Katrina Browne exhumes long buried secrets in Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, a nonfiction portrait of her ancestors’ forefront role in the U.S. slave trade. A descendant of Bristol, Rhode Island’s celebrated DeWolf family, the largest slave-trading clan in the nation’s history (responsible for bringing over more than 10,000 Africans), Browne is motivated by a letter from her grandmother to organize a trip that will retrace the human-cattle distribution route pioneered by her relatives. Out of 200 family members asked, only seven agree to join her, traveling from Bristol to Ghana to Havana in order to confront truths that might help initiate a process of personal healing.
Browne’s desire to deal with this shameful legacy is shared by her kin, who express horror at the DeWolf business that made them prominent and wealthy, even as they feel varying degrees of guilt over it because few can draw direct links between their own immediate ancestors and slavery. The ways that skin color, money and opportunity shape identity are explored with varying rates of return, with some of the travelers themselves rightly objecting to a touristy itinerary that stymies blunt, open dialogue about their feelings on these thorny issues.
Driven by Browne’s monotonous narration, Traces of the Trade too frequently settles into a comfortable travelogue groove characterized by sightseeing visits to slave dungeons and plantations (at which everyone is naturally appalled), as well as brief snippets of confrontational discussions between whites and blacks. These tantalizing talks about grief, culpability and reparations should be the films conversational center. Yet aside from a dinner chat in which Ivy League education becomes the jumping off point for a debate about how notions of privilege and race subtly and overtly intersect, the director rarely orchestrates situations along her expedition that might elicit the type of fierce, unguarded back-and-forths that her topic cries out for.
Traces of the Trade @ Human Rights Watch International Film Festival
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.