The Birth of a Nation. Directed by Nate Parker. Written by Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin.
Release Date: October 7, 2016.
Rarely have I walked into a movie with so much external context bleeding through the theater walls. Almost two weeks into The Birth of a Nation‘s run, and the film is more successful as think piece fodder than as a commercial enterprise, making it almost impossible to evaluate on its own merits. How does it relate to the controversial and complicated historical record of Nat Turner’s rebellion? Where does it fit in the new filmography of slavery? Why aren’t more people seeing it (I was alone in my 7pm Thursday night show) and, if they stay away, will the “white savior” remain Hollywood’s preferred slavery narrative? Finally, should we take the troubled personal histories of Nate Parker and Jean McGinanni Celestin into account when evaluating this film? Read More
Reviewing Shenandoah made me realize something: wow, there are a lot of sad sack leaders in Civil War fiction. In that film, it was George Kennedy’s Colonel Fairchild. He only gets one scene but spends all of it in a seemingly deep state of depression. His tone is muted, his eyes are downcast, and his whole demeanor suggests he’s lost faith in the Union cause.
Shenandoah. Directed by Andrew W. McLaglen. Written by James Lee Barrett.
Release Date: June 3, 1965.
I’ve been busy, busy, busy, so it took me a lot longer to get around to watching Shenandoah than I’d originally planned. My inspiration for watching it was Kevin Levin’s review of Free State of Jones. Arguing for Jones‘s originality, he says:
Even Shenandoah, released in 1965 and starring Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson (the head of a family that includes four strapping young men who somehow evade the draft), fails to turn against the Confederacy. By the end of the film, the loss of his children and the destruction of his farm leaves Anderson confused and disillusioned about the futility of all wars.
Mostly unfamiliar with the film, I decided to watch it and test my own impressions against Levin’s. What I found was that Shenandoah is more anti-Confederate than Levin thinks it is, but hedges its bets by making war itself the true enemy.
Well, it finally happened. Earlier today, the University of Mississippi Athletics Department got a jump on the college football season by banning “Dixie” from all athletic events. This is a story I’ve been following for years, as it was a major part of my chapter on memory in Battle Hymns. The controversy at Ole Miss is a perfect example of how difficult, even impossible, it is to separate Confederate symbols from their white supremacist legacy (the flag being the other prominent example). The song’s author, Daniel Decatur Emmett, never intended “Dixie” to be the anthem of a pro-slavery southern state, but Confederates imprinted that meaning on the song and white supremacists reinforced it for decades after, giving “Dixie” a permanent subtext odious to most people. The Civil War generation left their mark on numerous songs (the multiple lyrics and associations given to the melody for “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the northern equivalent) and we can’t help but hear those songs the way they did. “Dixie” is no exception. For years, Ole Miss tried to dilute that context by pairing “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but these efforts ultimately failed, as audiences made the song’s pro-Confederate associations explicit by chanting “The South shall rise again” over the “Battle’s Hymn’s” “His truth is marching on.” Read More
The Keeping Room. Directed by Daniel Barber. Written by Julia Hart.
Release Date: September 25, 2015.
I decided to watch The Keeping Room because it’s recent and in my Netflix queue. Turns out, it makes an perfect companion (or counterpoint) to Free State of Jones. Films like Jones are chipping away at popular culture’s longstanding love affair with the Lost Cause narrative, but others like The Keeping Room show we still have a long way to go. It’s not that The Keeping Room is a pro-Confederate movie. It’s using the Civil War to tell a story about gender and the horror of war but it incorporates elements of the Lost Cause seemingly as a matter of course. Yankees are murderous rapists, William Tecumseh Sherman is a monster, and slaves are invested in protecting their masters. I kept wanting to like this movie but the script’s outdated depiction of the Civil War proved more grating than I could bear. Read More
Free State of Jones. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross and Leonard Hartman.
Release Date: June 24, 2016.
I think I’ve gotten pretty good at generating quick opinions about pieces of culture, especially during the 18 months I’ve been writing this blog. But no entry has given me as much trouble as this one. Free State of Jones is a unique film that prizes historical accuracy over dramatic tension or traditional narrative tropes. This is a rare thing and challenged my usual assumptions about both art and historical fiction. Whether that makes it a good film largely depends on your interest in the Civil War Era and southern history.
Free State of Jones is only a week away and the New York Times ran a fascinating interview Wednesday with its director, Gary Ross. I was especially struck by Ross’s investment in establishing the film’s historical bona fides. He claims to have researched his subject extensively and consulted with multiple historians, many of whom appear in the article. He even took a pseudo-seminar with John Stauffer. Most remarkable of all is this website that essentially footnotes the film, explaining script choices and providing access to relevant primary documents and secondary citations. As a historian, I find all of this very commendable. As a critic, it makes me a little nervous. Read More
Roots. Episodes 2-4. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, Thomas Carter, and Bruce Beresford. Written by Alison McDonald, Charles Murray, and Lawrence Konner. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.
Release dates: May 31 – June 2, 2016.
The new Roots concluded last Thursday and I thought it was mostly well done. A busy schedule and other commitments prevented me from commenting on the entire series until now. So, instead of offering a straightforward review, I’m going to target an aspect that has largely gone unmentioned: the series’ consistent commitment to the black perspective and how that affects its portrayal of whites. Remarkably, Roots almost never tells its story from the point of view of a white character. Some critics consider this a weakness, but I see it as a welcome narrative choice. One of the central problems with the original series was how it heightened white roles to attract white audiences. This new Roots corrects that error and, in doing so, presents us with a more realistic depiction of the master-slave relationship—portraying whites as distant unknowable interlopers, whose involvement with slaves inevitably results in violence and emotional trauma.
Roots. Episode 1. Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.
Release Date: May 30, 2016.
“They’ll think I’m playing for them, but I’m really playing for you.”
This is what Fiddler (Forest Whitaker) tells Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby) on Christmas day, as a means of distracting their white masters while Kunta tries to escape, but it really could be a thesis statement for much of the music enslaved Africans performed and created. It’s a vital statement for the new version of Roots to make because music plays a central role in portraying Kunta’s forced journey from Gambia to Virginia. There was much to like in last night’s premiere installment but, as a music historian, this aspect resonated with me, so I’m going to explore it a little here. Read More
Roots. Directed by Marvin J. Chomsky, John Erman, David Greene, and Gilbert Moses. Written by William Blinn, James Lee, M. Charles Cohen, and Ernest Kinoy. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Alex Haley.
Release Date: January 23 to January 30, 1977.
Some of you might have noticed I was originally going to review a little indie movie about Sherman’s March before turning to the History [Channel]’s re-make of Roots. I was delighted, however, when my old friend and previous guest blogger, Glenn David Brasher (who also has a great blog of his own), offered to write a piece exploring the 1977 original and asking if there’s really a need for us to see a new version. Here are his thoughts after revisiting the original Roots as we get set for Monday’s premiere: