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6 Degrees Entertainment

'The British Empire in Color'
(Art Malik, et al / DVD / NR / (2002) 2008 / Acorn Media)

Overview: The British Empire brought education, technology, law, and democracy to the four corners of the globe. It also brought prejudice, discrimination, cultural bigotry, and racism. With an unblinking eye, this three-part series examines the complexities, contradictions, and legacies of empire, both positive and negative.

DVD Verdict: This 2002 documentary for English television delivers its stated goods - it contains two and a half hours of rare color footage dating back to the early 1920s, much of it very interesting. It claims also to be a documentary on the waning decades of the British Empire, from the time when England ruled millions of colonial subjects worldwide to the 1997 return of Hong Kong back to China.

The main source appears to be a great quantity of non-commercial color footage and even home movies, filmed under semi-professional conditions. The English hobbyists took their amateur filmmaking seriously, with the result that the non-pro coverage here is often as good as what appears to be unedited color scenes filmed by professionals. Videotape doesn't rear its ugly head until the 1980s.

Where the show doesn't work is as a documentary. The filmmakers openly state that their aim, as in earlier efforts (2000's Britain at War in Colour), was to build whatever show they could that the available footage would support. This means that, although the narration script is talking about India and we're seeing images from India, that there's often little connection between the two. The show's authorial point of view can also be highly prejudicial.

Movies of English ladies enjoying garden parties in India are accompanied, Ken Burns-style, by un-attributed, dramatized speeches that characterize the colonials as snobs. The chosen readings make fun of the local swamis as 'dirty natives', that sort of thing. Surely that attitude was common in India, but the show doesn't add to our understanding of it. We almost believe that the broadcast backers of the show insisted on the PC statements to deflect potential public complaints over the sixty and seventy-year-old images of British dominance.

In general, the docu's three chapters skip from continent to continent, showing conditions under the colonials. We see impressive pictures of Mohandas Gandhi, only to have a (presumed) vocal artist imitate him for more Ken Burns audio bites. Because the voices are never identified as recreations, the docu falsifies history while treating the audience like little children.

After beginning with contemptuous Englanders scoffing at the 'unclean primitives' of 1925 India, we end with contemptuous Englanders grousing that traditions in their homeland are disappearing under the influx of other races. The docu builds a case but never forms a thesis, and ends on empty platitudes about the promise of the future. This is a Full Screen Presentation (1.33:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Feature of a 26-minute "making of" documentary that describes how the series was researched and developed.