Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2018
Running Time: 56 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Make It Happen: Masters of Invention, Seeds of Success, George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Way, More Than a Month
-George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life is streaming on Iowa Public Television’s (A PBS affiliate) YouTube channel.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: This documentary has a one-word difference compared to An Uncommon Way which came out first.
-An Uncommon Life was narrated by Iowa native Gregory Alan Williams. He’s acted in several movies and TV shows such as Baywatch, Remember the Titans, Brightburn, and Drop Dead Diva.
-Laurel Bower was the director of An Uncommon Life. She has been a director and producer with Iowa Public Television since 1995 and has also worked on More Than a Game and The People In the Pictures.
After my random research on Black inventors and watching Make It Happen: Masters of Innovation, I continued on with my research. Those types of documentaries can be hard to come by and I’ll spare you the obvious reasons why many inventors of that ilk don’t get spotlighted regardless if they have some kind of notoriety or not. They have certainly made numerous innovations in different fields. For this case, I’m going to cover a documentary involving an inventor who I actually remember learning about in school.
Oh, and by the way. There’s more to this guy than just peanut butter. Moving on now…
George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life is a historical documentary that covers the multi-disciplined inventor’s life. Carver was born into slavery and his family was abducted before being resold in Arkansas. He was orphaned and adopted by other slaves in order to survive. Despite being naturally sick, frail, and witnessing things no child should ever see such as bondage, lynchings, and rampant discrimination, he had the drive to learn. All of this education allowed him to eventually study at Iowa State University in Ames before getting a job at Tuskegee University during its early years and operation from Booker T. Washington. Even though Carver would mainly be known as the “peanut butter guy” in schools, his oeuvre of work goes beyond that. He made hundreds of other inventions with peanuts and other crops, made agricultural innovations, did chemistry, botany, and was an artist in his free time where in hindsight, some of his biographers called him the “Black Leonardo da Vinci”.
Okay, George Washington Carver was mentioned when I reviewed Make It Happen, but I was impressed with how much I didn’t know about this man. It was fascinating seeing him excel in so many different fields and with how educated he was. I wasn’t even aware of some of his connections like with Henry Ford of all people. Knowing about his early life, I certainly wanted to root for him to succeed and his successes were bigger than I could’ve dreamed of. I do appreciate how humble he was from what I know about Carver. One thing that I thought was interesting was his spirituality and level of humanity. They do mention him being a devout Christian, but it never got overbearing and he legitimately did his best to improve the world to the best of his ability without judging anyone. Even though he witnessed so much anti-Black racism and saw a lynching in his youth, I was shocked that he didn’t hate every Caucasian on the planet especially given how bad and overt the bigotry was during his lifetime. While I do my best to be kind to anyone regardless of their skin color, I certainly had internalized anger for suffering less than what he did and I’ve been a victim of racism in my life. Besides the stories about George Washington Carver, I thought that the camera work was serviceable here with the reenactments which didn’t go overboard mixed with archived footage of his later years. The music was a pleasant mix of old-time piano music with some gospel tunes which worked pretty well. They certainly added to the overall feel of this documentary.
An Uncommon Life did have some common missteps in the documentary though. I thought there was a major over-reliance on pictures and talking head shots. The rampant pictures made the documentary look like a glorified slideshow at times instead of a documentary produced by a major network. The talking headshots were the only main interview footage and they should’ve diversified the filming style with B-roll footage or different types of angles. I also felt elements of George Washington Carver’s were minimized and downplayed. It was surprising that they couldn’t find a video clip of him talking. Doing my own research, I found out that his voice was very high-pitched for a man and that was because he was a victim of castration when he was younger. That was horrifying knowing about all of that and I don’t know if it was to make this documentary more family-friendly, but I thought it would’ve been stronger to know about Carver’s hardships growing up while also showing the cruel realities of being Black in America. There was also one brief, yet problematic piece of information. It’s mentioned that Mahatma Gandhi’s assistant asked advice from Carver for a vegetarian diet given his acumen in agriculture and botany. I get what they were trying to do by making those connections mean something, but I have to drop this truth bomb: Gandhi was racist against Black people which hurts this documentary a bit. If you don’t believe me, check out Gandhi’s quotes about South Africa and you won’t look at him the same way again.
This documentary about the multi-talented George Washington Carver was a solid effort. I certainly learned so much more about the man and his contributions. The biographies and storytelling worked most of the time. However, the visual production relied too much on pictures and the brief Gandhi name-drop did hurt the overall score of my review. George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life was a good documentary and still a worthy watch, but some improvements here and there could’ve put this in the upper echelon of historical biographies.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like historical documentaries.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want more camera work in your documentaries.
-George Washington Carver’s story is very inspiring and informative
-Has a good mix of his life story in addition to his numerous inventions (not just peanut butter!)
-Too many pictures as part of the film
-Omitted historical facts about Carver which would’ve made this doc stronger
-The Gandhi namedrop has unfortunate implications given Carver’s race
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warning: This documentary should be fine for families to watch. Slavery and lynchings are mentioned especially when it came to George Washington Carver’s early life, but that’s the worst thing about it. Everything else is quite innocuous.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. George Washington Carver: An Uncommon Life is property of Laurel Bower and PBS. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of PBS.
So I knew that George Washington Carver had more than 100 patents to his name, but that’s only because it was pretty consistently brought up on commercials about him, and there is actually a statue of him on the ISU campus. He’s a pretty big deal there.
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That’s good how you know that. I was only told about the whole peanut butter thing when I was a kid and I didn’t see any commercials like that where I’m from. It would make sense why he’d be more revered in Ames since he did graduate from ISU.