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Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (documentary)

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YouTube’s popularity notwithstanding, it is not true that just because you have filmed something means that other people will want to see it. The documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” is a prime example of someone making a film with her heart in the right place, but with very little actual purpose. It might as well be a home movie that you show only to relatives.

The filmmaker, Katrina Browne, is descended from the De Wolf family, which at one time was the most prolific slave-trading family in America. The town of Bristol, R.I., today worships one of the early De Wolfs as a demigod, the locals conveniently disregarding the fact that their town was the hub of the slave trade in the North, and that all of De Wolf’s fortune came from the suffering and degradation of enslaved Africans.

As Browne became aware of her ancestors’ misdeeds, she did what any privileged white Yankee Protestant would do: She felt guilty and wanted to, in her words, “repair the enormous harm that our ancestors had caused.” She invited 200 De Wolf family members to join her on a trip retracing their forefathers’ steps, including visits to Ghana (where slaves were acquired) and Cuba (where they worked on sugar plantations). Only nine agreed. Some others ignored her outright; some wrote back to express concern about what she was doing, a point of view that Browne dismisses.

The film is a document of their journey, both psychological and geographical, and while it raises some thought-provoking and controversial questions about reparation and white guilt, it also makes Browne and her fellow travelers look like oblivious blowhards. The subtext that screams throughout the film is this: “Excuse me, black people? Can we drag up a painful and bitter subject as a means of making us feel better about ourselves? Thanks.” Browne and her nine relatives try to join in on a spiritual healing ceremony in Ghana, only to be rebuffed by locals who find their attempts condescending and invasive. Tension like that follows them everywhere — and yet they persist in their quest.

Late in the film one of Browne’s cousins says he wonders if what they’re doing is self-indulgent. Gee, ya think? The fact that Browne left that scene in the film suggests she has her doubts, too, but acknowledging your project’s self-indulgence doesn’t excuse it.

From an artistic standpoint, the movie suffers from Browne’s voice-over narration, which is flat and bland. Even declarations that ought to be packed with emotion sound completely hollow. I don’t know if she was considering it, but I do not see a career in voice work in Browne’s future.

Like I said, Browne’s efforts seem sincere. I gather that she and her relatives legitimately want to do what they can to reverse institutional racism, and more power to ’em for that. But as a film, “Traces of the Trade” has nothing to offer anyone other than the De Wolfs themselves.

C (1 hr., 26 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for a little mild profanity.)

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