More historian reviews of Free State of Jones are coming forth, with Kevin Levin pitching in today with a piece for the Daily Beast. He too enjoyed the film, appreciated the attempt at telling the Reconstruction story, but feels the film tries to do a bit too much and thus falters in its third act. Still, he does a really nice job of placing the film in the context of Hollywood’s historic relationship with the Lost Cause. Better still, he places its release in the context of our current debate about Confederate iconography, concluding that the movie “suggests that we may finally be ready to move beyond the sterilized landscape of Confederate monuments to embrace a darker past that ultimately may help to shed some light on the present.”
Meanwhile, Charles M. Blow published an Op-ed in today’s New York Times that blasted Free State of Jones, and did so pretty unfairly. I feel he falls into a trap that we see far too much of, criticizing something for what he wishes it would have been about, instead of what it was about. He wanted the movie to feature more African American rage and vengeance directed against slavery, as well graphic depiction of the barbarism of the institution. He must have missed all the enslaved characters that made the decision to join Newt in his violent assaults against Confederate troops, as well as the runaway slave that spends a great deal of time in one of these god-awful things:
In fact, Blow feels the film features “the near erasure of slavery altogether.” Considering that (as I pointed out in my review) the film subtlety demonstrates some fairly current slavery historiography, I am not sure what movie he was watching. Which leads me to conclude that he wanted to be watching another movie, one that was not focused on telling Newt Knight’s story and his interactions with the enslaved, but instead focused on overtly demonstrating the barbarism of slavery, slave resistance, and the role it played in shaping the Civil War. Hey, I am all for that movie being made (and have a book about it that I would gladly sell to Hollywood), but this was not the movie Gary Ross was making. We might as well critique the remake of Roots for not focusing more on southern white Unionists during the Civil War. Most troubling, however, is that Blow launched an attack on Victoria Bynum (who wrote the book the film is based upon), by inferring that she does not understand the ways that slave owners sexually exploited their slaves, and argues that the film glosses over it because we do not get some sort of graphic scene of slave rape (a rape does occur in the film, but we learn of it after-the-fact when Newt is told.) I can’t even explain how ridiculous that is. Bynum herself did a great job of defending her work in a response that she posted to the story and on her blog site. So no need for me to go down that path. But let me just say this: I think a large part of Blow’s problem is that he is of the mindset that true slave resistance was in the form of rage and violence. If you have read much of my writings, you know that this is my pet peeve. While this type of resistance did occur (no doubt he is going to love the upcoming film about Nat Turner’s revolt), it was much rarer than the day-to-day resistance that slaves engaged in that shaped their world and their own self identities. In fact, Free State of Jones puts a bit of that resistance on display and should be praised for it (not to mention that it also features several runaway slaves.) When people like Blow fail to see the heroic nature of that resistance, they are belittling the generations of the vast majority of the enslaved that survived the institution via these day-to-day forms of resistance. And, yes, sometimes that included manipulating their masters through sexual activities, something (along with apparently a lot of other things) that Blow does not seem to understand about the dark history of slavery. Let’s praise this movie for joining in on the dismantling of the Lost Cause, not criticize it with faulty logic, a mischaracterization of a noted historian’s work, and anger that it was not a movie different than the one it was intended to be.
Ok, off my high horse . . .
Game of Thrones did it again. Yes, I mean they delivered an incredible episode that wrapped up the season, but I also mean they built an element of it on real history. I’m guessing most history buffs immediately thought of the “Gunpowder Plot” when watching the first 20 minutes of the show (except, unlike Guy Fawkes, she pulled it off). Not familiar with the Gunpowder Plot or need a quick refresher? Time has you covered.
And speaking of English history, the BBC History Magazine has unveiled its second annual “Hot 100” list of “fascinating figures” in the eyes of historians and the general public. Richard III is #1 on the list for the second year in a row (finding him buried in a parking lot no doubt plays a role in this), but other high ranking spots go to various Tudor figures and to Churchill. The most interesting news: Alexander Hamilton jumped out of no where to make the list at #15. Hmmm, I wonder why that happened? Again, don’t tell me that pop culture doesn’t have an huge impact on history.
This past weekend, the New York Times‘ Clay Risen posted a really interesting piece about the role an enslaved man named Nearis Green may have played in the creation of the iconic Jack Daniels whiskey, as well as the wider role African Americans played in the early distillation of the liquor here in the US. The distillery tour at the company’s Lynchburg, Tennessee site has started to include Green in their interpretation (if you have not taken their tour, or any other distillery tour, I highly recommend doing so. They are very interesting and entertaining, and oh, those smells! And the samples!) Researching the role of African Americans in the development of American whiskey may ultimately reap major benefits: “Mike Veach, a whiskey historian, said the influence of enslaved African distillers may explain a mystery in the development of American whiskey. Traces of German, Scots-Irish and English distilling traditions are evident in the American style, but there’s much that can’t be traced to an earlier source — a gap that slave traditions might fill.”
Check out this local news story out of Michigan, where a history-loving 8 year old kid has started a lemonade stand where he’s also selling history lessons (be sure to watch the video). There are no doubt a lot of us that wish we had thought of that when we were his age.
Lemonade and Jack Daniels . . . I think I just got a good idea . . . .