The Poison Squad Provides Food for Thought on American Experience

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio's new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The 50-year crusade for food safety by U.S. government chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), leading to the creation of the FDA, is the timely focus of John Maggio’s new documentary THE POISON SQUAD for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

“One obsessive, determined person can change the world, and he did.”

If you care about the purity of the food and beverages you consume, then grab a bottle of Pepto and keep it handy as you watch The Poison Squad, the latest installment in WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)

You may need to take a swig or two of the pink stuff during the first half hour of this fascinating two-hour documentary, but please stick with it.  As The Poison Squad wends its way through the back alleys of the blossoming food manufacturing industry during the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s often not a palatable picture. It was a period when Americans transformed from healthy agrarians into city folk chiefly dependent upon food and beverages processed cheaply and sloppily for mass consumption by powerful food manufacturers.  If our grandparents didn’t grow their own produce or raise cows and pigs, they bought what they assumed to be the same clean meat and produce packaged and sold in their local markets.

Unfortunately, there were no standards and practices in place to assure the cleanliness of food processing plants, confirm packaging claims, or question the toxicity of additives used to bring questionably fresh food and beverages, including milk for children, back to “life.” Slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants and the dairy industry were rife with unsanitary assembly lines and non-existent refrigeration.  At the top of the food chain, industrial giants like Heinz, Pillsbury, Nabisco, Coca-Cola were well-connected in Washington and seemingly untouchable.

As a result, by the late 19th century, Americans were consuming a hearty dose of garbage. The only thing “pure” about foods like honey and maple syrup, for example, was their primary ingredient: “pure corn syrup.”   Unsuspecting Americans mistakenly thought they were buying such staples as butter (beef tallow, pork fat and worse) and coffee (chicory and sawdust). Chemical additives like copper sulfate, borax, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde were used to freshen up food and beverages as they were being canned and bottled. When it wasn’t being used in food processing, formaldehyde was the go-to embalming fluid during the Civil War.  And borax was a popular cleanser and ant killer.

In 1902, Congress authorized funds for human trials of controversial food additives to determine their safety. Dr. Harvey Wiley (third from left in back row), then Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, tested the additives on 12 young men who became known as “the Poison Squad.” Photo courtesy of the FDA.

Now the good news!  Enter Dr. Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930) with a medical degree from Indiana University and another degree in chemistry from Harvard in hand, as well as lessons gleaned from growing up on a farm.  Armed with a passion to insure clean food and a take-no-prisoners evangelical zeal inherited from his progressive dad, Wiley kept his eyes on America’s kitchen tables from his perch as Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture.

In 1902, he embarked upon a controlled experiment with a panel of 12 young men who came to be known as “The Poison Squad,” to whom he fed food and beverages laced with chemical additives commonly used by food manufacturers of the day.

“In exchange for free food and five dollars a day, these volunteers agreed to eat only the meals served by Dr. Wiley, submit to a battery of physical examinations after each meal, and promise not to sue the federal government if they were sickened in the process.”  Yes, some got sick, but no one died.

As Wiley faced off with government officials who were in the back pockets of the food industrialists, he was supported by some fascinating allies.  Since women were the prime shoppers and cooks for their families, Wiley received a boost from powerful leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

Teddy Roosevelt’s on again, off again support of Wiley’s cause thread throughout the film… from Roosevelt’s early stint on the battlefield through his terms as governor of New York and President of the United States.  Rough Rider Roosevelt remarked that he would rather eat his hat then the putrid canned meat served in soldiers’ rations.

Influential cookbook author Fanny Farmer and author Upton Sinclair, whose explosive novel, The Jungle (Doubleday, 1906), exposing the disgraceful conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, were also key to Wiley’s success.

Emmy Award-winning writer/director/producer John Maggio (recently interviewed in FrontRowCenter) peppers The Poison Squad with vintage film clips and photos as well as insights from culinary historians, investigative journalists, popular cookbook author Mark Bittman, and Deborah Blum, the author of The Poison Squad (Penguin, 2018), the book on which Maggio’s film is based.

In 1906, Dr. Harvey Wiley’s crusade finally paid off, leading Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first consumer protection laws in U.S. history, paving the way for the creation of the FDA.

Despite its late 19th and early 20th century timeline, The Poison Squad is remarkably timely today.  Cancer-causing chemicals and air pollutants are returning to our environment in a big way, as the Trump administration caters favor with big business by weakening or eliminating long established bans and restrictions on their products. Lax food labelling, e.g., fish, is also a continuing area of concern.

American Experience: The Poison Squad debuts on PBS tonight, Tuesday, January 28, 2020, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/ and the PBS Video app for streaming and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD availability.)— Judith Trojan

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A Whale of a Tale Debuts on PBS Nature

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

PBS NATURE wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill became obsessed with whales after a humpback whale almost breached on top of his kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Photo© Viralhog.

“The mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

If like me, you are captivated by whales and emotionally invested in their health and well-being, you will definitely not want to miss The Whale Detective, a tantalizing bit of personal whale lore recounted by wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill.

In September 2015, a 30-ton humpback whale breached and just missed landing on Mustill and his friend Charlotte as they kayaked in Monterey Bay, California. They miraculously survived. But the traumatic close encounter haunted Mustill.  He became obsessed with the whale’s intentions.  Was the whale putting on a show? Was it a deliberate aggressive act aimed to topple the kayak and crush the kayakers?  Or did the humpback mistakenly cut its breach too close then turn away so as not to hurt them?

Tom Mustill’s personal mission to determine the motivation of “his” whale, subsequently named “Prime Suspect,”and, in the process, learn more about the species that almost killed him is played out in his latest film for the PBS Nature series, The Whale Detective.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher's kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Filmmaker Tom Mustill and fellow kayaker,Charlotte Kinloch, holding onto another whale watcher’s kayak after surviving the whale breaching onto them in September 2015.  Photo© Michael Sack Sanctuary Cruises.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)

Monterey Bay off the coast of California is an expansive, deep and rich whale feeding and breeding ground. It not only lures various species of these extraordinary mammals, but is a magnet for their fans:  avid whale watchers from around the globe, as well as marine biologists, behaviorists and concerned citizens who photograph, record, study, save (untangle) and examine post-mortem the showstopping whales that breach, feed and mate around and under them.

Self-described whale detective Tom Mustill interviews these locally-based whale aficionados and reviews their extensive research and close encounters, paying special attention to the photos and viral videos shot by others before, during and after his near-death confrontation with the breaching humpback in 2015.

Although Mustill’s film is just under one-hour long, it manages to highlight some fascinating work being done to study and protect various species of whales but most especially humpbacks. And in the end, it reminds us, that we, as humans, hold their fate precariously in our hands. Whale expert Dr. Joy Reidenberg underscores the importance of protecting whales from human detritus as she performs a necropsy on a young beached whale killed by a ship’s massively damaging impact.

A curious young humpback approaches cinematographer Howard Hall. Photo ©Michele Hall.

While humans are their biggest threat, somehow whales seem to know that humans are also out to help them. Filmmaker Mustill joins an elite, specially trained crew on a dangerous mission to disentangle and cut a whale free from its “captor”… a rope snagged on the sea floor.

In one viral video, we see a humpback tuck a diver under its fin to protect her from a shark and swim her to the safety of her boat. The seasoned diver recalls at one point being eye to eye with the whale and the physically painful encounter that abruptly saved her life.

Surprisingly, humpback whales have not only been documented coming to the rescue of human divers, but fellow air breathing denizens of the deep as well. Humpbacks swim in to save the day when seals, sea lions, whale calves and dolphins are being bullied or attacked by killer whales.  As seen here in video footage, killer whales can be seen making a quick exit instead of facing off against their mortal enemies, humpback whales.

In the end, Mustill uncovers some fascinating tidbits about his whale’s origins and backstory. And there is every indication that “Prime Suspect” may, in fact, have simply goofed and made a bad breach on that September day in 2015 and choreographed an immediate “auto correct” so as not to hurt the kayakers.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale "near-miss" survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

THE WHALE DETECTIVE aka filmmaker Tom Mustill interviews a fellow whale “near-miss” survivor. Photo ©Tim Burgess.

This episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Gripping Films production for THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC and BBC Studios in association with WNET.

Nature: The Whale Detective debuts on PBS tonight, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.) –Judith Trojan

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Animal Reunions Tug Heartstrings on Nature Rebroadcast

Conservationist Damian Aspinall reunited with chum Kwibi after the gorilla, who was raised in Aspinall’s animal sanctuary in the UK, had been released for five years in a West African national park. Kwibi’s journey is documented in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

If you’ve ever doubted that animals are capable of forming enduring bonds with their human friends and caregivers, I urge you not to miss the rebroadcast of Animal Reunions, a 2016 episode of the PBS series, NATURE, airing tonight, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I guarantee you’ll set aside your doubts and be moved to tears during the extraordinary reunions documented in this film.

My belief in the capacity of wild and domesticated animals to feel and show love and loss, not only for their own kind but for their human counterparts, was validated 25 years ago. At that time, I was a fan of ABC-TV News 20/20, when it featured empowering think pieces, as well as fascinating reports on “the better angels” of our nation. In a concluding segment one Friday night in 1995, host Hugh Downs explored the problematic exploitation of chimpanzees in the space program and biomedical research. Both of those dubious enterprises were finally being scrutinized, even by those who were employed to implement them. As a result, retirement sanctuaries for these physically and emotionally damaged chimps were starting to spring up.

Downs zeroed in on animal rights crusader Dr. Roger Fouts, then at the helm of Central Washington University’s Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI). Fouts had pioneered communication with chimpanzees through sign language; his first pupil was a baby chimp named Washoe.  Another language studies student, Booee, was taught to sign by Dr. Fouts beginning in the late 1960s. But Booee was inexplicably sold to a medical research lab by his owner in 1982.  In the name of “science,” he was infected with, among other things, the Hepatitis-C virus.

ABC documented Dr. Fouts’ reunion, after a 16-year separation, with Booee, who was then forlorn and isolated in a small, barren lab cage. Would Booee remember his old friend and mentor and the communication they had shared?  As Fouts entered the lab and called out and signed to Booee, the chimp joyfully recognized Fouts, signed Fouts’ name and easily communicated and engaged in the games the pals used to play together. Booee reached out of his cage to kiss and touch Fouts.

When it came time to say goodbye, Fouts sadly noted Booee’s heartbreaking acceptance of his friend’s departure. The chimp continued to sign as Fouts waved and signed good-bye.  You can watch a repeat of this emotionally devastating broadcast @  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0T8ozlxqJI

I was not the only viewer that night who was overwhelmed by this gut-wrenching reunion and its disturbing implications. I immediately wrote to ABC News to find out how I could help Booee. I was not alone. The episode drew unprecedented response and was subsequently updated with a report on Booee’s status.  The moral outcry incited by this ABC News coverage led to Booee’s retirement from medical research. But because he had been infected with Hepatitis-C, Booee could not be returned to Fouts.  The chimp was released into a sanctuary in California where he could live out his life in a healthier environment.

Dr. Jane Goodall receives a spontaneous goodbye embrace from Wounda, once a traumatized orphaned chimp, now grown-up, healthy and about to be released back into the wild. From NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy of Tigress Productions.

It’s apparent, as witnessed in the remarkable human-animal reunions documented on PBS in Nature: Animal Reunions, that animal researchers and conservationists have made great strides in the quarter century since that ABC News 20/20 episode aired. They have ably added to our understanding of interspecies communication, respect for animal emotions and feelings, and acknowledged the positive bond that can grow between wild animals and their responsible human caregivers.

Animal Reunions recalls, in riveting fashion, more recent examples of how Great Apes, like chimpanzees and gorillas, as well as elephants and even cheetahs have formed lasting bonds with caring human beings.  The animal rights champions profiled include Dr. Jane Goodall, wild animal conservationist Damian Aspinall, chimp veterinarian Dr. Rebeca Atencia, wild animal photographer Kim Wolhuter, and elephant rehabilitator Edwin Lusichi.

The hour-long film narrated by actor Richard Thomas focuses especially on the years following the restorative rehabilitation of orphaned, traumatized and/or captive-born animals and their release back into the wild… and how they never forget and continue to cherish their human saviors.  It’s a must-see for anyone who respects the well-being of animals, wild or domesticated, and the depth of their emotional core.

Head Keeper Edwin Lusichi with once-traumatized orphan elephant Lempaute, as the pals reunite after the elephant’s reintroduction into the wild at Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. Lusichi recalls his tender relationships with elephants under his care in NATURE: ANIMAL REUNIONS. Photo courtesy Tigress Productions.

This evergreen episode in the award-winning PBS series, NATURE, executive produced by Fred Kaufman, is a Tigress Production for ITV in co-production with THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET.

Animal Reunions will be rebroadcast tonight on PBS, Wednesday, January 1, 2020, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times in your region and  http://www.pbs.org/nature and the PBS Video app for streaming and DVD availability.)  I encourage you to watch with an open heart and a box of Kleenex within easy reach! And make 2020 the year you advocate for the rights and protection of animals in the wild and the preservation of their natural habitats! –Judith Trojan

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The Ricardos and the Mertzes Together Again for Christmas @CBS

In PARIS AT LAST!, the newly colorized, 1956 episode of the I LOVE LUCY SHOW, Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) dials down her passion for Paris when forced to swallow a plate of snails and pay for the privilege with a wad of counterfeit cash. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In PARIS AT LAST!, the newly colorized, 1956 episode of the I LOVE LUCY SHOW, Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) dials down her passion for Paris when forced to swallow a plate of snails and pay for the privilege with a wad of counterfeit cash. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lucy Ricardo on the streets of Paris? What could go wrong?  Thankfully, a lot… and just in case you’ve had your fill of the pre-holiday rat race, you’ll have ample opportunity to trade your seasonal belly aches for belly laughs when you join the Ricardos and the Mertzes in Paris at Last!

Originally broadcast on CBS in black and white on February 27, 1956, Paris at Last! is the latest classic I Love Lucy episode to be colorized and piggybacked with the rediscovered Christmas Episode, as part of CBS-TV’s annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special. This year’s hour-long Lucy Special will be broadcast on CBS tonight, Friday, December 20, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. Don’t miss it!

Surprisingly, Lucy Ricardo’s passion for Paris comes close to matching her zeal for Los Angeles… only this time, she’s not stalking her favorite Hollywood stars or conniving her way into the limelight as a singer, dancer or film actress.  She’s enraptured by the City of Light and is itching to hit the streets, soak up local culture and sample its culinary delights.  Escargot to go?  Lucy has a steep learning curve.

Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel try to talk their way out of hard labor after they're arrested for passing counterfeit cash in PARIS AT LAST! The newly colorized episode of the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL debuts on CBS. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel try to talk their way out of hard labor after they’re arrested for passing counterfeit cash in PARIS AT LAST! The newly colorized episode of the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL debuts on CBS. Photo: CBS ©2019 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Laugh out loud lately? I’m guessing not so much.  But I promise you will laugh… and laugh hard as you catch Lucy’s riotous contretemps over a plate of Parisian snails–“Maybe if I had some ketchup?”–and their prickly chef, as well as her gullible missteps with a con man who offers a better exchange rate for her cash and the shifty street artist who sells her faux instead of fine art. Every parlez-vous points Lucy and, by association, her husband Ricky and their pals, the Mertzes, in the same direction… to jail.

Will Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel dodge the Bastille?  Only if they can plead their case to the French-speaking gendarmes. Hilarity ensues as Lucy’s innocent tourist faux pas are translated from English into Spanish, French, German and back again by a zany crew of recruits. This vaudevillian roundelay never gets old.  I still laugh when I see its hysterical reincarnation in a much repeated episode of Frasier.  However, nothing beats the original I Love Lucy version choreographed to perfection in Paris at Last! 

Who's the guy with the beard? Lucy and Santa share the spotlight in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Who’s the guy with the beard? Lucy and Santa share the spotlight in the annual I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL broadcast on CBS. Photo ©2017 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Originally thought to be “lost,” the December 1956 Christmas Episode is a nostalgic Christmas eve visit to the Ricardos’ Manhattan apartment where Lucy and Ricky trim their tree and set out gifts to surprise Little Ricky, their Santa-obsessed five-year-old. Without missing a beat, Ricky and Lucy concoct a whimsical timeline for Santa to deflect their son’s questions and insistence on remaining awake to greet him fireside.

Fred and Ethel Mertz join the fun as Lucy and Ricky wistfully recall Lucy’s unexpected pregnancy announcement at Ricky’s nightclub, and Ricky, Fred and Ethel’s subsequent clumsy effort, months later, to get Lucy to the delivery room on time. Welcome colorized flashbacks are intercut from these classic episodes.  The latter, still hilarious after all these years, continues to serve as the classic benchmark for all TV sit-com “birthing” episodes that followed.

The benchmark I LOVE LUCY birthing episode is now colorized and revisited in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL on CBS.

The benchmark I LOVE LUCY birthing episode is now colorized and revisited in the I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL on CBS.

Finally, in a musical interlude, Lucy’s attempt to sing “Jingle Bells” reminds Ricky and the Mertzes of the time tone-deaf Lucy crashed their barbershop quartet with disastrous results.  A flashback of their sabotaged performance is included.

You can read my original thoughts about colorization in a previous I Love Lucy Christmas Special post, but I’m happy to report that the colorization team continues to work their magic on the I Love Lucy episodes broadcast annually on CBS during the holidays without compromising the show visually or sacrificing its period charm. You can read my reviews of past I Love Lucy Christmas Specials at http://www.judithtrojan.com/2018/12/14 and   http://www.judithtrojan.com/2016/12/02  and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2015/12/23 and http://www.judithtrojan.com/2014/12/07

This year’s annual I Love Lucy Christmas Special will be broadcast on CBS tonight, Friday, December 20, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Also check OnDemand, Netflix, and DVD for availability of vintage I Love Lucy episodes.)  Happy Holidays! –Judith Trojan

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Very Ralph Makes Its Stylish Debut on HBO

HBO’s VERY RALPH explores the genesis of designer Ralph Lauren’s brand and cultural impact. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy Ralph Lauren.

“I hate fashion. But I had the eye.”Ralph Lauren.

During the Sixties, when most of us were sporting tie-dye shirts and hanging peace symbols around our necks, young Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx yearned for wider ties and special cut collars on his shirts.  Dubbed a “future millionaire” by his high school cronies, the snappy dresser styled and later custom tailored his wardrobe to match that of his favorite Hollywood stars–Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and, most notably, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant.

By  1964, Ralph Lifshitz had fine-tuned the cut and provenance of the clothes and accoutrement he would wear, design and curate in order to manifest the lifestyle he aspired to. With his eyes on the prize, he started simply… with ties…then shirts, Menswear, Women’s Wear and home goods.  It was not long before American dreamer Ralph Lifshitz transformed into Ralph Lauren, a lifestyle designer driving vintage automobiles and a multi-billion-dollar global brand.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Man-about-town Ralph Lauren enjoying life in his fifties in one of his classic cars. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

“Even as a young man, I had a story,” recalls Ralph Lauren in Susan Lacy’s new feature-length documentary, Very Ralph premiering on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Susan Lacy, the Emmy®-Award winning creator and former executive producer of the PBS American Masters series, is now based at HBO where she has, in short order, produced and directed a stunning profile of Oscar®-winning activist Jane Fonda in Five Acts, and an intimate portrait of film director Steven Spielberg. (Both reviewed here in FrontRowCenter.)

In Very Ralph, Lacy’s latest film for HBO, she turns her camera on 80-year-old fashion icon Ralph Lauren, who, it seems, is a credibly contented family man approaching his sixth decade in business with very few skeletons in his closet. He admits to never going to fashion design school; and he does not draw or sketch designs but creates (styles and builds) his fashion and lifestyle collections collectively with his dedicated staff by this side.

With the big picture in mind, he orchestrates the backstory, clothing and product design, and marketing scenario for his collections much the way a film director, veteran film producer, costume or set designer approaches the making of a film. Lauren’s unorthodox road to success in the fashion design industry and the American cultural landscape piggybacks his artistic vision and business savvy into  classic lines of clothing and home furnishings that continually  refresh his iconic American brand.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren chills with his sons, Andrew and David, at his beloved family hideaway in Amagansett, circa 1972. Photo courtesy HBO.

Although Very Ralph is sketchy about the obstacles young Ralph Lifshitz faced as he climbed the ladder of success–from wide ties in the USA to Knighthood in the U.K.–the film does have a lot to say about Love. Ralph Lauren is admittedly a man in love…not only with American culture and the opportunities it has afforded for his unique manner of artistic expression, but also with his gorgeous wife and muse of 55 years, Ricky; with his parents, siblings and his three kids; his dedicated staff; and the comfort and amenities that his stylishly curated homes, home office and flagship store in Manhattan have to offer.

And, it seems, Ralph Lauren’s affection for family, friends and colleagues is amply reciprocated.  In Very Ralph, director Susan Lacy makes good use of her talent for amassing an articulate roster of notables to help tell Lauren’s story. The film is papered with reflections from family members and colleagues from fields of design (Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld); publishing (Tina Brown); photography (Bruce Weber); fashion (Anna Wintour, André Leon Talley); home furnishings (Martha Stewart); and filmmaking (Joel Schumacher).  Models Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford celebrate Ralph Lauren as an early champion of diversity on the runway. And then there are the outliers like Woody Allen (a fan of Lauren’s corduroy pants); documentarian Ken Burns (who finds common ground in Lauren’s evocation of America’s heritage); and Hillary Clinton.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy's VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Ralph Lauren, formerly Ralph Lifshitz, as seen in Susan Lacy’s VERY RALPH. Photo: Les Goldberg, courtesy HBO.

Very Ralph will have a long shelf life in college and university classes focusing on Fashion Design and Marketing, as well as American Studies.  And if you regularly wear POLO RALPH LAUREN Menswear or sleep with Ralph Lauren’s HOME bedding collection, the film will give you more than enough incentive to continue supporting and buying his brand.

Executive Produced by Graydon Carter for HBO Documentary Films and Pentimento Productions, Very Ralph debuts on HBO tonight, Tuesday, November 12, 2019, 9:00 – 10:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and its availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)–Judith Trojan

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Buckle Up for Saudi Women’s Driving School on HBO

“I am used to sitting behind the driver in the back seat.”Sarah Saleh.

Sarah Saleh spent 10 years working the phones in the back office of a Saudi car dealership in the capital city of Riyadh. Now she’s posted out front in the showroom, greeting customers and making deals as a saleswoman. Her clientele?  Saudi women, just like herself, whose dreams of obtaining a license, buying a car and driving legally in Saudi Arabia have finally come true.

Gender equality has always been a slippery slope in Saudi Arabia. Brave Saudi women have been jailed and denounced as traitors if caught driving or protesting the female driving ban, the only such ban in the world. Others continue to be jailed for questioning the choke hold placed upon their lives by the time-honored dictates of male guardianship.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver's license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

Sarah Saleh earned her coveted driver’s license at the female owned and operated SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL. Photo courtesy HBO.

The tide turned in September 2017 when Saudi King Salman announced that he would lift the ban on female drivers to take effect in June 2018. The back story and repercussions of this monumental “royal decree” are beautifully explored in Saudi Women’s Driving School, an hour-long documentary by director Erica Gornall, who somehow managed to bypass long-standing Saudi restrictions on foreign filmmakers and gain unprecedented access to her subjects at home, at work and on the road.

Saudi Women’s Driving School debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven hundred instructors and 250 cars await eager female-only students in the SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy HBO.

Rarely has the refrain “less is more” been better realized than in Saudi Women’s Driving School. In a mere 60 minutes, the film paints an engrossing, clear-eyed picture of the challenges faced historically by Saudi women and the ways its resilient and highly educated female population attempt to circumvent and resolve the challenges they have faced in their misogynist society, including those incited by their license to drive.

The film interweaves its title focus on the world’s largest driving school (700 instructors and 250 cars situated on a massive, state-of-the-art campus) with the story of three articulate young Saudi women whose drivers’ licenses have opened doors they never could have imagined.

New car saleswoman Sarah Saleh sets her sights on owning a Ford Taurus as she nervously takes her first driving lesson, masters tricky roundabouts and tests to become a fully licensed driver.  We drive along with Uber driver Shahad al-Humaizi as she squires male patrons to their destinations, all the while plying them with pointed questions about their acceptance of female Uber drivers.  And feisty young engineering student and part-time race car driver Amjad Al-Amri recalls her lifelong dream to race, her passion to compete and goal to win a world championship.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN'S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

Competitive race car driver Amjad Al-Amri, featured in SAUDI WOMEN’S DRIVING SCHOOL, has her sights set on winning a world championship. Photo courtesy HBO.

It would seem, by most standards, that these young women, as legal new drivers, have realistic, easily achievable goals. Not so and not quite yet, clarifies historian Madawi al-Rasheed, who shines a light on the basic freedoms we all take for granted that are still not shared by Saudi women in their autocratic, patriarchal culture.  The driving ban is just the tip of the iceberg that young Saudi women are clearly eager to melt.

I encourage you to watch Saudi Women’s Driving School not only as a reminder of how much we, as Americans, have to be thankful for, but also as an incentive to acknowledge the brave women who fought historically for suffrage and reproductive rights and against slavery on our shores, and those women who continue to fight the good fight internationally against political, racial and sexual tyranny, as well as environmental decimation.

Saudi Women’s Driving School, directed by Erica Gornall and produced by Nick London, is subtitled and debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, October 24, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.) —Judith Trojan 

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Who’s Your Daddy? Finding Your Roots Returns on PBS

“I’m feeling connected. These are my people.”Mia Farrow.

Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini share more than their chosen professions. They are the progeny of Hollywood royalty, and each lost one of their parents at a relatively young age. Farrow is the daughter of actress Maureen (Tarzan) O’Sullivan and Academy Award®-winning screenwriter/director John (Around the World in 80 Days) Farrow.

Academy Award®-winning screenwriter/director/actor John Huston’s storied filmography includes such classics as The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen and Prizzi’s Honor. His dad Walter, Angelica Huston’s grandfather, received multiple Oscar nominations for various supporting actor roles and an Academy Award® for his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Oscars also went to son John Huston, the director and screenwriter of that film).

Isabella Rossellini’s mom, three-time Academy Award®-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, was an international film, stage and TV star of the first magnitude. Isabella’ dad, Roberto Rossellini, ushered in the age of neorealism as the writer/director/producer of such films as Rome Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero.

While their immediate show biz families were often tabloid fodder throughout the 20th century, Farrow, Huston and Rossellini apparently knew little about their storied parents’ bloodlines and backstories.

FINDING YOUR ROOTS writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has surprises in store for actress Isabella Rossellini about her mom's Swedish ancestors. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

FINDING YOUR ROOTS writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has surprises in store for actress Isabella Rossellini about her mom’s Swedish ancestors. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

Harvard professor and genealogical sleuth Henry Louis Gates, Jr., brings clarity and a few tears to the table as host of Hollywood Royalty, the Season Six opener of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., debuting on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air dates and times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

Gates sets the stage with snappily edited career bios of Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini and their parents and ends with their DNA reveal.  Although it’s clear that each of these women deserves her own, individual 50-minute Finding Your Roots episode, Hollywood Royalty opens the family floodgates for Mia Farrow, Angelica Huston and Isabella Rossellini.

Farrow, an Oscar nominee for Rosemary’s Baby, the star of TV’s iconic series, Peyton Place, and the romantic lead in highly publicized romantic liaisons with Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen, is deeply moved by shocking revelations about her paternal grandfather and grandmother.

Huston’s family tree threads back to the days of slavery in America with unsettling news about her distant great grandfather’s illegitimate children.

And Rossellini and her mom Ingrid’s nomadic lifestyles are hardly indicative of those of their Swedish forebears, who lived long, happy lives for generations without venturing far from one Swedish town.

With their DNA added to the mix of previous Finding Your Roots celebrities, Isabella Rossellini and especially Angelica Huston are shocked to find that they have some equally iconic cousins.

I finally bit the bullet and completed the DNA process to unearth my own roots via Ancestry.com and am currently digging my way through all of the preliminary results (not an easy task!). While it’s too soon to tell if George Washington, George Burns or Ken Burns are in the mix (amazingly, Ken Burns’s stint on a previous episode of Finding Your Roots revealed that he was related to Abraham Lincoln!), I believe that my DNA report enabled me to find the names and birth years of both sets of my paternal great great grandparents. This was a mind blowing discovery since my dad’s roots have been anecdotal at best. My dad and his brother were estranged from their father, so sadly I never met my grandfather, who was alive and well and living in nearby Pennsylvania for most of my childhood.

 Writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reveals some painful truths about actress Angelica Huston's ancestors in FINDING YOUR ROOTS on PBS.

Writer/producer/host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., reveals some painful truths about actress Angelica Huston’s ancestors in FINDING YOUR ROOTS on PBS. Photo courtesy McGee Media.

In the weeks ahead, 27 celebrities will sit across the table from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in new episodes of Finding Your Roots, as he unravels unknown highlights of their family trees culled from global research, as well as connections elicited via sophisticated DNA testing.  Gates is the perfect on-camera host for this enterprise. His enthusiasm for the task at hand is obviously rooted in the compelling historical, political and cultural timelines that drove his subjects’ forebears.

“It’s part of a larger mission to inspire us all to seek out the stories of our ancestors–to see history as something that we are all a part of, that we all have a stake in,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Finding Your Roots.  “Our series strives to show how all Americans are related, despite our present divisive politics, at the most fundamental levels of all:  through our families, through our immigrant experiences, whether forced or voluntary, and at the level of the genome.”

Since I have always been a fan of Gates, as well as the Ancestry.com driven cable series produced by Lisa Kudrow, Who Do You Think You Are?, I will definitely continue watching these shows as I untangle the history of my own kith and kin.

Season Six of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., premieres on PBS tonight, Tuesday, October 8, 2019, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. Upcoming episodes follow on Tuesday nights, on PBS, 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. ET. (Check listings for air dates and times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

In conjunction with the Finding Your Roots broadcasts, co-producer WETA promises to work with other PBS stations across the country to encourage viewers to share their family histories via #FindingYourRoots on Facebook and Twitter, @HenryLouisGates and  http://Facebook.com/FindingYourRootsPBS  and the series companion site http://pbs.org/FindingYourRoots   Happy Hunting!  –Judith Trojan

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16 Hours of Ken Burns’ Country Music on PBS

“Oh, the storm and its fury broke today, crushing hopes that we cherish so dear. Clouds and storms will in time pass away. The sun again will shine bright and clear.”–from the Carter Family’s signature song, “Keep on the Sunny Side.”

If, like me, you’ve always thought you were definitely not a “country music,” fan, think again.  You may find, after watching Ken Burns’ new 16-hour documentary opus, Country Music, that you’re hooked and that, just maybe, you’ve been a fan all along.  The series’ pitch line–“The Story of America, One Song at a Time”–may hold the key to your change of heart.

The genre’s complex provenance is rooted deep within the fabric of America… its history and the heritage of its colonizers.  As a result, the evolution of country music, aka “America’s music,” has taken many twists and turns along the way. It has crossed racial, ethnic and socio-economic divides along America’s regional highways and byways, and managed to grow and thrive despite taking some offbeat detours.

The COUNTRY MUSIC creative team (from left): screenwriter Dayton Duncan, producer Julie Dunfey, and producer/director Ken Burns. Photo: Evan Barlow.

As Ken Burns and his longtime screenwriter, Dayton Duncan, document vividly in the eight, two-hour films that comprise the Country Music series, it’s clear that the genre grew from an amalgam of oral histories, homespun instruments and performance traditions originally transported to our shores in the DNA, memory banks and satchels of our earliest settlers.

After immigrants (whether they be early colonists, explorers, servants or slaves) landed on our shores from Africa, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France or Spain, they turned for comfort and community to the music and instruments prevalent in their homelands and cultures. They in turn passed those traditions on to their descendants who then adapted and shared them with subsequent generations.  With Country Music, Burns and Duncan couldn’t have put forward a more cogent and timely case for the role that immigrants play as cultural definers of American identity.

“As an art form, country music is forever revisiting its history,” said Ken Burns, “sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself.”

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Jimmie Rodgers, Kerrville, Texas, circa 1930. Photo courtesy
Jimmie Rodgers Properties I.L.P.

Country Music: The Rub (Beginnings-1933), Episode 1 of the eight-part, 16-hour series, premieres tonight, Sunday, September 15, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET, on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App. Subsequent episodes debut during the next two weeks.  (See below for a complete list of PBS broadcast premiere air dates, DVD  and streaming info for the eight-episode series.)

In The Rub (Beginnings-1933), roots legend Ralph Stanley and fellow artists Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Kathy Mattea and Rhiannon Giddens, among others, recall (sometimes with a lyric or two!) country music’s humble origins and seminal performers.  And, as is the custom in all of Ken Burns’ films, on-camera commentary is enhanced by a breathtaking array of solidly researched vintage photos, rare film footage and period ephemera, including letters and newspaper clippings.

Glorious photos and never-before-seen film footage flesh out the personal backstories and eclectic talents of pivotal musicians who laid the groundwork for the industry going forward:  Stephen Foster, Fiddling John Carson, Pop Stoneman, Uncle Dave Macon, DeFord Bailey, the Carter family and the yodeling phenomenon, Jimmie Rodgers.

A key player in the lives and careers of many of country music’s legendary stars during this period was Ralph Peer (1892-1960).  His visionary role as talent scout, mentor, recording engineer, record producer and music publisher drove the spread of regional talent and music into the national mainstream market.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

The original Carter Family, circa 1930. From left: A.P. Carter, Maybelle and Sara Carter. Photo courtesy Carter Family Museum, Rita Forrester.

While The Rub focuses on a period of Americana that I particularly enjoy, I encourage you to give upcoming episodes of Country Music a look and listen, as they broadcast and stream.  You may be surprised and delighted to find that your beloved musicians fit comfortably in the “country music” mix as well.

Full disclosure from someone who never considered herself even “a little bit country”:  One of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters is Willie Nelson. And, yes, I’ve even attended his concerts.

And I’ve been a fan of roots music ever since I saw the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).  I was fortunate to attend the now legendary “O Brother…” concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring live performances by the film’s performers, including the late great Ralph Stanley.  I also enjoyed Stanley and his family in-concert at NYC’s Town Hall.  I guess “a little bit country” goes a long, long way after all!–Judith Trojan

How and when to view the Country Music series

The first four episodes of the eight-part series will air nightly at 8:00 – 10:00 p.m.ET on PBS stations nationwide beginning tonight, Sunday, September 15, through Wednesday, September 18, 2019.  The final four episodes will air nightly from Sunday, September 22, through Wednesday, September 25, 2019. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region.)

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

DeFord Bailey, harmonica virtuoso and one of the original headliners of the Grand Ole Opry. Photo courtesy Les Leverett Collection, Grand Ole Opry Archives.

Streaming App and Opps

On September 15, 2019, timed to the series broadcast premiere, you will be able to stream the first four episodes of Country Music for free on all station-branded PBS platforms, including http://PBS.org and the PBS Video App available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast. The final four episodes will be ready for streaming, timed to their broadcasts, beginning Sunday, September 22, 2019.  Each episode will stream for a period of three weeks.

Supplemental Materials

If you find yourself yearning for soundtrack music recordings from the series (there are “nearly 600 music cues” throughout Country Music’s 16 hours), you’re in luck!  A “comprehensive suite” of soundtrack music products will be available from Legacy Recordings, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.  For soundtrack, DVD and Blu-ray availability with extras, visit http://shopPBS.org

Also, be sure to check out the film series’ companion book, Country Music: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 464 pp., 2019) by Dayton Duncan, with an introduction by Ken Burns. Judith Trojan

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In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of '02. Courtesy of HBO. "This felt personal. This is New York. This is home." The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11. The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates and availability on HBO

Stuyvesant High School students were a mere 4 or 5 blocks away in their classrooms, as two jet planes decimated the World Trade Center on 9/11. Their memories of that day and the aftermath are powerful reminders of the tragedy and the collateral damage that haunts all Americans to this day. Photo: Ethan Moses, Stuyvesant HS Class of ’02. Courtesy of HBO.

“This felt personal. This is New York. This is home.”

The documentary may be only 35 minutes long, but I challenge you to find a more powerful film about 9/11 than In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11.

The film debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.)

Producer/director Amy Schatz, a seven-time Emmy® Award winner, revisits September 11, 2001, and its aftermath, via eye witness accounts from former students of New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Eight articulate young men and woman–American and foreign born sons and daughters of immigrants–recall in painful detail what it was like to hear, see and feel the impact of planes hitting the Twin Towers from their school building mere blocks away.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Students at Stuyvesant HS witnessed the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center from their classroom windows. Photo: Gary He, courtesy HBO.

Several witnessed the point of impact from their classroom windows and recall their shock and disbelief when they realized that human beings were falling from World Trade Center windows. Warning: The accompanying film footage here is graphic.

As Stuyvesant High School lost its footing and power, students, with only Fire Drill experience under their belts, filed out of school en masse and then ran for their lives as huge clouds of detritus from the two falling Towers licked their backs.

“People don’t really talk about the fact that there were kids there,” says Himanshu Suri.

And those kids–now lawyers, medical professionals and parents–pull no punches, nor do the film clips and photos Ms. Schatz chooses to illuminate their up close and personal recollections of that day.

“Absolutely everything changed that day,” admits Ilya Feldsherov, who was 15 at the time.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O'Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

Stuyvesant HS student Liz O’Callahan was interviewed in a 9/11/01 news clip. She is also one of the eight alumni featured in IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS. Photo courtesy HBO.

They were academically gifted students of various nationalities, cultures and religions and, most especially, proud New Yorkers who gladly weathered long daily commutes from the outer boroughs just to study at this highly competitive school. They were comfortable in an environment that welcomed diversity, and energized by the promise of what life going forward would be for them in America as immigrants or the children of immigrants…or simply as Americans.  The sky was the limit…until the sky became a conduit for mass destruction.

This film will force you to remember and reflect upon the long-term affects of hate, bigotry and fear on children. This film will move you to tears. And that’s a good thing.

In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 debuts on HBO tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 9:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT.

Photo courtesy HBO.

In association with the 9-11 Tribute Museum, Amy Schatz also produced and directed What Happened on September 11.   The 30-minute film, specifically geared for children, debuts on HBO Family tonight, Wednesday, September 11, 2019, 6:00 – 6:30 p.m. ET/PT.

If you miss tonight’s debuts of In the Shadow of the Towers: Stuyvesant High on 9/11 and What Happened on September 11, check listings for their additional HBO play dates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms.–Judith Trojan

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The Hatfields and McCoys Face Off in The Feud on PBS

“Bloody war in Pike County.  The McCoys and Hatfields Doing Their Utmost to Exterminate Each Other.”The New York Times, January 8, 1888.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud has been called “the most famous family conflict in American history.” Yet most of what we think we know about that Appalachian family fracas comes from vintage films and TV shows, featuring dentally and mentally-challenged Appalachian hillbillies plugging each other with buckshot.

Filmmaker Randall MacLowry sets the record straight in his latest documentary, produced for WGBH Boston’s Award-winning American Experience series. The Feud debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.)

The Hatfields and McCoys were among the earliest settlers in pre-Civil War Tug Fork River Valley, a mountainous remote region in Central Appalachia bordering the states of Kentucky and Virginia (what would become West Virginia).  Peace and tranquility in the Valley came to a screeching halt during the Civil War and its aftermath when Eastern industrialists and entrepreneurs set their sights on the region’s extensive coal and timber resources.

"No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia."--Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

“No part of the country has suffered more from crude stereotypes than Appalachia.”–Mark Samels, Executive Producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo from HILLBILLY HARE, circa 1950, Warner Bros.

Caught in this postwar influx of opportunists were the Hatfields, led by savvy patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, who initially jumped on the logging bandwagon, and the McCoys, whose patriarch, Randolph McCoy, continued to struggle to make ends meet as a subsistence farmer. Inter-family jealousies soon triggered revenge-fueled encounters, culminating in a horrific 1888 New Year’s Day bloodbath. The escalating Hatfield-McCoy family drama would become a sensationalized attention-grabber in the national media of the day.

Intrigued by this long forgotten chapter in American history, I was anxious to connect with filmmaker Randall MacLowry to explore in more detail the feud and the film’s backstory.  My Q&A with Randall MacLowry (conducted via email) is reprinted below.

Judith Trojan: During the opening moments of The Feud, you include a clip of the vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hillbilly Hare. An individual, who I assumed to be you because he was not identified at that point in my press screener, recalled briefly his childhood memory of that cartoon’s unsettling depiction of feuding hillbillies.  Did that cartoon actually trigger your fascination with the Hatfield-McCoy family feud and Appalachian culture? Did you grow up in Appalachia?

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry, director/writer/producer of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: THE FEUD. Photo: Eric Levin.

Randall MacLowry:  I am sure I saw that cartoon at some point growing up, but the anecdote recounted in the film is not mine. The story is from Chuck Keeney, a historian from West Virginia. When we first talked about the project, Chuck told me this memory of his, and I thought that it could be a great way to get into the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. As for myself, I did not grow up in Appalachia, but I spent a good amount of time in West Virginia working as the editor of a series on the history of the state, as well as producing and editing several other programs while I lived in West Virginia.

Trojan:  This is more than a story about two warring families. Why did you think the time was right to focus on the Hatfield-McCoy feud and, in the process, pinpoint the press’s role in mythologizing and stereotyping Appalachians? The press’s bad behavior in the late 19th century–a practice that soon thereafter became known as ‘yellow journalism’–seems timely given the abundance of character assassinating Tweets and rants of ‘Fake News’ that we have become accustomed to of late.

MacLowry:  I agree that the story is timely, but the timing of the film was not an outgrowth of any current events. I was familiar with the story of the feud having worked on the aforementioned film about the history of West Virginia about 25 years ago. When I was approached by American Experience to do a more in-depth exploration of the story, I was excited by the opportunity to revisit this iconic piece of American history. The story takes place during a period of rapid urbanization in the nation, and this shift to a more urban and industrial society gave rise to a sharp distinction between the rural and the urban in America. The feud played a pivotal role in the creation of the negative stereotypes of Appalachia that still have repercussions today.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka "Devil Anse," sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Hatfield family patriarch William Anderson Hatfield, aka “Devil Anse,” sitting cross-legged with his rifle across his lap, enjoyed a photo op with members of his family and local workers, circa 1880-1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  I found myself wondering about the backstories of the two families. They apparently lived harmoniously for years as neighbors in the Tug Fork Valley region, pre-Civil War, and even intermarried.  Where did their forebears originate?

MacLowry:  The Hatfields were of English descent, and the McCoys were of Scots-Irish roots. Both families were in America several generations prior to their moving to the Tug Fork Valley, bordering Kentucky and Virginia (later West Virginia), where they joined German settlers, some French Huguenot refugees and others in the area.

Trojan:  It was clear to me from your film that the fires of animosity in the region were not only sparked by the Civil War itself, but fanned by postwar industrialization. Allegiances to the Confederacy and the Union caused rifts between families in the Valley but also fractured them from within. Urban entrepreneurs and investors, in turn, saw dollar signs when they laid eyes and capital on the region’s rich coal and lumber resources.

MacLowry:  I wouldn’t describe the Civil War as the straw that broke the camel’s back as that implies there were growing tensions between the families that were exacerbated by the Civil War. But the atrocities that occurred in that borderland region were very disruptive to the tight-knit agrarian community that had been living there since the early 1800’s.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800's. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

John CC Mayo (center) and his colleagues consolidating ownership of natural resources in the Tug Fork Valley in the late 1800’s. Photo courtesy of University of Pikeville, Frank M. Allara Library Special Collections, Mayo Collection.

Trojan:  Families like the Hatfields and McCoys who, prior to the war, lived off the land soon faced No Trespassing signs on turf they once owned. Parallels to current EPA rollbacks favoring business interests over the health and well-being of our nature preserves and environment come to mind.

MacLowry:  The tension between capitalism and exploitation of the environment has a long history in our country. Mountain families lost their land and their livelihoods in the face of this enormous pressure.

Trojan:  Your narrative is straight out of the Ken Burns playbook.  Who do you credit with inspiring the focus and narrative approach of your work?

MacLowry:  Ken Burns is a major figure in the creation of historical documentaries and has brought many powerful stories to life.  But early in my career, I had the good fortune to work with Academy Award®-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim.  I trace much of my inspiration in this field to him and numerous other important and generous mentors that have helped guide me along the way.

Rifle ready William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890's. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Rifle ready William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield stands in the snow outside a cabin, circa 1890’s. Photo courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Center, WVU Libraries.

Trojan:  Kimberly McCoy is the sole Hatfield-McCoy descendant featured in the film. Who is she descended from?  Why not include additional Hatfield-McCoy descendants?

MacLowry:  We contacted many descendants of the Hatfield and McCoy families as we researched the film, and I appreciate all of the time and insights they shared with us. Kim grew up along the Tug Fork and still lives in the area. She has been involved with preserving the history of the area for many years–not just the story of the feud but also the rich history of the coal mine wars that took place in the first two decades of the 20th century in southern West Virginia as miners fought to unionize the coal mines.

She is actually related to both the Hatfields and McCoys. She is a direct descendant of William Anderson Hatfield’s older brother, Valentine Hatfield, and she is married to a direct descendant–Randolph McCoy’s younger brother, Asa Harmon McCoy.

Trojan:  You thread a wonderful selection of photos, artwork, and vintage newspaper and film clips throughout The Feud. The clips from silent dramatic films and more contemporary TV favorites like “The Beverly Hillbillies” underscore how popular culture throughout the 20th century was saturated with negative Appalachian stereotypes.

MacLowry:   I feel we were very successful in finding images to provide a picture of the people and the place, which in the end is what our story is really about. It is about the massive transformation of the region brought about by rapid industrialization, which upended the agrarian subsistence economy in the area and led to widespread displacement of the local people.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse," seated next to his wife, Levisa "Levicy" Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Hatfield Family Portrait, circa 1897. Bearded patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield, seated next to his wife, Levisa “Levicy” Hatfield, surrounded by their family and assorted weaponry. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

We got almost all of our imagery in the film from archives. There are some images that we had heard about that at one time were with family members, but we were unable to track them down. We were excited that we were able to locate a good number of images of Anderson Hatfield and his family from archives — many that I had not seen when we did the history of West Virginia film a couple decades ago. Unfortunately, we found only one image of Randolph McCoy, and very few of his family from the time of the feud. We had hoped to unearth others, but none surfaced.

Trojan:  For me, your film is a timely wake-up call about the long-term consequences of stereotyping and what incites individuals to violence when they fear that their everyday lives and traditions are being upended by the ‘new kids on the block’—whether they are rogue family members; politically, racially or ethnically diverse neighbors; immigrants; or big business interests.

MacLowry:  I think the importance of the story of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is that it became part of how Americans, and even the world, looked at Appalachia. Mountaineers became viewed as violent, backward savages who needed to be reformed and civilized. And that negative ‘hillbilly’ stereotype still remains today.

But what happened was not unique. These attitudes towards Appalachia were happening at the same time, for instance, as efforts at spreading imperialism in Africa and fighting Native Americans in the Indian wars of the West. Mountain folk become marginalized as a group, and this is similar with the representation of non-whites throughout the country and the world. Fighting against the marginalizing and otherizing of people is an important issue that we still grapple with as a nation. Ω

American Experience: The Feud, written, directed and produced by Randall MacLowry and executive produced by Mark Samels, debuts on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS App tonight, Tuesday, September 10, 2019, 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET. (Check local listings for air times and repeat broadcasts in your region  and http://ShopPBS.org for DVD and Blu-Ray availability.) –Judith Trojan

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