The Abolitionists, which begins tonight on PBS, manages to pull off several unlikely feats. For starters, it turns stories that will be familiar to many of the people who watch PBS documentary series—the lives of five major historical figures—into gripping narratives. The writer and producer and director, Rob Rapley, uses that riskiest of documentary techniques, the live re-enactment. And those sequences have to overcome another obstacle: the presence of familiar TV actors. Finally, the series has a surprising—and seemingly uncinematic—focus: the inevitable loneliness of the activist’s life.
In recounting the lives of John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Angelina Grimké, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the narration repeatedly notes how isolating it can be to speak truth to power. Grimké is compelled to leave her slave-holding family when she realizes that, unlike her, they are blind to the moral offense of slavery. Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, is said to have had “few friends or allies.” Brown is so sure that 22 men can spark a mass movement that he launches a suicidal rebellion. And Stowe writes Uncle Tom’s Cabin when the loss of her son Charlie to typhus makes her “understand the pain of mothers she would never know”—the slave mothers sold away from their own children. The story of Douglass, the only African-American figure profiled in the series, is slightly different—after seeing his extraordinary ability to connect with an audience, activists like Garrison encourage Douglass to tour the country testifying about his experiences as a slave, thus parting him from his family.
In addition to a smattering of expert talking heads—and is it just me, or are TV historians looking younger and hipper these days?—the series makes extensive use of re-enactments. In many programs, such segments can be a real drag; there’s something about the familiarity of television that challenges the kind of respectful distance we expect from historical productions. Although Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln featured many familiar actors, the ones I had the hardest time accepting as 19th-century figures were TV regulars like Bruce McGill (Rizzoli & Isles), Jared Harris (Mad Men), and David Costabile (everything, but notably Breaking Bad). The Abolitionists features one-time Law & Order regular Richard Brooks, who has traded in the high-top fade he sported as ADA Paul Robinette for Frederick Douglass’ famous natural, and occasional L&O villain Neal Huff, as newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison. This could easily have made the whole production seem like some never-made, abolition-themed L&O spin-off.
And yet it all works. Rapley, it turns out, was onto something when he decided to cast a group of actors rather than relying exclusively on historians to tell his story. The message of the series seems to be that changing the world is a difficult, solitary task, and that conviction alone won’t win people over—but that if you find the right images, your cause may eventually prevail. One hundred and fifty years ago, a melodramatic tale about the inhumanity of slavery was the narrative of choice. Today, it takes some familiar actors and a few well-staged scenes of sadistic slave-owners and dehumanized African-Americans to grab people’s attention.