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'Reconstruction' review: Remarkable tour of a terrible part of our history

Abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who's featued

Abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass, who's featued in PBS' "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War."  Photo Credit: Library of Congress

DOCUMENTARY "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War"

WHEN|WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” — which began last week — ends Tuesday, with the first hour covering the period 1877-1896, and the rise of the so-called “New South,” built on the myth of a Lost Cause. This period sees the furious rollback of progress that had been made immediately after the Civil War, as well as rise in prominence of figures like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, who reported on the scourge of lynching, with thousands murdered — including a close friend of hers. It also charts the rollback of the so-called “civil rights cases” by the Supreme Court, most egregiously with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which encoded “separate but equal” as the law and helped to perpetuate Jim Crow for decades to follow.

The fourth hour effectively charts the “nadir” — the beginning of the 20th century which saw the rise of minstrelsy, and the subjugation of African Americans through the power of popular culture, notably the new technology of motion pictures. A nadir is truly reached when Woodrow Wilson — a new president whom civil rights activist and leader W.E.B. Du Bois initially hoped would become a force for progress — sponsors a White House screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s virulent — and hugely popular — racist screed.

 For viewers who missed the first two hours, all four hours are now posted at https://www.pbs.org/weta/reconstruction/.

 MY SAY Gates’ “Reconstruction” is one of those tragic, brutal chronicles that could and maybe should make us weep for ourselves — the reversals, crimes, perfidy, injustices of a long benighted history, the blatant effrontery to a nation’s self-identity.

Or maybe rage should follow disbelief preceded by shock. How could this have happened for so long, and so recently, with Jim Crow laws ending only in 1964 with the signing of the Civil Rights Act?

 All would seem reasonable reactions to this exhaustive, fascinating and profoundly troubling four-hour tour, except that Gates doesn’t “do” rage on TV and never has. What he does do so well, and does again so well here, is to let viewers gently in, then judge for themselves. Calm, measured, erudite, his style is perfectly suited for a history as fraught and difficult as this one. If Gates isn’t furious, then what right have we to be?

Instead, what Gates and his commentators really want us to do here is think, calmly and rationally about the recent past, but also the here-and-now, and the immediate future. As the famous line goes, what if the arc of the moral universe doesn’t bend toward justice but instead bends back in on itself, allowing the worst parts of history to repeat themselves? Reconstruction began with great promise then methodically, horrifically, went into reverse. Could reversals happen again?

Or — “Reconstruction” asks — could repeats be taking place right now?

These four hours began with images from Charlottesville, then the words that “on the evening of June 17, 2015, a stranger walked into a historic black church in Charleston known as Mother Emanuel …” It doesn’t take much imagination to draw a line from that to the more recent news that the son of a white local sheriff deputy in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, was arrested for torching three black churches. In this film, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, calls Reconstruction “an unfinished revolution.” It’s all too easy to see what she means.

 Gates began last week by saying that “we still find ourselves haunted by the collapse of Reconstruction” and ends Tuesday with this: “If we define Reconstruction as the process by which our country tried to come to terms with the abolition of slavery, you might say it never ended. We’re still grappling with what it means to be a truly multiracial society, with genuine equality for all.”

 With “Reconstruction” as proof — sober, wrenching, difficult proof — it’s all too easy to see what Gates means too.

BOTTOM LINE A remarkable tour of a terrible part of our history that makes the case — a compelling one — that this history isn’t entirely in the past at all.

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