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DVD Review: African American Lives 2

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Genealogy is a fascinating thing. The more you learn, the more you realize we are all interconnected in ways that most of us never would have imagined. In 2006, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and writer, served as co-producer and host for the PBS series African American Lives. The series used genealogical resources and DNA testing to trace the lineage of notable African Americans.

The first series focused on the following prominent African Americans: Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Ben Carson, Oprah Winfrey, Mae Jemison, Chris Tucker, T. D. Jakes, and Gates himself. The prominent individuals in the second series are no less impressive: Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Tom Joyner, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Peter Gomes, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Maya Angelou, Bliss Broyard, Linda Johnson Rice, and Kathleen Henderson, a college administrator who was selected from more than 2,000 applicants of ordinary people to have her family history researched and DNA tested along with the well-known guests. Gates also continues the genealogical research into his own family history.

Henry_Louis_Gates.jpgAfrican American Lives 2 is divided into four parts. The series begins with a segment titled, "The Road Home." Since the segment focuses on the twentieth century, much of the information gathering comes from the oral histories of family members. Gates spends most of this portion of the documentary asking the participants if their family history was a topic of discussion in their households; for some history plays a big role in their daily lives, for others, not at all. The second segment, "A Way Out of No Way," takes Gates and the others further back to the nineteenth century and the Civil War. The third segment, "We Come from People," takes them even further back to the time of slavery. In the final segment, "The Past is Another Country," Gates uses advanced scientific technology to take the trip back to Africa.

While Dr. Gates comes across as a bit dry and scholarly in his interview technique, his style doesn't detract from the historical importance of the information presented. Gates' impeccable academic credentials add caché to the special, and his use of well known celebrities as his research subjects only adds to the interest in the series. "Our country deals with slavery as a fad like bell-bottoms or disco," says Rock, who discovers that his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War and was later elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. "It's not that far away," says Cheadle, whose ancestors were slaves of the Chickasaw Nation. "It's three generations away."

African American Lives 2 also sheds some light on the amount of white and Native American ancestry each individual has. Music legend Tina Turner discovers she is less than 1% Native American, as is Don Cheadle.

African American Lives 2 is a well constructed educational series. It is only from knowing where we came from that we know where we are going, and PBS has helped to create a wonderful series to help us in the journey.

The DVD is presented in widescreen format. The audio is English 5.1 surround sound. There are no special features and the running time is approximately 240 minutes.

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