In this post, I want to discuss, and link to, the various reviews of Traces of the Trade which have come out during the Sundance Film Festival. I intend to cover the good, the bad, and the ugly, and to offer a thought or two in response to the reviewers.

The positive reviews of the film have been glowing: “Powerful is an inadequate word … an intense and searing call for national dialogue“; “as emotional as it is provocative“; “a great story.” (There is also a video review available online.)

I’m particularly pleased about the reviews which emphasize the value of the family’s disagreements in the film over such issues as personal guilt, apologies for historical events, whether to work with whites only or with those of with all races, and how best to address the enduring legacy of slavery today with reconciliation, repair, or even reparations. Issues like these were highly controversial among the family as we were filmed, and despite the difficulty of covering these discussions in a ninety-minute film, as one reviewer put it, “such debates make up the most compelling sequences in Traces.”

Several of the reviewers also highlight the social importance of the documentary, which is particularly important to those of us on this project. For instance, I think that the Philadelphia Inquirer was correct in saying that, “Katrina Browne may be the rare director at the Sundance Film Festival more fired up by the prospect of social justice than a distribution deal.”

Similarly, I think the Hollywood Reporter accurately captured the social mission of the film:

The film’s key point is that the nation can no longer afford collective silence and willed amnesia about slavery. It must confront these issues if race relations are ever going to progress in the U.S. Traces of the Trade is a place to start.

However, a number of the early reviews of the film, especially on film web sites, have been quite negative. The dominant pattern of these reviews is clear, as they inevitably raise the same concerns: “a cathartic exercise in white guilt“; “the liberal guilt is as thick as the mosquitos“; “unbearably self-indulgent white-liberal guilt“; “a very sincere … expression of … white guilt“; “breast-beating white liberal guilt“; a film “in which a kind of neurotic guilt gets confused with acknowledgment of responsibility.” One of the most sincere reviewers of this sort suggests that while the film “raises some thought-provoking and controversial questions about reparation and white guilt,” it nevertheless “is a prime example of someone making a film with her heart in the right place, but with very little actual purpose.”

What are we to make of these comments? Are these reviewers right, and the others wrong when they term the film powerful and importance? Or is it possible that certain aspects of the film speak to some Americans, while striking others as nothing more than “white guilt”? If so, does the film have anything at all to offer the latter group?

I think one such reviewer put it quite well: “This film … will resonate with some, but I have no frame of reference for the guilt they carry.” For reviewers who sympathize with the social issues in the film, but not the personal feelings or the need for an emotional catharsis, “Browne’s earnest sermonizing suffocates what could have been a lively debate about racism and modern white society’s culpability for the sins of the past.”

I think these critics are sincere, and they raise an important issue with the documentary. I felt from the beginning that there was a striking focus during filming on searching for personal feelings of guilt or shame, and that we were all assumed to feel isolated from blacks and to be interested in talking exclusively with other whites as we proceeded to work on issues of race. In fact, two of the earliest reviews single out my comment in the film to this effect, when I mention my concerns that whites should not talk only to other whites and that the project must not become a “self-indulgent” exercise in “assuaging guilt.”

I stand by my remarks about self-indulgence, but I have come to understand that for many Americans, including many of the family members portrayed in the film, it is not self-indulgent to seek to focus on talking with other whites and on working through personal feelings about race. I have learned during the course of this project that there are many Americans whose backgrounds have left them with a more divided and isolated sense of racial identity than I have developed during my life, and whose experiences of race and class have caused them to develop deep feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame when dealing with those of other races.

It seems to me that addressing these feelings is important for anyone who shares them. As my cousin Katrina says in her narration after my comment about self-indulgence and assuaging guilt:

For me, talking like this with each other was a way to assuage guilt, it’s true—but in a good way. It was a first step, like getting therapy. So then I’d actually be ready to tackle real issues in the world.

On the other hand, for me, and I suspect for others in this society, it would, indeed, be self-indulgent to try to manufacture any sense of guilt over race, or to dwell excessively on our own thoughts and feelings as white members of society. So, to this degree, I can relate to what many of these reviewers are complaining about.

However, for those who have no frame of reference for the strong feelings of guilt and isolation discussed in the film, I strongly believe that Traces of the Trade still offers important messages about the historical legacy of slavey and its ongoing impact in our society, and how we might begin to acknowledge and address that legacy today. The film’s central debates, about how to acknowledge the past, accept responsibility for injustice in one’s own society, and begin to set right an historic wrong, are relevant to all Americans, regardless of their own personal attitudes and feelings towards race.

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