April 21, 2009

Quality of After the Mayflower

A week late, here's part one of my review of After the Mayflower, the first episode of the PBS series We Shall Remain. In this part I'll concentrate on the storytelling issues--i.e., the quality.

  • The first thing to note is that After the Mayflower was written by two non-Natives (I think). In fact, the only clearcut Natives I saw in creative positions were director Chris Eyre and casting director Rene Haynes. Obviously they used Native actors, advisors, and narrators, but how about putting more Natives to work behind the cameras?

  • The episode opens with essentially the material in the trailer. It closes with a five-minute "behind the scenes" featurette and 10 minutes of commercials and promos. So it's really an hour and 15 minutes, not an hour and a half.

  • The first scenes recount the classic Thanksgiving story. Although the camera focuses on a handful of Wampanoag Indians, the account seems to come from a non-Native point of view. As we've been told a thousand times, the Pilgrims have invited the Indians to share a thanksgiving feast with them.

  • No one knows for sure what really happened, but I think the reality was different. The local Indians traditionally held a harvest feast every fall. For the Pilgrims' sake, they brought and prepared most of the food. They outnumbered the Pilgrims by something like 2-1. So it might be more correct to say the Indians decided to share their feast with the Pilgrims, not the other way around.

    The rest of the episode doesn't have this questionable point-of-view. To me it seems to come from a Native POV.

  • Everything looks and feels authentic in After the Mayflower. The Indians at the feast are shown laughing and gambling, which is a welcome change from their usual stoicism. This signals that we are indeed going to get a more humane, three-dimensional portrait of Indians.

  • Recreations and pacing

  • The episode uses recreations most of the time, with only a few talking heads and displays such as maps. But Benjamin Bratt and the historian advisors, not the actors, do most of the talking. I'd say this works well.

  • Some critics--and co-director Ric Burns--have complained about the recreations. Too much like the playacting in historical pageants, they said. But I disagree. The recreations are fine--with the following caveat.

  • The pacing of the episode, particularly in the first third, is slow. Bratt speaks in a solemn, dignified voice. He could've sped up his speech by 10-20% and made the narration more lively.

  • He and the other narrators sometimes reiterate a point already made--again, particularly in the first third. All in all, I think the creative team could've trimmed this episode by 10 or 15 minutes without hurting it. Making it an hour rather than 1.25 hours would've been better.

  • Another change I might've suggested was not starting with the thanksgiving feast. Tell the tale in chronological order and build up to the moment everyone's familiar with. That would've created a little tension that I think is missing in the first third. People would've been watching and waiting for the big moment.

  • The Thanksgiving section ends with a shot of a soaring seabird. I guess they couldn't find a hawk or an eagle on short notice. I wondered if they'd hit us with more clichés, but thankfully they didn't.

  • After the feast

  • After the first Thanksgiving, the episode continues with the events of the next 50 years. It keeps its focus firmly on Massasoit and his son Metacom (Philip). This approach works exceedingly well. We get personally involved with father and son, and want to see how their story unfolds, even though we know how it ends.

  • A friend of mine complained that the Pequot Massacre got short shrift--only a couple of sentences--but that's okay with me. Massasoit wasn't there, so he didn't experience the horror personally.

    I think the creators made a good choice here. An abstract recitation of facts might have grown boring, but the personal approach makes us care. And for those inclined to be put off by "guilt trips," we don't see a lot of dead or dying Indians.

  • The cinematography isn't as lush as it was in Terrence Malick's The New World--but then, how could it be? The production values are good for a documentary of this type. No complaints in that department.

  • Massasoit is played by Marcos Akiaten (Chiricauha Apache) and Philip by Annowon Weeden (Mashpee Wampanoag). I'm not surprised to learn Akiaten is Apache. With his headband, he kind of looks like one. But he does a great job and is the standout in the cast.

  • I noticed Zarn McClarnon and Tonantzin Carmelo in the show. I didn't notice Alex Rice, another moderately well-known Native actress. So they didn't just use unknown Indians from local tribes. I've seen McClarnon enough times that his appearance was a bit jarring to me, but few viewers would react that way.

  • Conclusion

    At the end, I wasn't moved or anything--because I'm not that kind of guy. But After the Mayflower made the events of that period real for me. I had read about them in history books, of course, but I can't say they sunk in. Now I don't think I'll forget what happened after the Mayflower.

    The episode also provoked a lot of thoughts and questions. To me that's a sign of good filmmaking. I'll discuss some of these points in the next part of my review.

    Overall, After the Mayflower is a fine piece of work that's well worth watching. Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

    Below:  A sympathetic Englishman tells "King Phillip" he can't win a war with the British. (Actually, yes, he could've, but we'll get to that.)


    Anonymous said...

    Good review!
    I agree with most of your analysis.
    Say, was Alex Rice in Dance Me Outside too? Just curious.

    So I put up my raw thoughts while I was watching that episode for the first time.


    Laura said...

    Thanks so much for your review! I just wanted to let you know that Ric Burns co-directed the second episode, Tecumseh's Vision, but not After the Mayflower. Hope you enjoy the rest of We Shall Remain!

    Mary Lee Johns said...

    One thing I had a problem with was the fact that there, of course, was no woman's point of view. It's always about the men (like there was an entire continent of men). Yes, the program is about the history of the period – mostly the white history. If you don't include the women and children how can it truly be a balanced perspective. And I'm not talking about Pocahontas. I just think the story line could have included something about the women and not just them working and children playing. They needed to have some speaking parts. The tribe must have had stories about that time period and what the women were doing.