Entry 42: Rethinking Confederate Symbols in South Park

South Park. “White People Renovating Houses,” Season 21, Episode 1. Directed by Trey Parker. Written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

I may be letting this site lie fallow while I’m distracted by other projects, but the apparently indefatigable Matthew C. Hulbert—author of numerous blogposts and the excellent, award-winning book, The Ghosts of Guerilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West—is putting me to shame and keeping things going. South Park‘s season premiere inspired Matt to think about the current debate over Confederate symbols and the role of historians in that debate (for more on that, see his excellent post on Historista), and I’m happy to give him a platform as Civil War Pop‘s long overdue 42nd entry. Enjoy!

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Entry 41: Live from 1860s New York!

Saturday Night Live. “Civil War Soldiers,” from Season 42, Episode 18, “Jimmy Fallon.”

Remember when Obama was president and we kept calling things “teachable moments?” Well, I can’t resist indulging in one today, since Saturday Night Live did a skit last night that could almost have come completely out of Battle Hymns. Indeed, far from pedantically criticizing the skit for its inaccuracies (something I generally frown upon—even more so with comedy), I’m struck by how much it’s built on actual history. I’m not crazy enough to think someone at SNL read my book, and I suspect the skit’s factual success is accidental, but I’d definitely show it to a US Cultural History or Civil War class. I don’t have either of those things right now, so instead I’ll subject you to my thoughts on how the skit reflects actual musical culture in Civil War armies–probably sapping away all the humor along the way. Read More

Entry 34 (Part 2): The Blackness of Roots

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.
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Entry 34 (Part 1): Hearing Roots

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

Entry 33: Do We Need Another Roots?

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:
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What Does Underground’s Success Mean?

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

Entry 32: The Best Civil War Era Show on TV

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

Rosalee is the Female Character Slavery Fiction Needs

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

Entry 29: Lost Causing It in the Fifth Dimension

The Twilight Zone. “Still Valley,” Season 3, Episode 11. Directed by James Sheldon. Written by Rod Serling and Manly Wade Wellman.

Release Date: November 24, 1961.

Now that Mercy Street is over, I thought we could use a palate cleanser, and what better way than with a guest post by prolific historian, editor, and blogger Matthew C. Hulbert. Matt has a book coming out in the fall that’s right up my alley, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers  Became Gunslingers in the American West, but he’s also a Twilight Zone fan. So, we decided to do a post on the series’s most famous Civil War episode, “Still Valley.” It’s a great piece and I’m always happy to feature other scholars on this blog. Enjoy! Read More

Entry 28 (Part 4): Autopsying Mercy Street

Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.

Release Date: February 21, 2016.

I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive. Read More