Negroes To Hire 2004-2009
Distributed by LifeDocumentaries, 4442 Fairmount, Kansas City, MO 64111; 816-931-3535
Produced by Gary Jenkins
Directed by Gary Jenkins
DVD, color, 88 min.
High School - General Adult
African American Studies, History
Date Entered: 07/19/2011Reviewed by Timothy W. Kneeland, History and Political Science Department, Nazareth College of Rochester, Rochester, NY
Negroes to Hire: Slave Life and Culture on Missouri Farms is a documentary that uses family history and memory, archaeology, academic insights, and archival material to weave together the history of slavery on Missouri farms from 1820 to the Civil War. The film is well conceived and has elements with great promise. For example, to provide a historical context for Missouri slavery the filmmaker uses voice actors who read excerpts from the WPA slave narratives pertaining to life in Missouri. These voiceovers are combined with a political map of Missouri that highlights the location of the enslaved person. At the end of each narrative excerpt one of a panel of four academic experts on Missouri slavery provides some relevant insight, with the contributions of Dr. Diane Mutti Burke particularly useful.
The film contains interesting sidebars. For example the story, told in scattered segments, of anthropologist and archaeologist Jimmy Johnson, who used family history and his own academic training to reconstruct the life of his enslaved ancestor, man named George Washington. Washington was brought to Missouri from Virginia as a boy, fled enslavement in 1862 and served in the First Kansas Colored Volunteer regiment. Johnson, although an academic, speaks in conversational style which is refreshing and interesting. The film includes the story of Celia, an African American woman who killed her master to stop his sexual predation. Her court appointed attorney argued that she should be acquitted because she committed the murder in self defense. Although her attorney argued the case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, Celia’s conviction was sustained and she was put to death.
The film, while brilliantly conceived and containing some interesting elements fails on the whole to deliver as much as it promises. The vignettes are very interesting but do not sustain the film to its conclusion. Viewers will wonder if slavery as revealed in the film was unique in Missouri or if it similar to other border states. Are the individuals discussed in the film representative of the institution of slavery in Missouri or merely convenient for the filmmakers? Although the stories of George Washington and Celia are interesting, what is their importance to understanding the overall African American experience and slavery in Missouri?
The film is also marred by poor editing. Film and video mix and some scenes are shot in poor lighting. One scene shows only a blank screen with background sounds meant to convey a message. Other scenes, especially those involving the academics, are prolonged and detract from the intended message. A larger budget, a more experienced documentarian, and a tighter editorial grip may have achieved a film that was worthy of purchase for a classroom or library but this film does not.