Really, 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

From Spike Lee's Journey

What was something of a self-indulgent escapade in the UK version takes on far more resonance and dramatic and cultural relevance in the US version.

Who Do You Think You Are?

Distributor: Acorn
Cast: Lisa Kudrow (exec producer), Sarah Jessica Parker, Susan Sarandon, Emmit Smith, Spike Lee, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields
Length: 293 mins
Extras: n/a
Network: NBC
Release date: 2011-04-18

Isn’t it enough just being Brooke Shields, already? Now it turns out that she is related to French royalty. And Roman aristocracy. And entrepreneurial textile merchants from France. The actress/model tears up as she contemplates family and identity in a palace in Rome, and in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Granted, she also has roots amongst more humble immigrant families who settled in New Jersey -- but still! She smugly considers her affinity with the French language and people: ‘Something in me must have been drawn to the language, which is why I studied French literature in college.’ Ah, that explains it, then!

Time and time again the boxes are checked in this NBC series, based on the original BBC format. First, there is Lisa Kudrow (also one of the executive producers) and the stories of bravery and horror from the Holocaust in Europe. Then, Sarah Jessica Parker finds out that one of her forebears was an accused woman at the Salem witch trials. There follows The Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, the First and Second World Wars, all impacting on the families of Matthew Broderick, Spike Lee, Emmit Smith, and Susan Sarandon. The cynic in me wanted to be unimpressed about the privileged showbiz and sporting select few finding their antecedents had all been involved in some of history’s greatest events and that they were sired by remarkable people of significance.

However, after the first few revelations in each of the episodes, and the meetings with the families of the subjects, my flinty heart was touched. It turns out that celebrities are real people too! There were genuinely moving meetings and evidence of bravery and perseverance that displayed the fact that courage comes in all forms and can happen to families when they are not expecting such adversity and have no choice but to face up to it.

Also, it's a revealing series about social deprivation, oppression and, again, facing up to the problems that society throws at us – and in the case of many of these families – prevailing against them. Susan Sarandon’s grandmother, a poorly educated and motherless Italian immigrant, was pregnant at 13 and married off, after which she ran away to become a ‘showgirl’ (in New York parlance) and always claimed she gave Sinatra his big break. What strikes one is that if such hardships afflicted a family nowadays then all sympathy would have to be shown, and that the ruin and upset that this sort of happening wreaks on people’s lives was something that had to be met with resilience in previous generations rather than the expectation of understanding and support. Perhaps there is a greater sense of entitlement, now. That is no bad thing, necessarily.

By comparing generations it's not to say that one or other period in time had it right. There's no way that the enforced abuse and oppression endured by families in the 19th, and early to mid-20th centuries should be tolerated. It means, simply, that we have much to learn. There is no more moving citation than Spike Lee’s tribute to his mother and grandmother, and great-grandparents, all of whom survived the period of slavery and followed that up with the determination to make a life for their offspring – mostly via education. It's very moving to hear about Lee’s grandmother who sacrificed so much to ensure the future of her family. He stands on the smallholding that his great-grandfather owned, and rubs the red earth between his fingers, referencing so much that we know of our romanticised and idealised view of the past.

This is where this series works as something of an antidote to that idealisation. Ultimately, these are genuine experiences that are being described, and however ancient and cracked the parchment might be the names that are inscribed there account for real events and real suffering.

I think that's why this programme has more pertinence for an American audience than for a British one. The original version was broadcast on the BBC, with presenters, journalists, actors etc. inspecting census records and accounting for their families’ achievements during the Industrial Revolution or the World Wars. As a viewer of such a strand I could not help but feel some cynicism. Was this necessary? What did it prove?

There was the account of one chat show host, hugely popular for more than30 years on British television: Michael Parkinson. His personal and family history was deemed to be too uninteresting to be featured on the show. The researchers looked into his heritage and found only mundane experiences which did not make for riveting, dramatic viewing. That’s the trouble with the families of even the great and the good that stayed in the UK. They did not do anything! It’s all a bit predictable.

Whereas immigrant families and those forcibly removed from their home countries thanks to the slave trade have far more at stake when it comes to tracing their ancestry and finding stories from their past. The idea of identity and relevant history is crystallised in this programme. What was something of a self-indulgent escapade in the UK version takes on far more resonance and dramatic and cultural relevance in the US version.





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