90 Days in 90 Movies: Slavery by Another Name (2012)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Slavery by Another Name
Release Date: February 13, 2012
Director: Sam Pollard
Production Company: TPT National Productions

This documentary explores a dark period in American history from the collapse of Reconstruction in 1874 until World War II when the southern states contrived ways for force labor from Black Americans.  I suspect many Americans know of the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and even the exploitative nature of sharecropping.  But most of us probably assume that actual enslavement ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

And yet the 13th Amendment contained the seeds of what happened next by allowing slave labor by prisoners.  Governments in the southern states began giving harsh penalties to Black people for minor crimes (as well as convictions of people falsely accused of crimes) and then profiting by renting out the prisoners to coal mines, factories, and farms.  Later the state used the convict labor directly on chain gangs for public works projects such as building roads.  It’s an irony that the South modernized and industrialized on such barbaric practices.

Another form of extracting labor in the South is through debt peonage.  Black people who owed a debt to white people were forced to work off those debts.  Again, sometimes these debts were wholly fictional and people were held in peonage long past when their debt should’ve been paid off.  In a shameful incident, the federal government under Theodore Roosevelt killed an investigation into peonage due to the need to retain political support of Southern white leaders.

Like many documentaries Slavery by Another Name features interviews with experts.  But they also focus on a few individual cases of Black people enslaved by convict leasing and peonage and feature dramatic readings of letters and court testimony.  Reenactments can be cheezy in documentaries but I think they’re well done and effective here.  They also interview descendants of the enslaved people and the white people who enslaved them.  All and all, a very informative historical documentary.

Rating: ****