What better way to spend the 4th of July weekend than going to the movies to see a great film about US history? We have now gotten some more reviews of Free State of Jones, and they continue to point out why it is an entertaining and needed film. First, Megan Kate Nelson weighed in on her website, and got a little feedback from her non-historian parents. All agreed that it was a good movie that shatters the popular perception of a united south during the Civil War. I don’t know about her parents, but Nelson can be a tough critic, so her praise carries some weight. Next, ChicagoReader.com has an article that serves as a review and provides some good background for the Newt Knight story, arguing that the film turns “a Civil War legend into a plea for racial unity.” It is sympathetic to the movie’s attempt to cover the difficult story of Reconstruction, because it is in many ways important to not let the film end on a triumphant note: “Independence Day movies are supposed to let freedom ring, yet as we all know from experience, sometimes freedom rings hollow.” Lastly, by far the most detailed and analytical review that we have seen so far appears today from the Journal of the Civil War Era. Historian Patrick Rael digs very deeply into the movie, as well as the history of both the Civil War and slavery on film, to discuss what the Free State of Jones does well, and how it comes up short. It is a detailed read, and I disagree with a good share of it (particularly the insistence that the movie fits into the category of “white savior” film). But it is an interesting piece (though long for a blog post) and like most other historians so far he concludes that “’Jones’ is the first major modern film to take Reconstruction seriously, and this alone makes it remarkable.” Still, (and I agree with this too), he argues that Hollywood films have yet to catch completely up with recent slave and Civil War historiography. Absolutely. Which is why I am so glad to see a step in that direction.
But the reviews I have found the most interesting in the last few days were the ones that I got from my students that I sent to the film as a bit of extra credit. They eagerly jumped at the chance (of course), with most of them going see it. Sadly, we did not have class time to talk much about their thoughts about the movie (though we did a little) , but I did have them email me (which I think actually resulted in a larger response than I would have in class, since so many students these days are shy about speaking up in front of others). I asked them to be honest, as it would not hurt my feelings or change their extra points if they did not like the movie. Now, keep in mind that in summer courses we often get a higher number of students that confess to hating history (hence why they try to get it over with in a month-long summer semester rather than a over a regular 4-month one). Still, every one of them reported really enjoying the movie (several expressed surprise that they did), and some even indicated that they anticipated buying the DVD when it comes out because they liked it so much. At the University of Alabama, the majority of our students are from out-of-state, and this class in particular had a sampling of students from pretty much every section of the country. Every one of them reported being clueless about southern unionism until we discussed it in class and until seeing the movie, which to me is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why the film is important. The perception of a united south in defense of “states rights” is shattered by Free State of Jones, and my students understood and appreciated that. They also had very perceptive things to say about the depiction of slavery in the film (so much for Charles Blow’s contention that slavery is erased by the movie), relating it to our classroom discussion about the brutality of the system, but also to slave resistance (hurrah!) The most surprising thing to me is that many indicated that they didn’t find the last 30 minutes to be as narratively weak as reviewers (myself included) have complained about. Further, several liked the connection the film makes to more modern race problems. Excellent! I’m still not sure why audience perceptions of this film seem to be at such odds with the critical consensus (Rotten Tomatoes reveals that viewers are liking this movie way more than critics. Notice also that the audience rating from Cinema Score is an A-), but my students have clearly proven that you do not have to even like history all that much to enjoy the film and to appreciate its message. So get to the movies over the holiday weekend!
And speaking of holiday weekend activities/traditions/Americana:
The Chicago Tribune has posted a very short video presenting “the history of fireworks.” No surprises in it, but its worth a quick look to get you in the holiday mood.
The Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest on Coney Island has become a 4th of July tradition. Legend has it that it started in 1916 when newly arrived immigrants were challenged to prove how “American” they were by seeing who could down the most hot dogs. It is a good story, but it is all made up. Which means it is actually a story of good ol’ American corporate PR.
How about some baseball history for the 4th of July weekend? An 1857 convention of New York baseball clubs produced what are thought to be the first official written rules for the game, and the documents are considered the “Magna Carta” of baseball. They’ve only recently surfaced, and will soon be on display.
Down in Florida, they renamed a beach today near Fort Lauderdale for two Civil Rights activists that helped get the beaches desegregated. The park has long been named after the man that bought the land so that it could be a “colored beach” for blacks to swim in during the segregation era. Now it is the first state park in Florida named after African Americans.