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By Phil Hall | February 8, 2009

Katrina Browne’s documentary shines a harsh light on her family’s history: she is part of the DeWolf dynasty of Rhode Island bluebloods whose wealth was established via a late 18th century and early 19th century involvement in the African slave trade.

In 2001, Browne invited 200 members of her family to join her on a visit to Ghana, where the slaves were gathered for export, and to the ruins of the DeWolf sugar plantation in Cuba. Only nine people joined her on this odyssey, but in watching this film one can easily doubt whether this trip was ultimately necessary.

As this film cruelly details, Browne and her extended family are obviously ill-equipped to reconcile the sins of their forefathers with today’s social environment – they often come across as both condescending and clueless in trying to have dialogues with the Ghanaians and the African Americans they meet along the way. Too often, it appears the DeWolf descendants are plainly less comfortable with themselves than they are with their family history, and Browne’s ultimate gesture – a guest sermon at a Bristol, R.I., Episcopalian church during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday – feels like the ultimate cop-out.

While the film touches on often-overlooked aspects of the more repugnant aspects of America’s racial history (particularly in its emphasis on how Northern commerce barons ran the slave trade), it plays out as a dreary home movie where Browne and her relatives go too far to absolve themselves of the excesses of their ancestors. It is a tiresome exercise in self-righteousness and self-indulgence.

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