The big story in Hollywood right now is the upcoming seventh Star Wars film. Seemingly everyone (including me) is getting swept away by the hype while silently hoping the movie doesn’t stink. History geeks, however, are equally fired up for The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey and based on Victoria Bynum’s excellent book of the same name. Few people are better positioned to comment on the film and its place in pop culture than Bynum herself, and I’d like to draw your attention to this thoughtful and personal blogpost she published last week.
In general, the article is a response to a question Kevin Levin posed on Twitter some time ago: “What has changed in our Civil War memory to make room for just such a movie?” Bynum partially credits historians who pushed against the traditional Lost Cause narrative and thereby helped reshape popular memory. She’s right to do so, not least because she is one of those historians. I’d add, though, that Hollywood has been moving in this direction on its own for awhile now. Years of historically progressive films about the Civil War and the 19th Century South have primed audiences for what, in my eyes, is a current boom in entertainment rooted in narratives other than the Lost Cause.
Roots delivered the first blow back in 1977 but, as Glenn Brasher suggested in a previous post here, we cannot underestimate Glory‘s impact 23 years later. What’s more, Glory‘s creators were not directly inspired by historical work but by a public monument that, in turn, led them to primary sources on black Union soldiers. I’d argue Glory‘s commercial and artistic success made it a key inspiration for future works and set new boundaries for what a Civil War film could and could not be. I noted previously that the Lost Cause seeped into Gettysburg but I strongly suspect it would have been even worse without Glory appearing three years earlier. Cold Mountain further demonstrated this tepid move away from the Lost Cause in 2003, by challenging the idea of the noble Confederacy (its protagonist is a Confederate deserter) but stopped short of taking on slavery directly.
But the last few years have seen a real jump forward, with several films outright rejecting the Lost Cause and romanticized notions of the Old South. Lincoln, Django Unchained, and 12 Years a Slave are very different films but they have one major thematic feature in common: they recognize slavery was the central problem in 19th Century America and champion those who resisted it. What’s more, Django and 12 Years rightfully make slavery the salient feature of the antebellum South—casting its shadow on all other aspects of southern life, even those previously celebrated by scriptwriters and novelists. That all three films were successful in every sense is highly significant, especially when contrasted with the failure of contemporary efforts more in line with the Lost Cause, such as Gods and Generals, The Field of Lost Shoes, and Point of Honor. The Free State of Jones seems to fit comfortably in this new tradition of realistic and unromanticized depictions of the 19th Century South. Historians have surely assisted in in bringing about this shift, but several other factors also played a role.
This is probably both good news and bad news for Bynum. Consider the ending of her post:
If political movements and academic historians have changed our sense of historical truth, perhaps the forthcoming movie, The Free State of Jones, can likewise expand our popular understanding of the myriad ways in which ordinary folks experienced the Civil War. One can only hope.
The Free State of Jones can surely contribute to the popular rejection of the Lost Cause, but it’s only part of a broader cinematic movement. The problem is, we really don’t know how much previous films changed the way audiences view 19th Century America and/or the Civil War. If you read this blog or my other work, you’ve likely already surmised that I consider popular culture an extremely powerful force for shaping public opinion and therefore believe these films did have a significant impact. If The Free State of Jones is good—and, as with Star Wars, I really hope it is—it should do the same. However, I understand there is a counter-argument that Bynum indirectly makes: doesn’t the current resistance to the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces show the continued power of the Lost Cause? I’d argue instead that the very existence of a movement to remove those symbols is evidence that popular culture is having at least some effect. Maybe these films build on each other—making audiences and producers increasingly more open to realistic depictions of the past. If so, a highly successful Free State of Jones could indeed have a big impact. At the very least, it’s always nice to see good history onscreen and, if this film sticks to its source material, it will surely deliver.
- I hadn’t heard about the upcoming history film forum at the National Museum of American History before I read Bynum’s post. Too bad I don’t still live in DC or I’d certainly go. Hopefully C-SPAN airs at least part of it.
- I also hadn’t heard of Tap Roots. I’ll certainly add it to my list of movies to watch for future blogposts.