- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jeff Giles
t might be only one month out of the year – and the shortest one, to boot – but when Black History Month rolls around every February, we are, if nothing else, assured of a year’s worth of prime television viewing from PBS. The television network you’ve studiously avoided since you stopped watching “Sesame Street” packs its schedule to the brim with phenomenal documentaries every February. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “African American Lives” series is a perfect example.
Like the original, “African American Lives 2” traces the histories of a handful of prominent black Americans -- using everything from genealogical records to DNA testing -- to delve into long-forgotten (and often painful) family histories. In the process, the series teaches volumes about black American history – both by reminding us of things we’d rather forget and by revealing hidden complexities in our nation’s past. The discoveries made by Gates and his crew are often surprising, and their effects on his subjects are visibly profound; don’t be surprised if you find yourself moved to tears, too.
It’s tempting to view the darker chapters in African American history as the ancient past. Quite a few of us weren’t even alive during the public peak of the civil rights struggle in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and slavery was so long ago that a not-inconsiderable number of people wish that modern black activists like Tom Joyner would, in his words, “get over it.” But it wasn’t that long ago – none of it. As Don Cheadle points out here, we’re only three generations away from slavery, and despite our national wish to (as Chris Rock jokes during the series) treat “slavery as a fad – like bellbottoms or disco,” it’s a huge piece of who we are – black and white.
The complexities of African American history are driven home repeatedly here. Bliss Broyard, the daughter of legendary “New York Times”literary critic Anatole Broyard, didn’t even know her dad was black until after he died – the result of his teenage decision to “pass,” or deny his black heritage. Gates leads Morgan Freeman on a journey that takes him back to an ancestor he knew was white – but reveals that his relationship with the mother of his children may have been much more complicated – and loving – than he could have guessed. Even Gates gets in on the fun, learning that the man who owned his ancestors was the cousin of the man who owned one of his subject’s ancestors.
Ticking off a few of the series’ high points might make “African American Lives 2” sound like exactly the kind of dry television that most Americans imagine they’re avoiding when they skip over their local PBS station on the dial, but nothing could be further from the truth. Like the stories Gates uncovers here, “African American Lives 2” is vibrant, enthralling, and powerfully moving. You may have missed it the first time around, but these are four hours of the kind of television we all say we wish we could get more of. Let the next few episodes of “American Idol” happen without you and invest $20 in this wonderful DVD – you won’t be sorry.