We Shall Remain

Film
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars
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Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

King Philip, a.k.a. Metacom (Annawon Weeden, center), gets his diplomacy on in We Shall Remain.
Photo: Webb Chappelle/PBS

Pop quiz, hotshot: Who was Metacom? Okay, Tecumseh? Geronimo? Are you zero for three? PBS’s five-part “American Experience” series isn’t meant to shame your ignorance, nor is it out to fill massive gaps in the American historical record. Instead, it’s five weeks of stand-alone documentaries about moments in Native American history, starting from when the pilgrims set their buckled shoes on our shores and ending in the 1970s.

Using extensive re-enactments, We Shall Remain scores big by keeping its scope mostly personal, picking out captivating personalities and relationships to portray. There’s the savvy Wampanoag chief Massasoit, who founded both Thanksgiving and a complex native-colonist alliance that lasted long enough for PBS to break out some excellent aging makeup. In a later episode, there’s Tecumseh and his spiritual brother, Tenskwatawa, a politician-and-prophet power duo (think Billy Graham and Bill Clinton, only as siblings, not just buddies).

What’s crucial to the project is that it isn’t exactly the story of Native American victimization. Of course, there’s plenty of fodder to make that case—commenters don’t shy away from calling the Trail of Tears “ethnic cleansing”—but this series is more about some of history’s more nuanced interactions. There were not only epidemics and massacres, but also enough political intrigue to make Matt Drudge’s head spin. There were Supreme Court cases and spiritual movements, assimilation and misbegotten folk heroes. It’s gripping stuff, with an emphasis on setting an authentic scene, not spouting facts from the source material.

Those seeking pure entertainment may miss the narrative hand-holding of, say, Speilberg’s Into the West, but PBS’s cinematography is about as lush as anything you’ll see this side of Planet Earth. Importantly, We Shall Remain is short on condescension and romanticization. It’s a history lesson that goes down easy, and a worthy audition reel for some excellent, unknown Native American actors.

We Shall Remain premieres Mon 13 at 9pm on PBS.

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