Every year AMERICAN EXPERIENCE works to bring our viewers a line up of films that reflect a wide swath of American history, from little known stories that inform contemporary America to biographies on American icons and fresh perspectives on familiar events. This year is no exception. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s 2011 line up examines events from across two centuries of American history, exploring pivotal moments in science, engineering, Civil Rights, labor movement, and America’s first foray into international disaster relief. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s in the works for 2011:
January 3rd at 9pm
1 x 90 minutes
Producer: Mark Zwonitzer
He is celebrated by handsome equestrian statues in countless cities and towns across the American South, and by no less than five postage stamps issued by the government he fought against during the four bloodiest years in American history. Nearly a century and a half after his death, Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general of the American Civil War, remains a source of fascination and, for some, veneration. This film examines the life and reputation of the general, whose military successes made him the scourge of the Union and the hero of the Confederacy, and who was elevated to almost god-like status by his admirers after his death.
January 17th at 9pm
1 x 60 minutes
Produced by Mark Davis and Anna Saraceno
In the summer of 1868, paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh boarded a Union Pacific train for a sight-seeing excursion through the heart of the newly-opened American West. While most passengers simply saw magnificent landscapes, Marsh soon realized he was traveling through the greatest dinosaur burial ground of all time. Ruthless, jealous and insanely competitive Marsh would wrestle over the discovery with the other leading paleontologist of his generation—Edward Drinker Cope. Over time, the two rivals would uncover the remains of dozens of prehistoric animals, including 130 species of dinosaur, collect thousands of specimens, provide ample evidence to prove Charles Darwin’s hotly disputed theory of evolution and put American science on the world stage. But their professional rivalry eventually spiraled out of control. What began with denigrating comments in scientific publications, led to espionage, the destruction of fossils and political maneuvering that ultimately left both men alone and almost penniless.
January 24th at 9pm
1 x 90 minutes
Produced by Amanda Pollak
Directed by Stephen Ives
On August 15th, 1914, the Panama Canal opened connecting the world’s two largest oceans and signaling America’s emergence as a global superpower. American ingenuity and innovation had succeeded where, just a few years earlier, the French had failed disastrously. But the U.S. paid a price for victory: more than a decade of ceaseless, grinding toil, an outlay of more than 350 million dollars—the largest single federal expenditure in history to that time – and the loss of more than 5,000 lives. Along the way, Central America witnessed the brazen overthrow of a sovereign government, a revolutionary public health campaign, the backbreaking removal of hundreds of millions of tons of earth, and construction on an unprecedented scale. The story of the canal features a delightful cast of colorful characters ranging from an indomitable President to visionary engineers to tens of thousands of workers from around the world, rigidly segregated by race. Using an extraordinary archive of photographs and footage, some remarkable interviews with canal workers and first hand accounts of life in the Canal zone, director Stephen Ives and producer Amanda Pollak (New Orleans, Roads to Memphis) unravel the remarkable story of one of the world’s most significant technological achievements.
The Greely Expedition
January 31st at 9pm
1 x 60 minutes
Producer: Rob Rapley
In 1881, twenty-five men led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely sailed from the harbor of St. John's, Newfoundland. Their destination was Lady Franklin Bay in the high Arctic, where they planned to collect a wealth of scientific data from a vast area of the world’s surface that had been described by a British admiral as a “sheer blank.” Three years later, only six survivors returned, with a daunting story of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny and cannibalism. The Greely Expedition, from producer Rob Rapley (Wyatt Earp), tells a harrowing tale of one of the great scientific adventures of all time. Drawing on an impressive documentary record that includes scientific accounts, diaries, photographs and letters, the film reveals the nearly unbearable pressures experienced by the members of the expedition, and shows how poor planning, personality clashes, questionable decisions and pure bad luck conspired to turn a noble scientific mission into a human tragedy.
February 28th at 9pm
1 x 60 minutes
Produced by Jamila Wignot
On March 25th, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. The blaze ripped through the congested loft; huge piles of trimmings fed the flames. Petrified workers desperately tried to make their way downstairs, but the factory owners kept the doors on the 9th floor locked and the woefully inadequate fire escape soon crumpled. Hundreds of horrified on-lookers arrived just in time to see young men and women, jumping from the windows. By the time the fire had burned itself out, 146 people were dead. Less than two years earlier, the workers of the factory had been leaders in an industry-wide strike to protest dismal wages and dangerous working conditions. Despite unlikely support from some of the wealthiest women in the city, including Anne Morgan, most of the workers returned to the their shops without having their demands met. It took the tragedy of the fire and the ensuing public outrage to force government action. The landmark legislation that followed gave New Yorkers the most comprehensive workplace safety laws in the country. From producer Jamila Wignot (Walt Whitman.)
The Great Famine
1 x 60 minutes
Produced by Austin Hoyt and Melissa Martin
When a devastating famine descended on Soviet Russia in 1921, it was the worst natural disaster in Europe since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Half a world away, Americans responded with a massive two-year relief campaign, championed by a new Secretary of Commerce, “the Great Humanitarian” Herbert Hoover. The nearly 300 American relief workers, “Hoover’s boys,” would be tested by a railroad system in disarray, a forbidding climate, and—as the first group of outsiders to break through Russia's isolation following the Bolshevik Revolution—a ruthless government suspicious of their motives. By the summer of 1922, American kitchens were feeding nearly eleven million Soviet citizens a day in 19,000 kitchens. The Great Famine from producer Austin Hoyt (George H.W. Bush) tells this riveting story of America’s engagement with a distant and desperate people—an operation hailed for its efficiency, grit and generosity—within the larger story of the Russian Revolution and the roots of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry that would dominate the second half of the twentieth century.
1 x 90 minutes
Produced by Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Veteran filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (Adolescent Addict, Jockey) explore the dramatic event that launched a worldwide rights movement. Told by those who took part, from drag queens and street hustlers to police detectives, journalists and a former mayor of New York, and featuring a rich trove of archival footage, Stonewall Uprising revisits a time when homosexual acts were illegal throughout America, and homosexuality itself was seen as a form of mental illness. Hunted and often entrapped by undercover police in their hometowns, gays from around the U.S. began fleeing to New York in search of a sanctuary. Hounded there still by an aggressive police force, they found refuge in a Mafia-run gay bar in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn. When police raided Stonewall on June 28, 1969, gay men and women did something they had not done before: they fought back. As the streets of New York erupted into violent protests and street demonstrations, the collective anger announced that the gay rights movement had arrived.
Soundtrack for a Revolution
1 x 90 minutes
Directed by Dan Sturman and Bill Guttentag
Soundtrack for a Revolution tells the story of the American civil rights movement through its powerful music—the freedom songs protesters sang on picket lines, in mass meetings, in paddy wagons, and in jail cells as they fought for justice and equality. The music enabled African Americans to sing words they could not say, and it was crucial in helping protesters as they faced down brutal aggression with dignity and non-violence. The infectious energy of the songs swept people up and empowered them to fight for their rights. Directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman (Nanking), and executive produced by Danny Glover, Soundtrack for a Revolution is a vibrant blend of heart-wrenching interviews, dramatic images, and thrilling contemporary performances by top artists, including John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, and The Roots—a film of significance, energy, and power.
1 x 120 minutes
Produced by Stanley Nelson and Laurens Grant
In 1961, segregation seemed to have an overwhelming grip on American society. Many states violently enforced the policy, while the federal government, under the Kennedy administration, remained indifferent, preoccupied with matters abroad. That is, until an integrated band of college students—many of whom were the first in their families to attend a university—decided, en masse, to risk everything and buy a ticket on a Greyhound bus bound for the Deep South. They called themselves the Freedom Riders, and they managed to bring the president and the entire American public face to face with the challenge of correcting civil-rights inequities that plagued the nation.
Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s inspirational documentary is the first feature-length film about this courageous band of civil-rights activists. Gaining impressive access to influential figures on both sides of the issue, Nelson chronicles a chapter of American history that stands as an astonishing testament to the accomplishment of youth and what can result from the incredible combination of personal conviction and the courage to organize against all odds. (Shari Frilot/Sundance Film Festival)
Sean Cleary is a blogger for Inside AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and a member of the Communications team, where he also assembles AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s weekly newsletter.
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