“Unmarked” – Lost [MOVIE REVIEW]

Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville, VA, an African American cemetery in use between 1801 and 1954. Photo courtesy of First Run Features,

“Unmarked,” a well-intentioned short documentary that seeks to shine a light on heritage lost and heritage found, focuses primarily on the unmarked and abandoned graves of African Americans in Virginia.

The discovery of unmarked slave graves on the property of a preserved plantation, prompted a more in depth look at where other similar graves might be located and who the deceased were. For, as one interviewee stated, “When you know where you come from you know who you are.”

Directors Chris Haley and Brad J. Bennett, for better or worse, cast their net a bit too wide. The finding of the slave grave sites, so hidden from view and previously unrecognized, could have opened a wider discussion on more of the stories they uncovered. There are records, few as they may be, about some of these slaves and their histories.

Moving on from the discovery of slave graveyards, the directors then focus on the uncared for and seemingly abandoned graveyards of African Americans who were born well after the end of slavery; graveyards overgrown with weeds and broken headstones. They too, more than likely, tell a story. It might have been interesting to know who those more recently deceased people were or why had these graves been abandoned. Surely relatives for these people still existed. We follow several of the volunteer leaders who have taken on the task to rejuvenate these overgrown sites that had been left to deteriorate.

But this segues into a story of the disparity of wealth and power, and the traditional degradation suffered by African Americans in the South. Unlike the graveyards of Confederate soldiers, sympathizers, and their modern day descendants that continue to thrive and be well-tended, their African American counterparts had no public or governmental support and have fallen into a state of disrepair. Volunteer groups have been organized to clear the brush, weeds, and debris from newly found, although not so very old, graveyards. The state of Virginia, finally recognizing the disparity in support, has begun to step up in the care of these sites.

The intentions of the filmmakers was good but even in the short span of an hour of storytelling they seem unable to zero-in on one theme and tell it well. Yes, black graves matter, but the diffusion of focus makes for a head-scratching experience. The film shines when personal stories and discovered truths about this history are told, but there are too few of them to lock in your interest.

In the end the film seems to be more of a film school project than a cohesive documentary. With judicious editing and more focus on the slave graveyards, this might make a good POV episode on PBS, but not as it stands.

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