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'The Abolitionists: American Experience' review

THE SHOW "The Abolitionists: American Experience"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13. Also Jan. 15 and 22

WHAT IT'S ABOUT They remain the patron saints of a movement that would lead to the abolition of slavery -- John Brown, Angelina Emily Grimké, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe -- and over the course of this three-part "American Experience" series, are brought back to life (so to speak) via dramatizations starring stage and TV actors. In part one, the five key characters are introduced; Part 2 is about Douglass' escape from slavery and the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; Part 3, the raid on Harpers Ferry and the Civil War.

MY SAY Conjoining dramatizations with standard documentary techniques is like putting wings on a pig: It's a marvel of nature if the thing takes flight, but don't be too surprised when it doesn't. Here, it does not. These dramatizations don't add all that much to the story -- Brown shaving, Garrison setting type -- though when they do (Douglass witnessing the whipping of a slave), you are left to wonder how much they're bowdlerized. Can anyone alive today really know this is exactly what was seen, felt and experienced in the tumult of the 19th century? No, though in the context of a fact-based documentary, you're essentially told you should. The now-common technique is sometimes used to make history palatable to the short-attention-span masses. But dramatizations also can clutter the story and rob it of real depth and power -- and this happens to be one of the most powerful stories in American history.

BOTTOM LINE A competent overview of abolitionist history, though the dramatizations tend to get in the way.


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