'Traces of the Trade' premieres at Sundance, gets bought by PBS

Reviewers debate its stance on atonement; Utah bishop calls film 'deeply moving story, amazingly told'
January 24, 2008

After premiering January 21 in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival, "Traces of the Trade," a film that documents one family's part in the slave trade, became one of three documentaries bought by Public Broadcasting System's Point of View (P.O.V.) series.


Filmmaker Katrina Browne, an Episcopalian who in 2001 began tracing the northern United States' role in the slave trade and her family's participation in it, said that P.O.V. will show "Traces" during its 2008 season. The date should be determined in the next few weeks, she said.

Browne said she is happy that P.O.V. purchased the film both because of the series' standing as a "showcase for premiere documentaries" and because of P.O.V.'s reputation for helping with a film's outreach efforts. "They will be a great partner for getting the film out for dialogue," she said.

Noting that there had been "hundreds and hundreds" of requests for such efforts, Browne said from Park City she and her colleagues are in a precise negotiating window at the moment. They are awaiting word of whether the film will be picked up for a theatrical release. Such a release would affect when the film can be made available for use to groups such as congregations, she said.

The film had a screening in downtown Salt Lake City January 24. Diocese of Utah Bishop Carolyn Tanner Irish and other diocesan leaders had dinner with Browne and other cast members in the film prior to the showing, which played to a packed house.

"This is a deeply moving story, amazingly told," Irish said after the screening. "The film made me feel like a member of that (DeWolf) family, not just because I'm an Episcopalian, but because the story is so much a part of the American heritage. We've all been damaged by what slavery has done to African-Americans and to every one of us. This film opens a door to an authentic way for people of faith -- indeed everyone -- to walk in repentance, reconciliation, and healing of the horrors of slavery so deeply embedded in our culture and in our souls."

The DeWolf family of Rhode Island was the largest slave-trading family in early America. More than 10,000 Africans -- kidnapped, chained, beaten -- made the hellish middle passage across the Atlantic in the holds of DeWolf-owned ships. Over the course of three generations, from 1769 to 1820, 47 of these ships made runs, building trade and the family’s fortune.

“The slave trade was illegal for most of the time the DeWolfs and other Rhode Islanders were practicing it,” Browne told Episcopal Life in July 2006. “The DeWolfs secured a political favor from none other than President Thomas Jefferson whose campaign they had supported.” That favor meant a customs official always was absent when DeWolf ships sailed into or out of the harbor.

Browne invited 200 relatives to join her in retracing their ancestors’ steps. Nine descendents, ages 32 to 71, traveled together to the original homes and factories in Rhode Island, to the family’s former holdings and sugar plantations in Cuba and to the slave forts of Ghana in West Africa. Then they returned to Boston and recounted their experiences to Charles Ogletree, law professor at Harvard Law School and leader of a legal team pursuing reparations for African Americans.

Browne recorded the journey and its aftermath, turning it into "Traces."

One of the participants portrayed in the documentary, Tom DeWolf, has written about the journey in "Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, " which was published this month by Beacon Press.

“It is particularly important that the Episcopal Church be on the cutting edge of this,” Dain Perry, Browne's cousin and one of the nine who made the journey, said in the Episcopal Life article. “It was the Episcopal Church that was condoning slavery. We were the dominant denomination in early America, and we did not stand up against slavery and, in fact, ministers had slaves.”

Among the DeWolf ancestors are Mark Anthony deWolfe Howe, the first bishop of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania (1871-1895) and James DeWolf Perry, the 7th bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island between 1911 and 1946. Perry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church from March 1930 to December 1937.

Several screenings at the 75th General Convention of the rough cut of the then-incomplete "Traces of the Trade" were influential in creating the atmosphere in which the convention passed a number of resolutions about the church and racism. They included A123 in which the Episcopal Church apologized for "its complicity in and the injury done by the institution of slavery and its aftermath" and called on dioceses to document and study that complicity and its implications.

The film ends with footage from the 75th General Convention about the anti-racism resolutions and Browne's testimony to the committees that considered the resolutions. Browne said she is excited about the P.O.V. purchase of "Traces" in part because "the work of the Episcopal Church is now going to be taken to the nation."

While most of the early reviews have been generally favorable, Browne said some reviewers and bloggers have argued that she and her family members were indulging themselves in "white guilt."

The film's ending, which speaks of guilt, atonement and forgiveness, is "very churchy," she said, and pushes some people's buttons. Browne said she thinks people who belong to church communities have a very different understanding of guilt and atonement than do some reviewers and bloggers. She cast the feelings of guilt portrayed in the film as "healthy guilt" expressed by people trying to take responsibility for their role in slavery.

Browne said she was moved to make the film and engage in the debate about slavery out of grief and a perception of the need for racial justice.

"I don't feel consumed by guilt in an unhealthy way, but that's being projected on me," she said.

The buzz in Park City
Earlier on the day of the film's January 21 premiere, Browne participated in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day panel discussion on the legacy of the slave trade with U.S. Rep. John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee; filmmaker Orlando Bagwell and Dedrick Muhammad of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Browne said festival organizers, who were "incredibly excited about the film," arranged for both panel and the Martin Luther King Day premiere of "Traces."

Conyers is known both for his campaign to have the U.S. mark Martin Luther King's life with a public holiday and for his efforts to have the U.S. government establish a commission to study proposals for reparations to African Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors. Conyers first introduced H.R. 40 in 1989, but was unable to get the House Judiciary Committee to bring it to a hearing until he became the chair of the committee. That hearing was held December 18. Diocese of Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw testified on behalf of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Episcopal Church.

Browne said that Conyers said during the January 21 panel discussion that films such as "Traces" ought to be shown on Capitol Hill, suggesting a film festival as a way to help the Congress wade through "100-pound reports" and get to the heart of public-policy issues.

On January 22, Browne was part of another panel discussion at Sundance, titled "Black in America," with film critic Elvis Mitchell, actor/producer Danny Glover ("Be Kind Rewind," "Trouble the Water" and screenwriter Paris Qualles ("A Raisin in the Sun").

"Traces" is being shown daily until January 26. The January 21 premiere sold out as did the last showing. Browne said selling out the last showing is a good sign because the festival action winds down that weekend and she's been told showings are not always full over the weekend. "There must be some word-of-mouth going on," she said.

Another good sign, Browne noted, was the fact that most of the sell-out January 21 audience stayed for the question-and-answer session that followed the screening. Usually, if people don't like a film, they don't stay for the session, she said. The feedback she and eight other of the film's participants received echoed that of previous rough-cut showings.

Many people, Browne said, remarked that they had never learned about the North's role in slavery and that the film "debunked a major mythology about the North versus the South."

"Traces of the Trade" was one of 16 documentaries chosen from among 953 submissions, according to the festival.

A short interview with Browne by the festival organizers is available here. An interview with Browne, conducted by the website indieWIRE, is available here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/directory_11161_ENG_HTM.htm).

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