01/09/2013 02:13 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Will PBS Do What Django Couldn't?

I'm curious if PBS can do what Django couldn't, as in, get Spike Lee to watch The Abolitionists, a new docudrama premiering January 15th on PBS. 150 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war tactic, historians and filmmakers are eager to examine all facets of the American Civil War. Many of the criticisms of recent films centered around slavery have rightly noted the complete absence of the abolitionists. Mad props to PBS for giving abolitionists their long overdue shine.

Watch Why We Made The Abolitionists on PBS. See more from American Experience.

According to historian Daniel W. Stowell, also the director and editor of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln was nicknamed a "black Republican" and it was Lincoln's election, not any legislation he actually passed, that led to secession. The abolitionists were integral in keeping slavery in the public's mind as a human rights issue. It was their work that allowed Lincoln to be glorified as "the man who freed the slaves," when in reality, ordinary Americans broke society's silence. Many of them, moved by God to end slavery, acted solely out of Christian faith.

I've not yet seen the film, but from early reviews and the films own website, the problem with The Abolitionists is it suggests the only abolitionists working at the time were William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown... and that is simply not true. Documentaries of this ilk often invoke the "slave is never the agent of his own freedom" concept. As LA Times writer Mary McNamara observed, the intertwined emergence of feminism is overlooked, even though the stories of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Angelica Grimke are prominently featured. But, I'll not judge a film I've yet seen. Furthermore, it's likely to be another 150 years before America's greatest sin get's this much airtime and press.