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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