Rough Crossings

[15 February 2009]

By Sarah Hentges

Rough Crossings airs on PBS 16 February 2009

Rough Crossings tells the fascinating story of slaves who chose to fight with Britain during the American Revolutionary War and in turn were granted “freedom” through the precarious new beginnings in “the provence of freedom”, or what became known as “Freetown” on the coast of Sierra Leone. Slotted to air on PBS on 16 February as part of Black History Month, this film reveals a “moment” of history that historian Simon Schama argues, “we owe our ancestors”. And we do.

Unfortunately, like many other stories that we (white Americans and Europeans) choose to tell about African Americans, this is a story that centers not only on the white man, John Clarkson (Stephen Campbell Moore), charged with establishing a “Freetown” for these ex-slaves, but also on the storyteller himself, Simon Schama who claims that “I found [this] story, or rather it found me”. Schama begins the telling with an image framed by the passing black faces of modern-day New York and ends it on a lone (white) figure on a beach in modern-day Sierra Leone.

A true story, based upon his award-winning book by the same name, the program description for Rough Crossings is a bit misleading, giving the impression that this DVD is about “the slaves who fought for Britain in the Revolutionary War” when it is, in fact, about the aftermath of this bargain. It is about the slaves who fought for Britain, but it is not about their fighting during the war. Rather, it’s about their “rough crossing” back to Africa and their attempts to build a self-ruled, self-sufficient society through the broken promises of “freedom”.

In these ways, Rough Crossings reveals the hypocrisy, sloth, greed, and racism of the “colonial parasites” of Britain, though these revelations are only part of how the story is presented. The thoughts and actions of the “painfully conscious” Clarkson and the leadership and idealism of two ex-slaves also underscore the tale. But despite this typical framing and misleading description, Rough Crossings is an important and compelling film about African, American, and British history that is, as Schama states, “all we can ever ask of history” since “history isn’t Hollywood” and we cannot always have our happy endings.

With its own “rough” beginning, the re-enactment scenes featuring Thomas Peters (Leo Wringer), a key player in the drama, are juxtaposed by the Fourth of July firework spectacles and bright lights and black faces of New York City in 2006 and the time between the African American slaves’ ‘service’ to Britain and their removal to the first promised ‘freedom’ in Nova Scotia is choppy and a bit confusing. But once the real story begins, in England in 1791, and with the establishment of the key players in Nova Scotia and England, it is difficult not to be engrossed by this engaging film.

The voyage back across the ocean to Africa from Nova Scotia is indeed a “rough crossing”, as the crews encounter storms and fevers that claim the lives of 65 passengers and almost kills Clarkson, the idealistic and conflicted leader of this voyage and experiment in justice. The “back to Africa” dreams of Marcus Garvey, revived in the US in the ‘60s are preceded, by what was supposed to be “liberty and security” for the African American soldiers of the American Revolutionary War and their families.

Tragically, but not surprisingly, since we know the history of Britain’s colonies and the contemporary turmoil of Sierra Leone, “Freetown” is not the self-governed utopia promised to Peters, preacher David George (Joseph Marcell), or the other former slaves/soldiers and their families. Instead, it is simply another “infant colony” which becomes “a town of slavery” after Clarkson returns to England only 18 months later. While we learn little of what became of the people abandoned in this experiment, besides the letters they send to Clarkson reporting the resurrection of slavery in “Freetown”, we learn that Clarkson was terminated from duty and while he “could never be the same John again” and he “changed his life and history”, he could not change the trajectory of imperialism and colonialism.

Despite the lack of historical happy endings, Schama reminds us of the value of this story including the fact that the free elections that Clarkson established, based upon the ideals of Peters after his death, were the first such elections and the opportunity for “… women to cast a vote for anything, anywhere in the world”. He also reminds us that the “ideas of Freetown endured” when, after the abolition of slavery, thousands of former slaves flocked to Sierra Leone with similar dreams in mind.

Thus, Schama presents this story as a “precious moment” and a “modestly good beginning” in a way that is both honest and infuriating. He asks us to take this moment “into our shared, uncertain future” but it is somewhat unclear what we are to take from this “moment”. While this story is compelling and overall well told, it would do well in DVD form to include some extras that would help give context beyond Schama’s brief lack of description of the contemporary turmoil in Sierra Leone that is, no doubt, linked to the history he presents.

With such context, the viewer might be left with little more than a distaste for English and American hypocrisy. Is this the only lesson we are to take into our “shared, uncertain future”?

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/69739-rough-crossings/