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Where Religion Has Carried Black Americans

June 24, 2003

Where Religion Has Carried Black Americans

By MARGO JEFFERSON

The television documentary has become an epic form: tales of nations, civilizations and art forms. "This Far by Faith: African-American Spiritual Journeys" is a six-part series on PBS with two hourlong segments each night, tonight through Thursday. It covers three centuries of African-American religious experience: we see religion as political action, as social affirmation and as spiritual consolation.

Episode 1, "There Is a River," concentrates on how 19th-century slaves turned Christianity into a source of strength and rebellion. Many people know about Denmark Vesey, the free, literate carpenter in Charleston, S.C., who planned a violent uprising. Fewer know that he belonged to a vigorous community of black Methodists who built their own church, taught one another to read there and collected money to buy their freedom.

And the life of Sojourner Truth, the New York slave who grew up to preach abolition and women's rights, is remarkable. But its dramatization is definitely not. Re-enactments are so popular these days that filmmakers need to rethink them. I just don't buy the vision of Sojourner Truth as a young woman pantomiming grief and prayer in smokily-lighted woods, then leaving her master's farm as if she were walking in a church processional.

Documentaries do need dramatic movement, or stories get top-heavy with narrative and the static images of history: photographs, drawings, newspapers. Episode 2, "God Is a Negro," handles this challenge effectively.

It covers the Civil War, Reconstruction and those first grim years of sharecropping and lynching. The battle re-enactments aren't overdone. The prints, photographs and paintings blend with more abstract visuals that say just as much: buildings, statues, landscapes. And the story of Henry McNeal Turner, the African Methodist Episcopal minister, fascinates. He was the first black chaplain in the Union Army, the first black bishop to ordain a female minister, a fierce supporter of black emigration to Africa and one of the first blacks to propose that since white men believed God was made in their image, black men should claim him for themselves.

"Guide My Feet," the third episode, uses two men to chart the struggles and hard-won achievements of the great black migration from the South to the North. Thomas A. Dorsey was the father of modern gospel music and the man who wrote "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." He came north to Chicago from Atlanta in 1916. Fifty years later Cecil Williams left Texas for San Francisco, where he turned the Tenderloin District's failing church into a center of progressive interfaith activism.

We get snatched back and forth across this time gap, with irritatingly obvious transitions. We learn too little about both men. And why do so many documentaries about musicians show scant interest in the music? Why show film of Mahalia Jackson singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and interrupt it three times with voice-overs?

But the last three episodes are gripping. "Freedom Faith" is a close portrait of how of the civil rights movement made nonviolence its religious philosophy and political practice. The segment illustrates this particularly well with Bernard Lafayette's account of his beating by 12 cabdrivers in Georgia in the early 1960's. He got up again and again, wiped their foot marks off his face and looked them in the eye, trying to "transform" his feelings. Finally he simply walked through them, and they parted without a word. As he talks, we see photographs of his battered face and abstract glimpses of thick moving legs and torsos.

The words and faces of the civil rights veterans, many of them women, are measured and exact. They are as honest about their doubts as about their beliefs. We trust them completely. They show the movement's power as much as any of the superb archival film.

At a time when many people find it easy to demonize Islam, "Inheritors of the Faith" offers a welcome look at its place in African-American history. Nearly half a million slaves were brought to the United States from Africa, and an estimated 10 percent were Muslims. There is a long and very interesting interview with Warith Deen Muhammad, a son of Elijah Muhammad, who turned the Nation of Islam into the Muslim American Society after his father's death and guided it toward traditional Islamic practices. (It is Louis Farrakhan who champions the ideology of the original Nation of Islam.)

The series ends with a present-day journey into the past. In 1998 two Buddhist women (one black, one white) organized an interfaith pilgrimage from the United States to the Caribbean and West Africa. About 40 people began the journey in Massachusetts, walking to Florida, visiting slave sites and community organizations. Emotional and physical hardship reduced their numbers, but 20 made it to Senegal.

The series was produced by Blackside Inc. (which also produced the magnificent "Eyes on the Prize") and the Faith Project. Each episode had a different director, which explains the difference in quality. The off-camera narrator, Lorraine Toussaint, is calm and pleasingly full voiced. The on-camera commentators are many.

It has become common documentary practice to let one person be the main guide: in Ken Burns's "Civil War" it was Shelby Foote; here it is the black theologian James Cone. This is a useful organizing principle, but the range of the material can feel greater than the range of the narrator. The material here, including a lot of great music, is what makes "This Far by Faith" splendid viewing.

THIS FAR BY FAITH
African-American Spiritual Journeys

On most PBS stations tonight
(check local listings)
Narrated by Lorraine Toussaint; executive producers, Dante J. James for Blackside Inc. and June Cross for the Faith Project; produced by W. Noland Walker, June Cross, Lulie Haddad, Alice Markowitz, Valerie Linson and Leslie Farrell; series producer, Blackside Inc., Judi Hampton, president, and the Faith Project. Produced by Blackside Inc. and The Faith Project, in association with the Independent Television Service. Presented on PBS by WGBH, Bosto

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