Category Archives: TV

Independent Lens focuses, finally, on D.W. Griffith’s racist “Birth of a Nation”

More than 100 years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which depicted the KKK as heroes and African Americans in the most racist caricatures imaginable,  there’s (finally!) a documentary that recounts the little-known story of the battle waged against the film by an early and largely forgotten civil rights activist named William Monroe Trotter. Angered by the film’s unrepentant racism, Trotter led African Americans in a pitched battle against the film’s exhibition that culminated with protests in the streets of Boston, laying the foundation for the civil rights movement to come.

Welcome to  PBS Distribution’s Independent Lens: Birth of a Movement on DVD.  The program will also be available for digital download.

As the first African American Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University, Trotter decried the film as a flagrantly racist glorification of the Klan, and as a dangerous and powerful new form of propaganda that would lead to the lynching of African Americans. Together with W.E.B Du Bois, Trotter founded the Niagara Movement, a national network of black activists that would grow into the NAACP.

Griffith’s film, originally titled The Clansman, opened in 1915, as America was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. Although virulently racist, the film—a powerful retelling of Reconstruction that portrays the Ku Klux Klan as righteous vigilantes restoring America to greatness—was lauded in the press, and became the first film ever to screen in the White House. It was seen by a quarter of America’s population and transformed Hollywood and the history of cinema.

Ironically, it was Trotter who called for censorship of The Birth of a Nation to control “hate speech,” while Griffith advocated for freedom of artistic expression. Ultimately, Trotter would lose the battle as the film went on to become the first financial blockbuster and established racial stereotyping as a bankable trope. His fears that the film would unleash racial violence proved true; the film is credited with inspiring the rebirth of the Klan which, by the ’20s, was bigger than ever before.

Through interviews such sources as with Spike Lee (whose NYU student film The Answer was a response to Griffith’s film), Reginald Hudlin and DJ Spooky, Birth of a Movement explores how Griffith’s epic—long taught in film classes as a groundbreaking work of genius—motivated generations of African American filmmakers and artists as they worked to fight and reclaim their history and their onscreen image.

In the wake of the “#OscarsSoWhite” controversy, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing social and political turmoil, the program traces the line between Griffith’s controversial epic and Hollywood’s continued legacy of misrepresentation and negative racial stereotypes. Based on the book The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights, by Dick Lehr, the film features interviews with historians, writers and filmmakers and is narrated by Danny Glover.

John Lewis continues an unwavering fight for justice. His motto: “Get in the Way”

For more than 50 years, he has had one main goal: To continue an unwavering fight for justice. The life and career of John Lewis will be documented in the fascinating documentary John LewisGet in the Way. This is the first documentary biography of Lewis, the son of sharecroppers, who grew up in rural isolation, seemingly destined for a bleak future in the Jim Crow South.

But Lewis took a different path, rising from Alabama’s Black Belt to the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, his humble origins forever linking him to those whose voices often go unheard.PBS Distribution releases John Lewis–Get in the Way on April 18.The program will also be available for digital download.

The program covers more than half a century, tracing Lewis’ journey of courage, confrontation and hard-won triumphs. At the age of 15, his life changed forever when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. It was 1955, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Lewis listened with rapt attention as the young preacher called for nonviolent resistance to the harsh injustice of segregation. Lewis embraced Dr. King’s spiritual call with a fervor that would transform the course of his life.

As a student activist in the vanguard of the civil rights movement, Lewis was arrested and jailed for the first time during the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins in 1960. During the 1961 Freedom Rides, he was repeatedly assaulted by angry mobs. He was the youngest speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington, and in March 1965, Lewis led the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, where state troopers attacked peaceful protesters with billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. Their horrific actions were broadcast on news reports into living rooms across America; eight months later, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Following a film festival run and featuring never-before-seen interviews shot over 20 years, the program features Lewis, a masterful storyteller, relating the gripping tale of his role in these history-making events. Other key interviewees include civil rights activists Andrew Young, C.T. Vivian, Juanita Abernathy and Bernard Lafayette, as well as Lewis’ congressional colleagues Eleanor Holmes Norton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Emanuel Cleaver and Amory Houghton.

Once an activist pushing from the outside, Lewis, now 77 years old, has become a determined legislator creating change from the inside. Considered by many to be the conscience of Congress, with equal measures of modesty and forcefulness, Lewis strives to persuade D.C. power brokers to hear the voices of the unheard. He fights for those suffering from discrimination, poverty, poor education, police brutality, inaccessible healthcare and limitations on voting rights. Despite setbacks—and there have been many—John Lewis’ eyes remain on the prize.

 

Masterpiece indeed! “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” comes to Blu-ray and DVD

Ever since they were revealed to the world as quaint country-women and not the notorious Bell brothers of their pseudonyms, the Brontë sisters have fascinated legions of devoted readers. PBS Distribution goes a few steps further with the release Masterpiece: To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters on DVD and Blu-ray. The program, will be available on Blu-ray and DVD and Blu-ray April 11; the program will also be available for digital download.

Written and directed by Sally Wainwright, the program makes a perfect companion to Masterpiece’s past adaptations of Brontë novels: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1997), Wuthering Heights (1998 and 2009), and Jane Eyre (2007).

Depicting the evolution of secluded, dutiful clergyman’s daughters into authors of the most controversial fiction of the 1840s, the drama stars Finn Atkins as Charlotte, who shocked society with her edgy epic, Jane Eyre; Chloe Pirrie as Emily, author of the darkly gothic and disturbing Wuthering Heights; and Charlie Murphy as Anne, whose true-to-life love story The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was deemed “coarse and disgusting” by Victorian critics.

Also starring are Jonathan Pryce as their distracted father, Reverend Patrick Brontë; and Adam Nagaitis as the sisters’ only brother, Branwell, whose wild and dissipated life contributed to vivid characters in each of their novels.

To Walk Invisible was filmed in and around Haworth, the picturesque Yorkshire village where the Brontë sisters lived and which is now a mecca for Brontëphiles from all over the world. Scenes at their parsonage home were shot in an exact replica that recreates the feel of a lived-in mid-19th-century provincial dwelling, with the sisters congregating around the dining table to pen their stories and plot their editorial strategy.

“The Bronte Sisters”, also known as the “Pillar Portrait,” was painted by their brother Branwell in the 1830s. Left to right is Anne, Emily and Charlotte. This is the only surviving group portrait of the sisters. Most contemporary comments on Branwell’s portrait paintings agreed that they were “poorly executed” but there was no criticism of the resemblances, which were considered “good.”

Based largely on Charlotte’s voluminous letters, the film follows the Brontë sisters in the eventful three-year period that saw them rise from ordinary, unmarried women, taking care of the household and their widowed father, to the secret authors of the world’s most sensational literature.

Although he never suspected it, Branwell was the inspiration. A would-be poet and artist, he was a complete failure due to alcoholism and opium addiction. As Reverend Brontë slowly went blind, Branwell was on an even more precipitous downward slide, inciting the sisters to do something to keep the family out of the poor house.

They had already tried being governesses—a thankless job except it provided good material for novels. So they set about turning personal experiences, keen observations, and unflinching honesty into fiction. Worried that female writers wouldn’t be taken seriously, they adopted male-sounding pseudonyms: Currer Bell for Charlotte, Ellis Bell for Emily and Acton Bell for Anne, retaining their own initials.

The last name, Bell, may have been inspired by the arrival of a new set of bells for their father’s church, a momentous event in Haworth. Another possible source is the middle name of Reverend Brontë’s assistant priest, Arthur Bell Nicholls (Rory Fleck Byrne), who later married Charlotte after the tragically early deaths of her siblings.

But Charlotte gave her publisher a deeper reason for anonymity—and provided the title for this film: “I think if a good fairy were to offer me the choice of a gift, I would say—grant me the power to walk invisible.”

The conversation continues in the must-see documentary “The Talk: Race in America”

There’s an increasingly common conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police. In many homes, “the talk,” as it is called, usually contains phrases like this:

If you are stopped by the police: Always answer “yes sir, no sir”; never talk back; don’t make any sudden movements; don’t put your hands in your pockets; obey all commands; if you think you are falsely accused, save it for the police station. I would rather pick you up at the station than the morgue . . .

This important and essential (and shamefully needed) conversation is highlighted in PBS Distribution’s The Talk: Race in America.  The two-hour documentary will be available on DVD April 4; the program will also be available for digital download.

The film will present six personal stories to illustrate the issue from multiple points of view: Parent, child, the police and the community. Filmed across the country, in communities including Long Beach, California; Oakland, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Richland County, South Carolina; Memphis, Tennessee; and Cleveland, Ohio, the stories will include interviews with academics, police force members, community activists and family members.

Among those profiled are activist and founder of The Ethics Project, Dr. Christi Griffin, who, after living through the traumatic events of Ferguson, created “Parent 2 Parent,” a series of conversations with black parents talking with white parents about “the talk” with their black sons; Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, who was a 12-year-old boy killed by the Cleveland police while playing with a toy gun in a local park; Reverend Catherine Brown, who was assaulted by Chicago Police in front of her children in her own car; Trevena Garel, retired sergeant, New York City Police Department (NYPD), who has investigated allegations of misconduct involving both uniformed and/or civilian members of the NYPD; Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President and retired officer, New York City Police Department (NYPD); the Ramirez family, whose 28-year-old son, Oscar, was shot and killed by a Los Angeles County sheriff in Paramount, California, a community southeast of Los Angeles; and members of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, who share the protocols for using lethal force and describe the danger from a police officer’s point of view.

In addition, sharing their own stories are Kenya Barris, creator/executive producer of Peabody Award-winning ABC series black-ish; Nas, musician/activist; Rosie Perez, actor/director, activist; John Singleton, director/screenwriter/producer; and New York Times columnist Charles Blow.

Each story is produced by a different filmmaker to ensure that diverse perspectives are presented. The project’s director and supervising producer, filmmaker Sam Pollard, an Academy Award nominee and multiple Emmy winner; and Oscar nominee Julie Anderson, closely oversaw the producers and managed the overall creative look, storytelling and structure.

 The Talk: Race in America will also be accompanied by an engagement campaign. Social media conversations will explore the topics of community policing, the power of representation in media and how to talk to children about race. Online audience members will also be invited to share their experiences of having or giving “the talk.” Visit PBS.org/thetalk for exclusive video content, special features and more.

“American Experience: The Great War” offers promises made that have been long forgotten

It was a war whose participants were to “make the safe for democracy”. That has been largely forgotten.

Drawing on the latest scholarship, including unpublished diaries, memoirs and letters, American Experience: The Great War (PBS Distribution) tells the rich and complex story of World War I through the voices of nurses, journalists, aviators and the American troops who came to be known as “doughboys.”

The three-disc set, featuring the voices of Campbell Scott, Blythe Danne and Courtney Vance, will be available on DVD May 16; the program will also be available for digital download.

Can’t wait? The Great War premieres Monday, April 10, through Wednesday, April 12, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.

The series explores the experiences of African-American and Latino soldiers, suffragists, Native-American “code talkers” and others whose participation in the war to “make the world safe for democracy” has been largely forgotten. The program also explores how a brilliant PR man bolstered support for the war in a country hesitant to put lives on the line for a foreign conflict; how President Woodrow Wilson steered the nation through three-and-a-half years of neutrality, only to reluctantly lead America into the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, thereby transforming the United States into a dominant player on the international stage; and how the ardent patriotism and determination to support America’s crusade for liberty abroad led to one of the most oppressive crackdowns on civil liberties at home in American history.

It is also a story of little known heroism and sacrifice (including the deadliest battle in American history) that would leave more than 53,000 men dead on the battlefield and more than 60,000 dead from disease. American fatalities would come at a critical time in the war, but they would be dwarfed by a cataclysm of violence that would ultimately claim 15 million lives.

 

Is Kendra still on top? Seasons four and five tell-all, now in a DVD set

Not every girl next door in a former Playboy model. Unless you’re Kendra W. Baskett. No, the “W” does not stand for “wonderful” but “Wilkinson”, her maiden name before she hooked up with and married her husband, Hank Bassett. He’s now makes the transition from NFL football player to business man   and she’s balancing motherhood and her business ventures.

And so they star in Kendra on Top in, as some call it “the shocking reality series that follows America’s favorite reality queen.” In the newly released Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth & Fifth Seasons (MPI Media Group), After the scandal that nearly ripped her marriage apart, Kendra aims to strengthen her relationships both in her career and at home.

Unexpected opportunities in London and Australia re-ignite an urge in her to be wild and free, but when she returns home, she’s faced with the possibility that her wild antics may have forced her marriage to reach its breaking point. Rumors of a tell-all book, a possible Girls Next Door reunion, and an odd music video make this the one series you don’t want to miss. See it all in seasons 4 and 5!

“Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield” goes to the forefront of advances in military medical care

 

ABC News Correspondent Bob Woodruff, who was critically injured while covering the War in Iraq in 2006 and was saved by the advances in military medical care, brings his personal understanding of the issues to his role as host and correspondent of Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield. “The goal is not only to save lives, it’s to return the wounded to the lives they want to live,” says Woodruff.

Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield (PBS Distribution)  tells the stories of the men and women who are at the forefront of the medical frontier winning victories for military personnel and civilians. The documentary reports on the doctors and surgeons treating survivors returning home to resume their lives and recover from sometimes critical injuries.

The documentary will be available on DVD March 21.

More than 5,300 U.S. service members were killed in action during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in the years between 2001 and 2014. But of the thousands of severely wounded who made it to combat hospitals, 96% came home alive. The program reveals the lifesaving measures implemented as a result of these wars–including faster medical evacuations, the creation of critical care air transport teams that turn planes into flying intensive care units, and the increased use of tourniquets. Military doctors who have treated wounded troops abroad and at home explain how military medicine has changed over the past 15 years.

Using the best science and technology available, the physicians and scientists in military medicine work to improve the lives of America’s wounded, as well as their families. Woodruff takes viewers inside laboratories, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers, where military medical advances and technology are making artificial arms with life-like responses, 3-D printing new organs, adding robotic arms to wheelchairs, and giving damaged legs new strength.

Woven throughout the documentary are the personal accounts from active duty troops, veterans, civilians and military families who share how medical advances are both saving and changing their lives. Among the stories presented is that of retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Ramon Padilla, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Padilla participated in a trial of a robotic prosthetic arm that uses implanted sensors to stimulate movement. Thanks to this groundbreaking technology, he can bend his thumb and play ball with his children, neither of which he could do with his first prosthetic arm.

In terms of numbers, the biggest medical challenge for the military is treating service members with brain injuries like retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Elana Duffy, who is dealing with memory loss and other symptoms of a traumatic brain injury she sustained while serving in Iraq in 2005. Specialized clinics, such as one at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, featured in the documentary, are helping service members identify and heal from these invisible wounds.

The program also delves beyond the medical aspects of medicine. Considered a special “healing place” by veterans is Richard’s Coffee Shop in Mooresville, N.C. In operation for more than 20 years, the place offers free coffee for veterans and an opportunity for them to connect every Thursday.

“I think Richard’s Coffee Shop is some of the best military medicine around,” says retired Staff Sgt. Dale Beatty, who lost both of his legs while serving in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army National Guard. After recovering, Beatty co-founded Purple Heart Homes, an organization that provides housing solutions for disabled veterans.

There is still much to be done beyond the battlefield. “You know it goes back to George Washington’s phrase—and I paraphrase now — that ‘the extent to which future generations will serve is directly proportional to how they see the current era veterans being treated,’ ” Woodson explains. “And so, if we don’t treat them well, if we don’t welcome them back into communities and embrace them and fully support them, we put our future national security in jeopardy.”

Join Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on a journey through the unseen Africa

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. travels the length and breadth of Africa to chronicle the continent’s history from a firmly African perspective. Viewers can join him as Professor Gates’ journey takes him from the city of Great Zimbabwe to the pyramids of the Kingdom of Kush in Sudan, from the spectacular rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia to the continent’s oldest university in Fez, from the Blombos Caves in South Africa to Ancient Mali, the empire of King Mansa Musa, still thought to be the wealthiest person ever to have lived.

No passport needed, just a copy of Africa’s Great Civilizations, available on DVD and Blu-ray on May 16; the program will also be available for digital download.

In the program, Gates chronicles a sweeping 200,000-year journey of discovery, showing the complexity, grandeur and diversity of many millennia of undiscussed and unknown details about Africa’s compelling and dramatic history. Gates presents—for the first time for a popular audience—a new vision not only of Africa’s pivotal place in world history, but also the world’s relation to Africa.

Africa’s contributions to the human community’s development of art and language, writing and religion, agriculture and government, the arts and sciences are commonly misunderstood, or even ignored. This landmark series presents a new and comprehensive narrative about Africa and the history of the extraordinary diverse peoples of its continent, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cape of Good Hope, from the Red Sea and down the Nile River, and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The series sizzles with exciting interviews with leading historians, creative writers, art historians, paleoanthropologists, geneticists and museum curators.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBq_zOzhTqw://

“Africa is the ancestral home to the human community and to many of the pivotal breakthroughs in the history of civilization, yet the continent continues to be stereotyped as an isolated and underdeveloped region in the mind of outsiders, devoid of any profound historical achievements,” says Gates. “This series will dispel these myths and other inaccuracies about Africa through a detailed and riveting examination of significant historical events, such as the rise of its powerful kingdoms, the growth of extensive trade networks with the Middle East, Europe and China, seminal technological and artistic discoveries, and its peoples’ resilience in the face of harrowing past traumas. We made this series to end this ignorance about the African past, to reveal how Africans not only shaped the history of their continent, but also how profoundly and how extensively Africa has shaped the contours of our modern world.”

Beginning deep in the continent’s past with the origins of Homo sapiens and the “Out of Africa” migration of all of our human ancestors from east Africa, Gates vividly paints a picture of the earliest African civilizations—from Ancient Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush to the end of the 19th century as Africans faced Europe’s infamous “Scramble for Africa”—through their artistic and cultural achievements, their religious practices and political and social structures. Viewers examine the origins of the first human beings in Africa and the art and writing they created, and are introduced to unique environmental marvels such as the Gilf Kebir plateau, Jebal Barkal, the major climatic transformation of the Sahara Desert, and the emergence of cities in Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, South Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Angola, Benin, Ghana, Morocco and beyond. In terms of cultural and artistic innovation, the program looks at how the sculptors of West Africa exhibited craftsmanship rivaling that of European masters, and how the early Christian church—both through its theology and Christianity’s most architecturally stunning foundations—was nurtured in African cities like Alexandria, in Nubia along the banks of the Nile River and in Ethiopia. The crucial role of Africa in the evolution of Islam, and Islam’s major shaping role throughout North and West Africa, are subjects addressed with vigor throughout the series.

Africa’s history and its rich culture did not develop in isolation—it is and was greatly influenced by complex interactions with the rest of the world, since the most ancient of times. Gates shows how Africa’s interactions with foreign civilizations and ideas transformed these trading partners, and how African societies and cultures themselves were shaped through these extended contacts, including the arrival of Islam in medieval North Africa and Western Sudan and the rise of a maritime civilization on the East African coast, which regularly traded with Persian and Chinese visitors. Trade in salt and gold across the Sahara placed Africa in contact with Europe and the Middle East for millennia. Further, Africa was an epicenter of Christian theology and philosophy, reflected in the influential thinking of early Christian theologians like St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century, and in travel accounts of such Islamic scholars as Leo Africans and Ibn Battuta.

The series also examines the ancient African kingdoms’ increasingly complex relationships with the political economies of Europe and the burgeoning trans-Atlantic slave trade, and how these interactions began to change the internal dynamics of the continent. Finally, the series draws to a close at the end of the 19th century, when the infamous “Scramble for Africa” witnesses the industrial nations of Europe fighting for control of the vast riches of Africa’s natural resources, and when on the Plains of Adwa, Ethiopia makes a heroic stand against an invading colonial power.

 

Learn how King Henry VIII got ahead in marriage . . . six times!

And you thought the Mormons had it tough.

The 16th--century legend of King Henry VIII is turned on its crowned head as the dramatic stories of his six tumultuous marriages are told from the wives’ perspectives in Secrets of the Six Wives (PBS Distribution). The fascinating documentary will be available on DVD March 14; the program will also be available for digital download.

With extraordinary attention to detail–including actual first-person accounts pulled from historical records and secrets and stories from the women who surrounded each Queen–the program offers an ambitious approach to the oft-told tales.

Led by UK author and historian Lucy Worsley, who moves seamlessly from the present to the past and appears throughout the series as an observer and commenter on the happenings at court, the program gives history a new point of view. Worsley is the Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and a face familiar to British audiences as a regular historical contributor to BBC, whose best-selling books bring new angles on centuries of British history.

The series’ three episodes follows the trajectory of a well-known British nursery rhyme used to teach children the order of the six wives, “Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.” Additional information about each of the episodes included on this DVD are below:

Episode 1
Young Henry is smitten with Spanish princess Katherine of Aragon, who became his first wife, until her “inability” to deliver a suitable heir destroyed their marriage. Henry’s wandering eye leads him to Mary Boleyn then to her sister, the infamous Anne Boleyn, as he begins divorcing his first wife.

Episode 2
Viewers learn that Anne Boleyn was not necessarily the “harlot” described by history, but instead a strong and intelligent woman.  After Anne’s famous beheading, King Henry marries his professed “true love” Jane Seymour, who bore the King’s only son but died soon after the child’s birth.

Episode 3
Taking place in Henry’s later years and traces the failed marriages he had with Anne of Cleves, whom he divorced, but who got a very good settlement and ended up as one of the richest women in England, and Catherine Howard, a teenager who Lucy discovers was exploited by older men from a young age. She was also beheaded. Henry remained married to his sixth wife, Katherine Parr, until his death.

Whether as witness to, participant in, or wry commentator on the marital dramas as they unfold, Worsley shines an empathetic light on the featured women and, in doing so, delivers a new take on the legend of King Henry VIII.

Murray says the cast of Secrets of the Six Wives features mostly new faces from the U.K., helping to bring the story a contemporary feel. Starring as the six wives are Paola Bontempi (Katherine of Aragon); Claire Cooper (Anne Boleyn); Elly Condron (Jane Seymour); Rebecca Dyson Smith (Anne of Cleves); Lauren McQueen (Catherine Howard); and Alice Patten (Katherine Parr). Notable veteran actor Richard Ridings (who voices the character of Daddy in the popular children’s show Peppa Pig) appears as the older King Henry VIII in episode 3. Scott Arthur plays Young King Henry VIII in episodes 1 and 2.

 

PBS goes into the bowels of Boston for a fascinating documentary on subway history

Petula Clark made it very clear: Don’t sleep in the subways, darling.

But learning about the underground travel system is a whole different trip. In the late 19th century, as America’s teeming cities grew increasingly congested, the time had come to replace the nostalgic horse-drawn trolleys with a faster, cleaner, safer, and more efficient form of transportation. Ultimately, it was Boston—a city of so many firsts—that overcame a litany of engineering challenges, the greed-driven interests of businessmen, and the great fears of its citizenry to construct America’s first subway. Based in part on Doug Most’s acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name, The Race Underground tells the dramatic story of an invention that changed the lives of millions.

PBS Distribution releases American Experience: The Race Underground on DVD on February 28. The program will also be available for digital download.

In the late 1800s, Boston reigned as America’s most crowded city, with nearly 400,000 people packed into a downtown of less than one square mile. With more than 8,000 horses pulling the trolleys, the city was filthy and noisy, reeking of manure and packed with humanity.

In 1890, Edison General Electric Company, which manufactured much of Sprague’s equipment, purchased and absorbed the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company

But a young American inventor named Frank Sprague had a revolutionary idea. Inspired by his visits to the London Underground, Sprague envisioned a subway system that would trade London’s soot-spewing coal-powered steam engine with a motor run on the latest technology—electricity. After an early job with his idol Thomas Edison, Sprague launched his own venture, the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company.

Sprague

Seeking investors, he first struck out with financier Jay Gould after almost setting the mogul on fire during a demonstration.  He soon found backing with the wealthy capitalist Henry Whitney, who owned a fortune in suburban Boston real estate and quickly saw the financial upside of connecting his desirable residential neighborhoods with the city’s economic center. Whitney also proposed the consolidation of Boston’s seven existing streetcar companies—all under his control. When the Massachusetts General Court granted Whitney the monopoly, he announced an unprecedented plan: To build the nation’s first subway. Powered by Sprague’s technology and enthusiastically supported by Boston Mayor Nathan Matthews, the project threw the city into a voluble debate.

“The Boston subway was not a foregone conclusion, not by a long shot. There was a petition at one point where 12,000 businessmen opposed the subway,” says historian Stephen Puleo. “There were going to be streets torn up, sewer systems affected, water lines affected, electrical lines affected. Secondly, folks felt like traveling underground was very close to the netherworld, that you were getting closer to the devil, that you were taking this great risk in God’s eyes by traveling on a subway.”

The debate raged on, but the Mayor finally convinced the city that the new subway would provide much-needed jobs and not infringe on the city’s beloved Boston Common. After two years of construction, Boston’s new subway made its first trip on September 1, 1897. Despite lingering fears, more than 250,000 Bostonians rode the underground rails on its first day. In its first year of operation, 50 million passengers would ride the Boston system, and within ten years, New York and Philadelphia opened subways, with more American cities to follow.