A Lot of Faith

Born a prince, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman was captured by African tribal rivals and sold into slavery at age 26. It was 1788, and the United States’ expanding plantation system had made the market exceedingly lucrative. Even as Abdul Rahman had been raised to lead men—he was commanding some 2,000 of them at the time he was ambushed—he found himself shackled and loaded onto a ship, the Africa, en route from Timbuktu to a “new world.”

Beginning with this harrowing experience, Prince Among Slaves establishes its focus—on the contrast between slavery, as barbaric idea and industry, and one individual’s integrity and strength of will. Directed by Bill Duke and billed as a documentary, the film includes sentimental scoring, melodramatic reenactments (Rahman is played by Ian Coblyn as a child and later, Marcus Mitchell), along with sober narration by Mos Def and a range of talking heads. These experts range from Rahman’s biographer Terry Alford and the late novelist Bebe Moore Campbell to historian David S. Dreyer and Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Each speaks too briefly (at times the film feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of Rahman’s life), but together they tell a story whose general parameters are more familiar than the specifics, the story of a black man ripped from his home, declared property, and forced to labor for his life.

As Rahman recalls (in narration culled from diaries and letters), he labored hard for Colonel Thomas Foster (Bruce Holmes) over 40 years. As historian Adam Hochschild notes, “More than one third of people on earth were in slavery or servitude of one kind or another,” but that hardly made the experience “normal.” Rather, as underscored by etchings of men in restraints and torturous machinery, the “system” was utterly cruel and chaotic (and, as Zaid Shakir asserts, the U.S. version was “exponentially more brutal than what was known in African society”). It’s not a little ironic that Rahman, fluent in multiple...