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Dispatch from the Sundance Film Festival

Dewolf The snow is falling outside the home several of us have rented in Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival in support of our cousin Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. It is 19 degrees outside, which is warmer than it has been. The cold and the white stuff haven’t diminished the size of the audiences in the films I’ve seen so far.

I’ve not been to this or any other film festival outside my hometown before. I doubt that I ever would have were it not for the high honor of having Sundance select for competition the film that features our family struggling with the legacy of slavery by exposing New England’s—and our own ancestors’—complicity in the slave trade.

The film premiered here, appropriately enough, on Monday, January 21: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We were honored by the presence of Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. On Monday morning, he participated on a panel dedicated to the message and mission of Traces of the Trade, and attended the film’s premiere that night. It was particularly significant to be with the man who introduced the legislation—four days after Dr. King’s assassination—that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the national holiday fifteen years later in 1983. Conyers has introduced legislation (H.R. 40) that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and possible remedieseach session since 1989. It has never had a hearing until last month. As Chair of Judiciary, he is finally in a position to move this important legislation forward that has languished for so long.

At the end of each screening, Katrina, her filmmaking team, and those of us who appear in the film walk to the front of the theatre to field questions and comments from the audience. Each time people have said they’ve been powerfully impacted by the film and have asked probing and thoughtful questions. One screening was particularly gratifying. A few films had been selected for a screening to Salt Lake City high school students; Traces was one. Students asked probing questions about why the history we’re discussing isn’t taught in their classes, what they can do about the legacy of slavery when they live in a predominantly white community, how they can make a difference. They were on a tight schedule and were supposed to head back to school on buses within 10 minutes after the film ended. After 25 minutes they were vocal in their disapproval of their teachers’ insisting that it was time to go.

One benefit of being here with Katrina and Traces is that we’ve had a chance to see some amazing films. If you’re interested you can read about all the films I’ve seen on my blog. The two most powerful films I’ve seen are The Black List, a series of interviews with 20 influential African Americans, and Phoebe in Wonderland, the story of a little girl seeking to escape the rule-obsessed world we live in. I haven’t been much of a star-gazer during the festival, but I was pleased that one of Phoebe’s stars, Patricia Clarkson, was present for the Q&A after the film so the audience could express our heartfelt thanks for an amazing performance through our applause. One film I haven’t seen yet that is heartily recommended by others in our group is A Raisin in the Sun, the remake of the 1961 film that featured Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. This version stars Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad and will show on ABC television on February 25.

Sundance is both exhilarating and exhausting. I look forward to getting back to my book tour, which I’ll resume in Denver after the festival ends. But I have a few more very cold, snowy days to get through first…


Thomas N. DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. His memoir tells of his own journey during the making of Traces of the Trade. For more information, visit  www.inheritingthetrade.com.