As a member of the first integrated elementary school class in his hometown of Leland, Mississippi, forty-two years ago, Douglas Blackmon had a precocious understanding of the color line that divided the South. The experience piqued a lifelong interest in the complexities of race that Blackmon has revisited often as senior national correspondent at the Wall Street Journal and as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the 2008 book "Slavery by Another Name." The book details the horrifying, hidden history of the convict leasing of African Americans through peonage and unjust imprisonment well after the end of the Civil War.
On February 13 at 9 p.m., PBS will air a documentary spawned from Blackmon’s book. Narrated by Laurence Fishburne and directed by Academy Award nominee Sam Pollard ("Eyes on the Prize," "When the Levees Broke"), the film was selected for last month's Sundance Film Festival. The documentary is a mix of interviews with historians, dramatic reenactments filmed in the Deep South, and emotional testimony from descendants of both reenslaved blacks and their captors. During the production, co–executive producer Blackmon witnessed a range of responses to the project, from the soul-searching of contemporary Southerners to the Centreville, Alabama, city attorney who threatened the crew with a lawsuit if they filmed in his city park. The film, Blackmon says, "is about the perversion of justice on a giant scale. And why whole generations of African Americans were prevented from making the economic progress that they naturally would have made in the South."
It must be satisfying to see your work reach a new audience in a new form. One of the most amazing things, after spending seven years working on the book and really having no idea whether anybody would ever even notice, is to then have the book become so meaningful for other people. There have been dance productions, an orchestral piece, a film script based on elements of the book, and I have written a feature film screenplay. There is an artist in Savannah named Robert Morris doing a series of paintings [inspired by the book] that he has turned into a very elaborate exhibition at the Telfair Museum (through March 4).
What was the response from the people who observed your film shoots? When I was working on the book, I expected there to be anxiety that I was doing this research or digging up dirty facts that would be embarrassing. But instead what I tended to find was that even white Southerners are so removed from this history that people were surprised to learn about it and found it powerful.
How did Sam Pollard convey your message in a new way? Sam understood particularly well in a way many people don’t that this is not a story about how the prison system in the South was too brutal and how convicts were mistreated. Sam understood that this was a film about the perversion of justice on a gigantic scale . . . And why whole generations of African Americans were prevented from making the economic progress that they naturally would have made in the South.
People who see the film realize it isn’t about a lot of old dead history. They can see through the narratives and lives of living people how the terrible things that happened shaped the world we are surrounded by today.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress