Critically acclaimed and historian, author, and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. celebrated the launch of his latest documentary, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War during an evening at the New York Historical Society on Monday, March 4.
While enjoying a buffet and passed hors d’oeuvres, attendees mingled with guests such as ABC News anchor T.J. Holmes, Pose star Ryan Swain, and The Wire actor Michael Kenneth Williams.
Reconstruction follows a series of films written, narrated, produced, and hosted by Dr. Gates. One of the most notable, the six-part documentary The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, was awarded a Peabody Award in 2013. As he contemplated the next major project he would undertake, Dr. Gates noted that current events were a major source of inspiration for the chosen topic.
“We made a list of the films that we wanted to do about African-Americans,” Dr. Gates explained. “Every year is Finding your Roots—that’s the franchise. But every other year it’s black history. So, we were going to do the Great Migration next. Then the History of the Black Church, which I’ve always wanted to do. Analyze the preaching styles and styles of music.
Then, Trump was elected. We flipped the whole thing upside down because I realized 12 years of black freedom followed by an alt-right rollback–what’s it sound like?
I couldn’t believe it when Donald Trump said systematically, I am going to undo what this man did. And I also—it took me a while to believe it, being a paranoid black person—I wanted to control my impulse to believe that the presence of a black man in the White House had actually fried some people’s minds. And it really did. I have a companion book called Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow. And we assigned visual essays between the chapters. We collected racist images of Barack Obama. I said ‘This is so real, so immediate, so close, and so disgusting,’ that I had to tear up the first pass, and we did it again. We kept it all out. At the Jim Crow Museum in Ferris State University in Michigan, there’s a whole wing already to racist imagery of Barack Obama.
So, we thought the most urgent thing we could do is tell this story, which is a story about our time, unfortunately, sadly, but it is.”
During Monday’s launch event, the documentary’s preview displayed a narrative that stayed true to Dr. Gates’ intent. It opened with imagery of Dylan Roof that introduced the idea that there is a context behind what’s happening today that can be elaborated upon through a thought-provoking discussion of America’s post-slavery past. Perhaps most importantly, the preview made clear that the documentary’s goal is to provide a supplement to the black history education provided to American students that has skipped the crucial details behind Reconstruction, to the detriment of the country’s citizens. Without teaching these critical moments of our nation’s past, as the documentary points out, it’s hard not to wonder why, if Lincoln freed the slaves, was a Civil Rights movement necessary? Or how could America fight our costliest war, yet see Jim Crow established not too long after its conclusion?
Similar to the “rollback” the country has witnessed in the past few years with the alt-right, the documentary aims to describe how the rollback of Reconstruction lasted longer than Reconstruction itself, and continues to this day. Dr. Gates wisely quoted W.E.B. Dubois saying, “the slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” Reconstruction: America After the Civil War promises to demonstrate how and why the seldom understood story behind that sentiment matters.
Reconstruction: America After the Civil War airs on PBS Tuesday, April 9 & 16, 2019 at 9pm ET.
Photo Credit: PBS, Ark Media