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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

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Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

Beginning with home movie footage of an Independence Day parade in Bristol, Rhode Island—the longest running in the U.S., so director Katrina Browne explains in voiceover—Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North explores, through a very personal lens, the sordid tale of the slave trade in the pious American north. In addition to being a first-time filmmaker, Browne is also a descendant of the prominent, revered DeWolf clan: New England royalty who amassed a fortune through the blood, sweat and tears of the estimated 10,000 Africans they tore from their homeland, the biggest traders in American history. After sending letters to 200 relatives with an invitation to join her on her quest to retrace the steps of the “triangle trade” from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, Browne and nine of her kin (including active church members and an Episcopal priest) set off on their own truth and reconciliation journey.

Guided by somber music and Browne’s shy lilting narration over images of the DeWolf family crest (in archival materials, ancient maps, history books and meticulous business logs, in street signs bearing the family name, in the stained glass at the local church paid for with their wealth) we’re forced to confront the oxymoron of a dark secret hiding in plain sight, one that Browne and her relatives have lived with all of their lives. The disconnection is overwhelming. One of the most powerful moments occurs at the headstone of Adjua, one of two African children purchased as a Christmas present for a DeWolf wife, the image accompanied by kids’ voices eerily chanting an innocent nursery rhyme inspired by the young slaves. Browne finds mention of a shopkeeper’s complaint (he asked that the slave whipping post be removed from in front of his store as blood was getting all over his windows). Slaves were big business and the DeWolfs practiced what is now known as “vertical integration.” In other words they controlled all aspects of the trade, from the rum made with slave labor at their Cuban plantations, to the buying of people with that rum in Ghana, to the shipment of live flesh back to the states to be sold (or sent back down to Cuba, a hub for illegal slave activity). The DeWolfs were even granted a favor from Thomas Jefferson to conduct their (illegal at the time, we’re reminded!) family business, for the whole town of Bristol as well as most of the north lived off those profits as sure as they would any other lucrative industry.

Juxtaposing this history with present day interviews (reactions from the descendants), Browne is able to create a dialogue with her ancestors, and often a painful one. Family members are moved to tears when they see the steel manacles and leg irons on the ships—like confronting Nazi grandfathers who carried out the Holocaust. Browne unwaveringly shoots the horrors of place like the dungeons in Ghana where slaves were held before setting sail, after Christian missionaries had baptized them and taken away their African names, making them slaves in the name of the Lord. A child in Ghana asks one of Browne’s relatives “Are you not ashamed of coming here?” (Never mind that the DeWolfs traded with African kings.) “Yes, I am ashamed,” he answers honestly, and in so doing pinpoints the exact reason Traces of the Trade is so poignant. The ten DeWolf descendants are a thoughtful, forthcoming, from the heart group—willing to doubt, to not have answers, to admit both fear and internalized racism. One exasperated woman voices concern that the film will turn out to be a “travelogue through slavery” rather than a conversation about racism today. She’s tired of speaking to the past and wants to expand the circle to change the present. Browne’s African-American co-producer is unwittingly dragged into the debate, expressing her hope that the film will further both a liberation of her people (from anger) as well as of whites (from guilt).

In fact there is limitless drama (the stories in Traces of the Trade could easily fill a PBS miniseries) with everyone involved in a perpetual soul-search—this is what makes cinema (and life) so interesting. Slavery has been dealt with in American history in the same way as the Native American genocide and the Holocaust. It’s always the “good guys” (the North, the cowboys, America) vs. the “bad guys” (the South, the Indians, Hitler) when the reality is you can’t be a moral “good guy” if you’re only looking out for number one. The slave trade existed not so covertly after the Civil War because it was economically lucrative, the Native Americans were slaughtered because they were in the way of the white settlers, and America entered WWII because Pearl Harbor got bombed, not because Jews were dying. A female relative even compares the slave trade to sweatshop labor (we’re willing to look the other way if that direction is more convenient).

The DeWolfs started a great many legitimate businesses with their blood money—like all underground illegal activity the earnings eventually float back up to the top. So Browne takes her camera to African-American academics, asks about reparations (something largely supported by her own recently enlightened kin). Having finally found common ground with the descendants on the losing side of history, Browne and two family members take public action within their own Episcopal Church, issuing a call at a convention for the church to face its own slave trading complicity, for investments in education and low income communities (rather than for writing individual checks). There’s something sweet and humble in this, in Browne’s constant commentary describing how unsure and awkward she feels. Ending her journey where she began in Bristol she takes to the pulpit of the church (stained glass erected over slave blood). She offers an anecdote about a healing ritual in Ghana in which the family asked to participate. The reply from the tribal elder was, “Yes, I could do that, but I think you should ask your own elders.” And the liberation continues, one brave voice at a time.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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