Sundance: The historical truth of 'Slavery by Another Name'

Sundance • Shocking film set to air on PBS 20 days after film festival premiere.
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The writers, directors and producers behind the documentary "Slavery by Another Name" aren't going to be playing the Sundance game. They're not in Park City to sell their film, as it's already sold to PBS.

In a quick turnaround, the documentary airs nationally on Feb. 13, just weeks after its Sundance premiere. "I don't remember anything that close, and I've been to Sundance four times, both as an editor and as a judge," said director Sam Pollard.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon, "Slavery by Another Name" is nothing short of shocking. It chronicles how little changed in post-Emancipation South — "an astonishing failure on the part of an entire society," Blackmon said. "Mind-boggling, really."

After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, thousands of Americans were systematically re-enslaved to meet the South's demand for cheap labor, according to Catherine Allan, from Twin Cities Public Television, and "Slavery's" executive producer. "A loophole in the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in the case of punishment for a crime," she said. "And within that loophole, it became a crime in the South to be unemployed, to leave one job for another one, to sell cotton after sundown, to speak too loudly in the company of white women."

What's distinctive about "Slavery" is that it features descendants of the enslaved and of the enslavers, a decision that Pollard said he at first resisted. "Most documentaries that I've worked on, you don't have descendants who talk about their reactions to what they've heard and what they've read," he said. "But it was one of the best decisions we ever made."

Among those descendants is Susan Tuggle Burnore, whose great-grandfather murdered 11 slaves working on his farm. He was the only white man convicted of first-degree murder of an African American between 1866 and 1966.

Burnore said discovering that history was "devastating" for her family, but she and her brothers came to embrace the information simply because it was true. Some of her uncles and aunts expressed deep feelings of shame and denial, and were horrified that Burnore would be involved with the documentary.

On Feb. 13, the day the documentary first airs, "I probably won't hang out in my hometown that day," she said.

Blackmon said the descendants help bring the story alive. "They represent that connection in a very vital way," the author said. "They're the stars of the film."

"Slavery by Another Name" is Blackmon's first experience in filmmaking. And he's excited about taking the film to Sundance. "I've always wanted to go to Sundance and never had the reason," he said. "But this is an incredibly powerful story."

For Pollard and Allan, this is familiar territory. And while their film has already been sold, still they feel the pressure of attending Sundance. "We're in competition," Pollard said. "We would like to think that those judges would give us something." —

'Slavery by Another Name' screenings

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 9 a.m. • Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City*

Tuesday, Jan. 24 4 p.m. • Holiday Village Cinema 3, Park City*

Thursday, Jan. 26, 9 p.m. • Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City*

Friday, Jan. 27, 3:45 p.m. • Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City*

Saturday, Jan. 28, noon • Temple Theatre, Park City*

*waitlist only