The Nation That Slavery Built

'The Long Shadow' is a deeply felt history lesson in need of a Trump-era update.

The Long Shadow
Passion River

Last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates told an audience in Washington D.C., “If you are attempting to study American history, and you don’t understand the force of white supremacy, you fundamentally misunderstand America.” Filmmaker Frances Causey agrees wholeheartedly — that’s why she made The Long Shadow.

As a white woman, Causey wants to illuminate white people’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nation’s history, a history that profoundly illuminates our present. She knows the power of American mythmaking better than most; she was born in North Carolina into a family with deep Confederate roots and a community marred by segregation. Through this personal lens, Causey attempts to elucidate America’s racist history and understand the origins of her own white privilege.

The Long Shadow begins with a series of audio recordings of former slaves recounting the horrors of slavery. As we listen to the harrowing accounts of survivors, such as Fountain Hughes and Laura Smalley, it becomes clear that Causey knows this story — the story of America’s festering racial wound — is not hers to tell. This is the assumption upon which the rest of the documentary rests, and it’s the reason why it works.

That’s not to say Causey doesn’t insert herself into the story at all. She reminds us of her presence in occasional heavy-handed but sincere voiceovers. She introspects aloud, considering the insidious undertones of her upbringing and the rotten limbs of her family tree. Her narration can be clunky and obvious, and it yields little insight, but Causey’s self-reflexivity is refreshing, especially as she attempts to deconstruct Southern mythmaking from the inside.

Causey’s self-insertion can sometimes feel unnecessary, but its benefits are twofold. First, it provides a personal narrative (a B-plot, if you will) to a documentary that is otherwise a bleak history special. Second, it provides her white audience — and this movie is fully intended for a white audience — a point of entry for a history they likely don’t understand and may not want to understand. As Causey acknowledges her responsibility as a white woman to dismantle white supremacy, she attempts to bring white viewers with her.

Despite its personal interludes, The Long Shadow is first and foremost a history lesson, an effective one at that. It’s thorough, engaging, and richly illustrated. Causey spotlights some of the best historians and scholars alive, with esteemed talking heads, including Professors Leon Litwack, john a. powell, and Jody Allen. The team of experts she’s assembled is animated, passionate, and deeply insightful, lending impressive depth and wisdom to the film’s historical narration.

In that narration, Causey covers all the crucial milestones of America’s racial history: Plessy vs. Ferguson, black codes, Birth of a Nation, Jim Crow, etc. She curates a selection of profoundly affecting visuals, such as horrific depictions of racial violence, that are often left out of history textbooks. She also digs up obscure stories and details that flesh out a more alive and horrifying history.

More than anything, The Long Shadow is an excellent educational resource. It should be mandatory viewing in every AP US History classroom and on the syllabus for every introductory history course. The film is especially perfect for student viewers: it uses individual stories to personalize history, enlists engaging experts, and utilizes stirring visuals to animate the past. This doc is a teacher’s dream.

In its thesis that slavery is inextricable from America’s past and present, The Long Shadow bears significant resemblance to Ava Duverney‘s documentary13th. Both aptly present mass incarceration as an extension of slavery, tracing its evolution over the course of several centuries. The Long Shadow is not nearly as cinematic as 13th, nor is it as aesthetically sophisticated; it’s a utilitarian film, a no-frills history lesson.

What also differentiates The Long Shadow is just how deeply it dives into history. While 13th explores the past to contextualize the present (and specifically, mass incarceration), The Long Shadow is more squarely a historical documentary. During its tight 84-minute runtime, the film gives an incredibly detailed account of America’s racial history, from the 17th century to today, spending extra time on lesser-known stories and individuals.

When The Long Shadow does venture into the present, it does so with a broader scope. Causey traces slavery’s impacts on everything from police brutality to health outcomes to hate crimes. She devotes extensive time to the 2003 Lockheed Martin shooting, a racially motivated attack that was subsequently swept under the rug by the government-contracted manufacturer. Causey includes disturbing crime scene footage and heartrending interviews with a victim’s daughters, shedding an unprecedented light on the massacre. Twelve years later, she watches the news of the Charleston church shooting.

The Long Shadow is an Obama-era documentary, so it has a glaring, unintended blindspot. Ominously, Professor john a. powell asserts, “We’re still fighting the Civil War, and the South is winning.” Neither powell nor Causey can fully comprehend, at that point, how right he is.

When Causey made this film, there was no way she could have predicted the election of Donald Trump. But by excluding the 2016 election and the Trump administration, The Long Shadow already feels out of date. The film sensitively depicts Ferguson and Charleston, and it aptly considers the racist obstructionism that stained Obama’s presidency. But it cannot go any further.

The Long Shadow cannot capture the “whitelash” that got Trump elected. It cannot account for Colin Kaepernick and Trump’s strong denunciation of players who kneel during the anthem to protest police brutality. It cannot account for Charlottesville, for the Nazis and the murder and Trump’s limp condemnation of “violence on many sides.” And while it touches on the coded language of “taking America back,” The Long Shadow could never have imagined the potency of white Americans’ desire to “Make America Great Again.”

That’s not to say The Long Shadow isn’t still relevant or necessary. It is both, now more than ever. The history it illuminates is forever applicable, and it bears an even stronger link to our present now than it did when the film was made. As a comprehensive racial history of the nation up until 2015 made by and for white people, The Long Shadow does exactly what it sets out to do.

If you ignore the slightly tone-deaf credits, Causey effectively concludes the film with responsibility-placing “we” statements: “We have to recognize that we, as white people, have benefitted enormously from our privilege, at the expense of other people.” She addresses her white audience with admirable severity.

The Long Shadow is a documentary with a clear mission: to expose the “muck and the grime and the dirt and the blood,” as Professor Gerald Horne says, that are inherent to American history. Through the insights of experts, Causey does just that — dismantles the Confederate myth, assesses the realities of slavery, and locates white supremacy at the heart of American history and identity.

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote that white people are “trapped in a history in which they do not understand.” The Long Shadow unflinchingly introduces this history to its white audience, a history they have likely been privileged enough to never learn. What it lacks in style or elegance, The Long Shadow makes up for in its incisive approach and robust substance. Causey’s film certainly makes for essential viewing in American History classrooms everywhere.