolishing Black History Month in the course of the documentary.  Tilghman interviews an African American professor who works as a social psychologist at Harvard University in his search for information.  He argues exactly what another person argues.  Only he turns it on its ear.  He notes that while it originally started as Black History Week, it became Black History Month essentially in order to appease certain parties so as to keep them quiet so that the country could go back about its ways once the month was over.  That people feel Black History Month was seemingly established as a chore of sorts is exactly what Tilghman is pointing out in the need to transcend it.  Until we can get past the point where we feel that it’s a chore to talk about Black History Month on either side, the division will not end.

Both of the arguments made in the film and noted here are valid arguments.  The arguments made on both side are among many arguments made regarding whether or not we should have Black History Month.  Also notably raised in the film is that the main purpose of Black History Month was not so much about pride as some might claim.  It was originally started as a means to establish an identity for African Americans.  That need for an identity still stands to this day, too.  It goes back to the prior discussion on whether or not it is a chore of sorts.  When it’s all said and done, the discussions raised by Mr. Tilghman and his guests throughout the course of this program will hopefully lead to a whole new openness about not just Black History Month but about the importance of a people as part of a whole society and culture.  It will hopefully bring people to the point that they see that even in the 21st Century, there is hope that we can one day rise above our differences and see each other as a whole people, rather than single parts of the whole separate from one another.  It is one more way that PBS has proven why it is still one of the most important networks on television to this day.  And whether during Black History Month or another time of the year, it is a documentary that is fitting both in the classroom and in the home for audiences of all ages.  It is available now and can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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The Abolitionists PBS’ First Great Documentary Of The Year

Courtesy:  PBS

Courtesy: PBS

Half documentary, half historical film and all educational and entertaining, PBS’ the Abolitionists is even more proof of the value of public broadcasting.  This three part/three hour documentary from PBS’ American experience series is a wonderful tool both inside the classroom and outside.  Its mix of documentary and re-enactment does something very rarely seen with PBS’ documentaries.  This is a piece that would typically be more closely akin to those programs produced for the History Channel.  So seeing such a presentation from PBS shows that the network is just as capable of producing such entertaining and educational content.

The presentation of the Abolitionists as part documentary and part re-enactment is the most notable of the positives from this outstanding story.  Within the three-hour course of this feature, audiences will appreciate not just the re-enactments themselves, but also the story’s organization.  What audiences have here is the historical equivalent to a movie with an ensemble cast as it focuses on not just one person, but five.  The documentary seamlessly weaves together the stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown without allowing each figure’s story to step on the other.  Rather each one nicely compliments the other throughout the documentary’s three segments.  This may seem minor.  But in the larger scale of things, it goes a long way towards keeping audiences of all ages engaged within the context of each hour-long segment.

Within the context of each of the documentary’s three segments audiences are given even more reason to enjoy this recently released DVD through the re-enactments and the actual words of Stowe, Brown and the others.  The actors portraying the famed figures do an outstanding job in their roles.  The addition of readings of each figure’s own words makes those portrayals and each individual’s role in ending slavery hit that much harder.  And actor Oliver Platt’s narration was a solid fit.  His delivery combined with the film’s editing and music come together to make each segment equally solid.  Kudos to all involved for such impressive work.

The general make-up of The Abolitionists plays the largest role in the overall success of this recently released DVD as has already been noted.  On a more specific level, the presentation’s construction so to speak itself plays its own role in viewers’ engagement.  Viewers will be quite impressed at the cinematography and the re-enactments.  The re-enactments within this release could easily go toe-to-toe with the documentaries released by the History Channel.  The combination of the historically accurate clothing, sets, and even dialects show that those involved with bringing this special from the American Experience series took its creation with the utmost seriousness.  The same can be said of those running the cameras during the re-enactments.  The historical re-enactment segments were beautifully shot.  They look and sound like anything that might be seen any day on the silver screen.  Coupled with the telling of each figure’s story, the Abolitionist’s cinematography will grab audiences and keep them right to the final minutes of the final segment.

Whether for re-enactments, the presentation’s overall structure–music, editing, narration, etc.–or for something smaller such as the inclusion of each figure’s own words, it’s obvious that a lot of work went into bringing The Abolitionists to life.  The end product is a feature from PBS that easily holds its own against releases from the History Channel and that has made its argument to be one of the best documentaries of the year.  It is available now and can be ordered online at the PBS online store at http://www.shoppbs.org

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New PBS DVD Shows The Importance Of Knowing One’s History

Courtesy: PBS/Inkwell Films/Kundhart McGee Productions/Ark Media/WNET Thirteen

America is a melting pot.  Its history is made up of the stories from the immigrants who settled here from its earliest days.  Sadly, many of those stories have been lost because we as a nation have forgotten our roots.  We have forgotten from where we came.  Now thanks to PBS, a new special has been released that will hopefully re-ignite the fire among Americans to learn their family roots. 

“Finding Your Roots”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a ten part special spread across three discs.  Gates interviews many of this great nation’s most famous names, discussing their family roots with them.  The famous names come from the world of music, acting, politics, and more.  One of Gates’ most interesting interviews comes in the segment featuring musicians and friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Another was his interview with actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And one of the most interesting cross sections shown in this ten-part special comes in his interviews with Doctor Sanjay Gupta, comedian Margaret Cho, and famed personality Martha Stewart.  They, along with the other unmentioned interviews, make this special one of PBS’ best to date.

“Finding Your Roots” starts with gates interviewing musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Starting the mini-series with this pair of interviews is more than just an interview with a pair of famous musicians.  What gates and those behind the camera intended to do with this segment was to try and bridge the racial gaps of our nation.  The connection between Connick and Marsalis shows that while people may have different color skin, that’s all that really separates us.  Connick admits in his interview that he wanted to be black.  He says that he dressed and acted the part.  What’s really interesting about this is the discovery that one of his ancestors, James Connick, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the good side, it should be noted that James Connick  did not fight for slavery.  He fought solely for economic reasons.  He wasn’t even a slave owner.  He was just trying to support his family.  Apparently, Harry didn’t know this.  But it raises what becomes a very interesting trend that viewers will see as the special moves to other notables.

Just as Harry Connick, Jr.’s roots proved to be rather interesting, so did those of Branford Marsalis.  Interviews with Branford’s famed father Ellis Marsalis, reveals that Branford may have actually gotten his musical abilities not so much from his father, but from his mother.  Or rather, he got his talent from her side of the family.  What’s more, it’s also revealed that one of his ancestors was actually the result of a relationship between a white man and black woman.  This brings this very first pair of interviews full circle.  Gates tells audiences that despite the popular belief, far fewer African American males were born of Native American blood than believed.  Many more will find that they have deeper African American and European roots than Native American.  What it seems that Gates is getting at in this first segment is that while the color of our skin is different, blacks and whites may be far more closely related than we think.  We need only take the time to look back and find our roots.

Gates’ interviews with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis are both entertaining and very insightful.  They’re just one part of what makes “Finding Your Roots” so impressive.  Another interesting pair of figures interviewed for the special is Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  It’s revealed that both are descended from Jewish ancestry.  What’s more, Gyllenhaal’s Jewish ancestry is one hundred percent pure Jewish.  She admits in her interview some interesting facts that reveal ancestry and genetics play directly hand in hand.  Again, viewers will see this pop up a lot throughout all ten parts of the mini-series.  What’s really interesting to learn about Maggie Gyllenhaal is that apparently she’s descended from nobility.  It’s revealed through investigations and Gates’ interview with her, that Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually descended from King Henry I.  And somewhere along the line, she’s also linked to both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, as well as Shirley Temple, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She showed that she had no clue about any of these links, and just how amazed she was by all of it.

Robert Downey, Jr., on the other hand, had much different roots.  He and Gyllenhaal both are children of film makers.  And like Gyllenhaal, he too has Jewish roots.  It’s also revealed that he has Swiss roots.  Unlike Gyllenhaal’s roots, though, he can’t claim connection to any real famous historical figures.  Ironically enough, he himself has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout his career.

Musicians and actors were only a tiny portion of the whole that makes up “Finding Your Roots.”  Gates also interviewed Sanjay Gupta, Margaret Cho and Martha Stewart.  This feature offers perhaps some of the most interesting material in the series.  These segments reveal to both the celebrities in question and to viewers some rather unexpected and surprising information.  One of the most interesting pieces of information is that Martha Stewart has links back to the Mongols.  She laughs in discovering this as she admitted to Gates that her dog is actually named Genghis Khan.  What’s more, many of her ancestors also had professions that involved much of what she does today.  As noted in previous segments, it seems yet again that there is at least some link between one’s ancestry and one’s own personal genetic makeup.  Maggie Gyllenhaal admitted her pleasant surprise at her link to her Jewish ancestry due to her own recent personal choices before her interview.  Branford Marsalis’ parents told Gates that he got his musical abilities from his mother’s side of the family.  That link is explained in the connection to specific well known acts from the rich history of music. 

The roots discovered in conversations with Martha Stewart are the revelations of Margaret Cho’s family.  Her interview reveals that one of her distant ancestors was a very well respected member of his community.  What’s most interesting in her discussions is that members of her family are not actually Korean.  They came from other regions of Asia.  She shows her surprise, laughing about it.  She tells Gates that this was a surprising revelation, being that her parents always claimed such national pride for Korea.  This discovery is made through genetic testing.

Sanjay Gupta’s interview was one of the most moving of the entire mini-series.  Gupta shows just how amazed he is by all of the information discovered through the research done for his interviewed.  At one point, he even begins to tear up.  That single moment is perhaps the defining moment of this entire special.  The emotion that he shows is the entire point of the presentation.  So few Americans are aware of their families’ histories.  It doesn’t matter if someone is related down the line to this famous person or that, or if they are simply related to some random person.  It’s that discovery of one’s past is the most important.  It can make all the difference in a person’s life.  It adds that much more to the nation’s already rich history as a whole.

Gates’ interviews with members of the entertainment community reveal some very interesting notes about them.  It also reminds viewers that they might be just as interested if they take the time to do some research into their own family roots.  There’s no telling what viewers might find if they take that time.  “Finding Your Roots” is proof of that.  “Finding Your Roots” is available on DVD now.  It can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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