Dir: Sam Pollard. US. 2011. 87mins


Slavery didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The name just changed, and for many American Blacks, things got worse before they got better under freedom. Slavery By Another Name, based on a prize-winning book by the journalist Douglas A. Blackmon, is a compendium of abuses that augments that conventionally-accepted historical record of the economy of the American South after the Civil War.

Slavery By Another Name reveals a dirty secret that has long been known in the historical community.

Told through documents, letters, re-enactments and a narrative by Laurence Fishburne, the doc has a pedagogical tone found in films that accompany museum exhibitions.  Theatrical potential is minimal – especially since the film plays on public television in the US in mid-February, but its educational market could be strong in America. Interest beyond the US will be limited. 

Slavery By Another Name reveals a dirty secret that has long been known in the historical community. Much of the South was built on forced Black labor after slavery was declared unconstitutional in 1863 and the South surrendered to end the Civil War in 1865. Blacks who were convicted of crimes, no matter how insignificant —  vagrancy or the theft of a pig worth more than $1 – were often given long sentences and made available to mines, farms and factories.

State governments were paid fees for the prison labor.  The practice was profitable for both sides of the exchange. The high numbers of prisoners in the labor pool suppressed wages and made it difficult to organize unions.

Change was slow and begrudging.  “If you had something for free in the past, you don’t necessarily want to pay for it now,” says one historian.  The practice was brutal. About a third of prisoner mine workers in Alabama coal mines died every year.

Sam Pollard (with the help of a team of historians) shows how the South’s steel industry in Birmingham Alabama was built on prison labor, as were the coal and iron mines that supplied those mills.   Some of those businesses were taken over by United States Steel, the nation’s largest firm at the time, which meant that Southerners were not the only beneficiaries. Imagine D. W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation, with corporate managers allied with the Ku Klux Klan.

You won’t find cinematic innovation in Slavery By Another Name. The doc tells its story deliberately and methodically, ensuring that schoolchildren will get its point by repetition. The film’s re-enactments are clumsy, with “period” figures speaking earnestly with anachronistic accents.  

Letters from Blacks in servitude to their families are poignant. There are thousands of those letters in the National Archives in Washington D.C. that tell of horrors endured by men and women found guilty of insignificant offenses. Yet the film lacks much visual documentation of men in conditions that look like enslavement.  Photographs of Blacks on chain gangs or in work crews make the point, yet many of these are familiar. The same can be said of many gruesome pictures of lynchings.  

The film premieres at a delicate time in American politics, with presidential candidate Newt Gingrich calling for young children receiving food stamps to work as school janitors. As the movie shows, change is slow and painful. 

Production companies: National Productions, National Endowment for the Humanities, W.G. Kellog Foundation, Coca Cola Company, The CPB/PBS Diversity and Innovation Fund

US Distributor: The Public Broadcasting System

Producer: Sam Pollard

Executive Producers: Catherine Allan, Douglas A. Blackmon

Screenwriter: Sheila Curran Bernard, based on the book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

Narrator: Laurence Fishburne

Cinematography: Andrew Young

Editor: Jason L. Pollard

Music: Michael Bacon