From the Page to the Screen: Slavery by Another Name
Slavery by Another Name–premiering on WETA at 9pm on February 13 as part of its Black History Month programming–is a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of American’s most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon, the film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century, until 1945.
A truly multi-media project, Slavery by Another Name also includes a website, featuring streaming video, oral histories produced in partnership with the StoryCorps, user-generated narratives, educational materials, teacher training resources, and opportunities to learn, interact and engage around this topic.
Writer Sheila Curran Bernard shares her process for adapting Blackmon’s book, incorporating primary sources and modern technology:
[I felt] a responsibility to do right by this wonderful book, which I’d read a year or so before I was hired to do the adaptation. One of our first big questions was about structure. The book is elegantly structured, but not in a way that the producers and I thought would work in the screen time we had.
So part of the task was figuring out what the overall screen arc would be, and then collaborating on what would be needed to flesh that story out. But the book’s overall argument and the depth and scope of its research, obviously, gave me a tremendous head start. I re-read the book a number of times, and also read books and articles by a range of other scholars, including some of those in the film.
And I went to primary sources—government documents, period newspapers, that sort of thing. From there, it’s about streamlining content and deciding what’s absolutely essential to include in an 80-minute film, and continuing to revise the storytelling through a series of drafts, both on paper and on video. You play to the strengths of the medium and trust that the film is part of an overall project, which in this case includes not only a best-selling book but also a range of newly-created, web-based resources.
A behind-the-scenes look at this powerful production: