Suffolk native examines ‘Liberty and Slavery’

Published 10:33 pm Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Suffolk native is receiving accolades for a film examining a central paradox of America’s founding fathers — how could they favor liberty and slavery at the same time?

Troy Thomas said he started working on the film in March 2012 and finished in April of this year.

“It was a full four years,” he said. There was plenty of other work in the interim, though — Thomas, a Nansemond-Suffolk Academy alumnus, does regular work for the NFL covering games on game day as well as other work.

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He got the idea for the film after doing a lot of reading about the founders while recovering from an injury.

“I really got into the details of how complex the story of slavery in the founding era really was,” he said. “I had never seen a documentary that fully confronted that paradox — how was it possible they were champions of liberty and yet they were suppressing an entire group of people?”

In all, 43 people were interviewed for the film in 12 states and Washington, D.C. They are descendants of slaves, college professors, authors, religious leaders, directors of museums and historical sites, archeologists and more.

Many of the people interviewed have connections to the founders’ homes — staff members at James Madison’s Montpelier, James Monroe’s Highland, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and others all agreed to be interviewed.

“There’s been kind of a shift,” Thomas said. “When I was growing up, you never talked about the slavery part of it. A lot of the historical places, even Monticello, are really finally embracing the slave part of it and saying, ‘We need to talk about it.’”

One interviewee was India Meissel, a social studies teacher at Lakeland High School. Thomas also said a lot of scenic shots in the film were taken in Suffolk.

Thomas said while growing up in Virginia, where the founders are celebrated as “almost demigods,” he was “always troubled by the fact that they were slave owners.”

The film presents the history of how slavery came to be in the United States during the crafting of the Constitution.

“There were compromises that had to be made,” he said. “If they had abolished slavery, South Carolina and Georgia were going to walk out and not ratify anything. It would have split the country in two, and the northern delegates would have had no control over the southern states.”

The critical response to the film has been positive. It has received many awards, including Telly Awards for documentary and cinematography. It won best feature documentary just last weekend at the Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, N.C., among many other film festival awards.

Among people who see the documentary, the results are mixed.

“You have both sides — people that make light of slavery and people who condemn the founders as racists and don’t want to hear anything else about them,” Thomas said. “We try to present the founders completely, both the good and the bad.”

Thomas said he hopes the film will help with racial reconciliation.

“I wanted white people to understand the tragedy that was slavery in the colonial era,” he said. “I wanted African-Americans to understand that doing away with slavery was a very difficult thing to do for the founders. What we’re trying to do is get that discussion out on the table.”

The film’s website, where the trailer can be viewed and DVDs or digital downloads can be purchased, is