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
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:
14 months ago, I wondered what the failure of Amazon’s Civil War drama series, Point of Honor, meant for the Civil War in popular culture. I worried audiences didn’t reject the show because it was objectively terrible but because they just weren’t interested in the Civil War. I saw promising signs in Hollywood—with Free State of Jones being adapted for the screen (coming this June!)—but it looked like the Civil War Era and my television weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. It wasn’t long before I heard about Mercy Street and things started looking up. Then came news the History [Channel] was remaking Roots. The jury’s still out on Roots, but Mercy Street was a solid, if slightly disappointing, stab at serialized Civil War fiction. Throughout, Underground was completely off my radar. WGN’s bold slave resistance drama seemed to come out of nowhere and turned out to be one of the best (maybe the best) depictions of the Civil War Era on TV. What Underground achieved demonstrates how rethinking what “Civil War popular culture” means can draw new audiences and make for riveting, smart, and original entertainment. Read More
Underground. Season 1. Directed by Anthony Hemingway, Romeo Tirone, and Kate Woods. Written by Misha Green, Joe Pokaski, Jason Wilborn, and Jennifer Yale.
Release Date: March 9 to May 11, 2016.
Underground opens with its protagonist, Noah, fleeing his Georgia plantation to the sound of Kanye West’s excellent “Black Skinhead.” It’s an announcement up front that the African Americans who inhabit this show are not passive victims. They are active participants in the fight against slavery and their struggle has echoes in their time and our own. The show may be called Underground, but it should be called Resistance. This opening scene also reveals the show’s style will be as bold as its themes. The seemingly anachronistic use of modern music to score the action is a choice that’s made again and again, and it usually works. With “Black Skinhead,” the show doubles down by isolating West’s rhythmic breathing to substitute for Noah’s, before reintroducing the song’s hellish baseline to create a sense of foreboding as the slavecatchers and their hounds close in. Even before the credits rolled, I was hooked. Read More
I haven’t written a full review of Underground because I’m still two weeks behind the series. It feels a little odd to write about it with an incomplete picture, but after watching the third episode, “The Lord’s Day,” last night, I was struck by what a great historical and dramatic character the show has in its co-protagonist, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Her arc in this episode is especially encouraging because it not only breaks with some bad habits in fictional portrayals of enslaved women, it also reflects the show’s overall success in avoiding cliches that often plague these kinds of stories. Read More
“Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol. Produced by Keith Forsey. Written by Billy Idol and Steve Stevens.
Release Date: October 24, 1982.
I recently reviewed Craig A. Warren’s The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History for The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. I liked the book and my review is largely positive, but there’s one aspect I’d like to discuss here because it pertains directly to Civil War memory in popular culture. Warren commendably incorporates “Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol’s most famous tune (with the possible exception of his cover of “Mony Mony”), into his study but I disagree with Warren’s interpretation of the lyrics. This was too small an issue to warrant a lot of attention in my review, but it seemed like good fodder for a blogpost–especially since there’s some overlap with my previous discussion of the Confederate flag. Read More
Glory. Directed by Edward Zwick. Written by Kevin Jarre.
Release Date: February 16, 1990.
Glory is my favorite Civil War film, as evidenced by the image in the blog’s letterhead. I have lots of opinions on it and would love to share them with you. However, my good friend Glenn David Brasher is a first-rate historian and has a much deeper personal relationship with this film. Indeed, I believe he’s one of the most qualified people to write about it and I’m delighted to hand the blog over to him. Enjoy. Read More
“Marching through Georgia.” Music and Lyrics by Henry Clay Work.
Release Date: January 9, 1865.
Available: Audio by Old Crow Medicine Show and as sheet music.
I’m delighted to announce that my final New York Times Disunion piece is up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it discusses Henry Clay Work’s most popular song, “Marching through Georgia.” You can read it here. Thanks again to Clay Risen for including me in this awesome endeavor.