President Abraham Lincoln’s Emacipation Proclamation in September 1862 marked an important step towards the abolition of slavery in the United States. It became one of the main targets during the American Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrialized and progressive North and the poor conservative South. In the northern states, the abolition of slavery did not officially take effect until January 1, 1863, but since the early 1800s, the phenomenon of slavery has been rejected by many people in the North for religious reasons. In the south this was experienced very differently; there the white population saw slaves as their personal property. In the 100 years following the abolition of slavery, the African American population continued to suffer the consequences of the inhumane treatment experienced by their parents and ancestors. A time of segregation dawned. Only with the black emancipation movement that started in the 1960s did they get the same rights as the white population of the US.
Many African Americans are still inspired by the tragic but also brave stories of slaves who stood up for themselves. One of them was Margaret Garner, whose history served as the basis for Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. Garner was a slave girl employed on a plantation in Boone County, Kentucky. At an early age she married Robert Garner, who was a slave on a nearby farm. Together they had a son, Thomas. But Margaret had three more children – Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla – who could not be Robert’s because he was often sent to work long-distance farms. Because the children also had very light skin, chances are that A.K. Gaines, her owner, was the father. On January 28, 1856, Margaret, Robert, and other slaves fled to Cincinatti, Ohio. The Garners could temporarily go to a family member, Kite, the others fled to Canada via the famous Undergroud Railroad. The Garners were also planning this, they sought help from abolitionist Levi Coffin through Kite. But even before Kite got back to them, the house was barricaded by slave catchers and police officers …
It was then that Margaret Garner performed a bizarre but brave act. She killed her two-year-old daughter Mary and wanted to do the same to the others. She would rather kill them than send them back to the inhuman slave life. Before she could get her hands on the other children and herself she was overpowered and taken prisoner. What followed was a grueling trial, asking the question not whether Margaret was guilty, but what crime she had committed. Was she on trial for murder or for destroying property (her child was seen by Southerners as the property of her owner)? In Ohio she was charged with murder, but the circumstances would be taken into account. However, the prosecutor believed that federal slave laws took precedence and should be tried in Kentucky. And so Margaret was forced to return to a slave state. There she was sent somewhere else by Gaines. He eventually put her on a boat to Arkansas, where she tried to drown herself. In the end, Garner, who was hunted on all sides, would die of typhus in 1858 as a slave of a Tennessee judge.
Morrison’s novel was cast in opera form by composer Richard Danielpour, the writer provided the libretto herself. The documentary “Margaret Garner” by the French film-maker Mustapha Hasnaoui follows the preparations for the premiere of this opera. Through interviews with the protagonists and other stakeholders, a link is made between Garner’s history and the race issues currently at play in the US. The documentary needs some time to get going. Only after half an hour, when Denyce Graves – who plays the role of Garner in the opera – visits the old farm of Gaines and passionately goes to war against a descendant of the former slave driver, does the print come to life. Not only does it show the opera singer’s passion, but it also shows how closely she feels to Garner. It is one of the few moments in which some fire is released, because otherwise this film is a bit flat.
Danielpour’s music is beautiful and most of the conversations provide the necessary insight into the extent to which African-Americans still have to fight for their recognition. But this documentary doesn’t really sparkle. And that’s a shame, because Margaret Garner’s history is certainly fascinating enough for it.