I've read some interesting critiques of this new History Channel series. Some have said that is is far too focused on Western civilizations (true, and fair considering it is after all from a western source). Others have said that it really doesn't provide much in terms of actual information (largely true as it seeks to cover all of human history in 9 hours so depth is not a priority). Almost everyone has said that it is more flash than substance (very true, this is actually entertaining.) I agree with nearly every critique I've read and yet I love this series.
This series, like America: The Story of Us before it explore broad historical situations through very focused stories. It, for example, tells the story of Roman persecution of Christians through the lens of a 3rd century Christian woman who was begged by her own family to renounce her faith. Think of it like the voice-over letter reads from Ken Burns' The Civil War only dramatized instead of over-emotionalized. Of note, this 10 minute segment on Christian persecution in Rome is probably the best I've seen in any documentary because of how personal it is. As one who is very leery of any modern interpretation of historical Christianity it was a refreshing change. Unfortunately, as noted in the critiques, this segment only offers passing mention of other key figures like Diocletian and even Constantine. Unlike in modern textbooks which seek to diminish these people for political reasons Mankind does so out of necessity. In telling the common, human story it leaves little room for trivia or easily-tested facts. Again, I see the critique I just don't care. I'd much rather tell the story than a list of facts.
The personal stories they've selected are interesting on their own but the presentation of them takes it to another level. This is, in every way, a modern production. The reenactments are dramatic, well-shot, beautifully costumed and frequently intense. The use of modern action-movie techniques like speed-ramp and thumping music are prevalent. Is it Michael-Bay-Does-History? Maybe, to a degree. Who cares? When the best history books are described as "a great ride" why should history documentaries be any different? You can have flash and still have substance.
Mankind covers a huge breadth of topics from pre-history all the way to today. If you are a world history teacher of any time period it is well worth picking up if for no other reason to see it yourself (though pulling clips for classroom use is highly recommended as well - I've pulled a bunch already.) The focus on story is truly how history ought to be taught. Use it as proof-of-concept if nothing else!
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