Ask most Americans when slavery ended, and you’ll likely hear something about the Civil War and Abe Lincoln. Ask them about the rest of the world, and you may be met by a blank stare. But the truth is that it continues on in our modern era, and that many of us, without knowing it, are the end users of the products that are the result of a long chain of child labor.
As shown by Shraysi Tandon’s award-winning documentary Invisible Hands, which comes to the Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema this weekend, some of the world’s biggest corporations are deeply involved in a system that is complicit in exploiting the world’s most vulnerable population — even, as the film shows at one point, literally selling children into forced labor. These children, some as young as 5 years old, are part of the global machine that ends with a chocolate bar in your shopping cart (cocoa beans in Ghana), or the cellphone in your pocket (cobalt mining — which helps make the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery — in the Congo).
The long and convoluted nature of the supply chain means that many companies can claim ignorance of what goes on to serve their needs. But as Tandon and her crew travel through six countries to expose the truth, they meet a few fellow travelers who are out to end the outrageous practices, or at least bring them out into the light. In India, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi raids the sweatshops where kids are forced to make goods for the West; in Ghana, the investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas (usually seen wearing one of many disguises) has made a name for himself by battling corruption and exploitation in any number of forms.
The big question, of course, is: will this change anything? It seems that, at least directly, the answer is no. But perhaps if enough people are made aware of the deeper costs of their everyday goods, we might be more likely, through boycotts or public shaming, to do what the richest of us seemingly won’t: hold someone accountable.
Invisible Hands, January 17-19, various times, Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield
Also this week: a pair of classic movie musicals come to area screens, starting on Friday night with a screening of Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon at Pothole Pictures in Shelburne Falls (encore screening Saturday). The 1953 film, with a script by Comden and Green (Singin’ in the Rain), stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse; he is an aging musical star who has pinned his comeback hopes on a Broadway show, she is the ballerina who is brought on to co-star in the production. Sparks fly as the pair — each comfortable in their own worlds but insecure when those worlds collide — at first clash but then settle into a surprising rhythm. Comedy fans might recognize the “Dancing in the Dark” set piece; so striking was the dance number that, 25 years later, Steve Martin and Gilda Radner would create an entire Saturday Night Live skit around the choreography.
For Minnelli fans, the weekend only gets better: on Sunday and Wednesday, local Cinemark theaters will bring his 1951 classic An American in Paris to theaters as part of the Big Screen Classics series. This time around it’s Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron instead of Astaire and Charisse, with Kelly portraying GI Jerry Mulligan who stays on in Paris after WWII to try his luck at being an artist. While he catches the eye of an American heiress, it’s parfumerie-worker Lise Bouvier who makes Mulligan swoon. Once catch: she’s already involved with another guy in Mulligan’s circle of friends.
For fans of the musical, this was a heady time, with the genre going through some serious changes (the 17-minute ballet number that is the climax of An American in Paris points toward the future, while the classic Gershwin score reminds us of the bedrock strength of the American musical’s foundation). If you count yourself among that number, there is no better weekend to get out there and enjoy some of what makes it so magical, in the places where these films were meant to be seen.
The Band Wagon, January 17 & 18, 7:30 p.m., Pothole Pictures, 51 Bridge St., Shelburne Falls
An American in Paris, January 19 & 22, various times, local Cinemark Theaters
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.