mercystreet

McKinley Belcher plays Samuel Diggs on the PBS drama ‘Mercy Street.’ (Courtesy image)

Period sagas are the next big thing.  As if yearning for some wistful bits of the past, public television docu-series like “Finding Your Roots” and “Who Do You Think You Are,” gave way to cable productions like the celebrated “Boardwalk Empire,” “Hell on Wheels,” and “Copper.”   Using a successful British template created with “Call the Midwives,” “Selfridges,” and “Downton Abbey,” PBS recently began producing its own Civil War-era series, “Mercy Street.”

Based on real events, “Mercy Street” offers a relatively accurate look at life in a Union-occupied mansion-turned hospital in 1862 Alexandria, Virginia.  The show premiered on Jan. 17. And while reviewers point to some period inconsistencies – too many women speaking their mind, and some rather one-dimensional characters – the litmus test for most viewers has been its treatment of enslaved Africans in the midst of the Confederacy. Fortunately, for both viewers and some historians, “Mercy Street” makes a decent mark.

“It is not just that we are currently dealing with a lot of racial tensions in 2016 focused on representation and realism, but also that the Civil War remains a bit of an incendiary narrative for Whites and Blacks alike,” said historian Barbara Bell, whose work examines convict leasing following the Civil War. “‘Mercy Street’ does a decent job of broadening the scope of the narrative, but brushes over a lot of the violence and hostilities away from the battlefields.”

Dramatized from the perspectives of two volunteer nurses – one a Unionist, the other a supporter of the Confederacy – Mercy Street introduces strong-willed, defiant White women into a world often filled with soldiers’ stories of battles and loss.

The movie shows the diversity of Alexandria – a Southern city taken over by the Union and brimming with soldiers, civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded men from both sides, runaway slaves, prostitutes, speculators and spies.

Historian Kevin M. Levin said that “Mercy Street’s” careful exploration of shifting ground between freedom and slavery occupied by thousands of fugitive slaves or contraband as described by military and civilian authorities in mid-1862, was a pleasant surprise.

“Hospital orderlies such as Samuel Diggs, a free man and Aurelia Johnson, a former slave from North Carolina, both face the humiliation of widespread racism and the more immediate dangers of slave catchers and even sexual violence,” Levin said.  “At the same time these Black characters are not presented as passive, but instead assert themselves in ways that challenge and surprise their White counterparts.”

For viewers like Georgetown history major Ingrid Arthur, it doesn’t make sense to go from showing the racial tensions among Black characters back to seemingly nonsensical jibes between the two nurses that disrupts the real story within Mercy Street.

“When you consider how the injuries and loss these white soldiers face was believed to be caused by Black bodies – free, enslaved, or runaway – there would have been an extreme amount of tension in Alexandria,” Arthur said.  “Even those bickering nurses would have had some type of reactions to these black bodies, rather than staying in their lanes .”

ssherman@afro.com