About two-thirds of the way through “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” the documentary’s collection of well-to-do white people start discussing the state of their journey retracing the triangle trade. One of the documentary’s participants comments that she doesn’t want the movie to wind up merely a travelogue through the landmarks of slavery. Another expresses his guilt about being a self-indulgent white person talking to other white people to assuage his guilt.
A film rarely expresses everything that’s wrong with it in such a succinct manner.
Katrina Browne has made a very sincere and very flat expression of the white guilt that haunts her family tree. A descendant of James De Wolf, one of the greatest slave traders of New England, Browne explores her heritage by taking a small group of her various relatives to visit Ghana and Cuba and learn about the practices that brought their family to prominence. And they all discuss their feelings ad nauseam.
While transitioning between the travel footage, Browne uses some super-imposition tricks that don’t look too bad, and puts a map depicting the triangle trade for an inordinate amount of time. (Whenever our travelers are on an airplane, we watch their route drawn in what feels like real time.)
To round up her slavery focus group, she sent out letters to more than 200 relative, heard back from around half, but only found nine who wanted to go on this elaborate, transcontinental journey. I share these numbers not because they’re surprising, but because they’re among the most interesting facts that Browne shares in her voice-over.
Sure, no one else could narrate a story that’s so personal, but the somber sterility of her delivery provides no personality at all. When she uses a sermon she delivered as a guest speaker at church for the film’s climax, I wondered how someone could be so self-obsessed and so boring at the same time. The documentary turned into a self-indulgent travelogue, whether or not the participants wanted it to be different.