Faces of America Marathon on PBS World

Faces of America Marathon on PBS World

Sat, 07/17/2010 - 6:00pm - Sun, 07/18/2010 - 1:00am

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (left) turns again to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 11 renowned Americans. Professor Gates’ guests include actress Meryl Streep (right).

Credit: Joseph Sinnott/©2009 WNET.ORG

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. unravels the American tapestry, following the threads of his guests’ lives back to their origins around the globe.

What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the new PBS series FACES OF AMERICA. Building on the success of his series AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES (called by The New York Times “the most exciting and stirring documentary on any subject to appear on television in a long time”) and AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES 2, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. turns again to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 11 renowned Americans. The complete series encores Saturday, July 17 from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. on PBS World (cable 524/DT21.2)

Along the way, the many stories he uncovers — of displacement and homecoming, of material success and dispossession, of assimilation and discrimination — illuminate the American experience. Professor Gates’ guests include poet Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and read the poem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, film director Mike Nichols, Her Royal Highness Queen Noor, actress Eva Longoria, actress Meryl Streep and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

FACES OF AMERICA spans four episodes.

“Our American Stories” – Episode one explores the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century. World war tore apart families and sundered the fabric of many lives, but America beckoned and millions came. America was an ambivalent host, however. At its best, it was a place of refuge and salvation, as it was for film director Mike Nichols whose entire family escaped Nazi Germany. At its worst, it was a country that would imprison two generations of Japanese Americans, including the forebears of Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. Viewers will discover the buoyant American optimism that shaped chance — as in a single encounter that changed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s life forever — to pave the road to success.

“Becoming American” – Episode two explores the many journeys to becoming American that defined the “Century of Immigration” (1820s-1924) and transformed the United States from a sleepy agrarian country into a booming industrial power. Stephen Colbert’s Irish great-great-grandfather escaped poverty and religious oppression in Limerick and never looked back, whereas Mario Batali’s great-grandfather, who left the place where his family had lived for centuries, struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana. Queen Noor’s Syrian great-grandfather quickly found his footing in New York’s first Arab-American community, while Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather faced exclusionary laws and racially defined barriers to citizenship for decades. The obstacles, short cuts, tragedies and successes encountered or created by the guests’ ancestors from around the world reveal the complexity of our shared history and identity as Americans.

“Making America” – Episode three tells the story of the peopling of the New World, how land came to define the settling and identity of America and how the guests’ ancestors were part of this history. Viewers learn of Meryl Streep’s eighth great-grandfather who fought in Metacom’s War; records of a land dispute in Spain that forced Eva Longoria's ancestors to leave for the New World in 1603; and Yo-Yo Ma’s Chinese genealogy, which gives insights into the identity that Ma has longed for his whole life.

“Know Thyself” – Episode four takes up the ancestor search where the historical record leaves off and links the guests’ distinctive family histories to the broader history of “the family of man.” Combining the documented stories of some of the guests’ last known ancestors with DNA evidence, the series travels backward through time to reveal both distant relatives and surprising shared ancestral connections. Elizabeth Alexander learns that she is a direct descendent of Charlemagne and that her paternal roots are not only European, but Jewish. Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols discover that they are distant cousins, as do Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria. Interwoven with these stories and others is the journey of the host, Henry Louis Gates, as he, his father and brother undertake a historic project to have their entire genomes mapped, thereby learning everything they possibly can about their own family. This episode offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.

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