Tracing roots and routes

From Django Unchained and Lee Daniels' The Butler, to 12 Years A Slave and The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr at the Paris Theatre:
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr at the Paris Theatre: "It's a series about roots, but also about routes." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
At the Paris Theatre in New York City, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr, who worked as a consultant on Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, presented a premiere screening of The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross, his six-part, six-hour series chronicling African American history from the early 1500s to 2013. 12 Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt, and Brad Pitt has its UK premiere at the British Film Institute's London Film Festival tonight and screened at this year's New York Film Festival.

12 Years A Slave and The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross comes after Quentin Tarantino's 2012 Django Unchained and this year's Lee Daniels' The Butler.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. half-joked on the red carpet that his six-part series was the only film project timed precisely for 2013 to coincide with the arrival of the first African in America, five centuries ago in 1513.

12 Years A Slave is an unrelentingly brutal account, based on Solomon Northup's memoir published in 1853 as a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum United States. McQueen depicts the grimaces of enjoyment in the most cruel acts and juxtaposes the rosy skies and dangling gossamer trees of the American South with the struggles to survive in a world without justice.

Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles with Henry Louis Gates, Jr
Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles with Henry Louis Gates, Jr Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The evening's screening included snippets from various episodes from Gates' series and covered a wide area from Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 to non-segregated speakeasies, all the way up to the Obama presidency.

"Purveyors of cool" during the Harlem Renaissance, the disastrous impact of D.W. Griffith's Birth Of A Nation (1915), a large white mob burning down the Greenwood section of Tulsa, the Green Book motorist guide, sixties hairstyles, and 2005 Katrina rescues - the series touches on a lot of issues and can function as a gateway to further explore.

Gates said: "It's so counterintuitive. Every other history series on the African American people is starting in 1619 with the first 20 coming to Jamestown. We start a 106 years earlier. And we go from that free black man from Spain who ended his days in Mexico City in 1513 all the way to the re-election of President Barack Obama and the second inauguration.

The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross TAO afterparty
The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross TAO afterparty Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
"It's a series about roots, but also about routes, about the connections between black people and white people and how our histories are inextricably intertwined… We were very concerned to exemplify black agency, how black people made their own history. But we also wanted to create a tool that could be useful in our schools.

"Real conversations about race happen where real conversations about citizenship happen - in our schools. That's what we have to do with race - We have to put the story of the African-American people into the curriculum."

The invitation for the evening came from Dr Georgette Bennett & Dr. Leonard Polonsky, Harvey Weinstein, Arianna Huffington, Wynton Marsalis, Jessye Norman, Glenn & Debbie Hutchins, Howard & Abby Milstein with the afterparty at TAO.

The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross poster at TAO afterparty in New York
The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross poster at TAO afterparty in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will air for six consecutive Tuesdays, premiering October 22, through November 26 on the Public Broadcasting Service in the US. Episode One: The Black Atlantic (1500 – 1800); Episode Two: The Age of Slavery (1800 – 1860); Episode Three: Into the Fire (1861 – 1896); Episode Four: Making a Way Out of No Way (1897 – 1940); Episode Five: Rise! (1940 – 1968); Episode Six: A More Perfect Union (1968 – 2013).

12 Years A Slave is out on general release in the US now and will be released in UK cinemas on January 24, 2014.

Lee Daniels' The Butler will be released in the UK on November 15

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