Today my mind is on the movies (as it frequently is). Did you notice that six out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture are based on history? (Roma, The Favourite, “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Vice,” and “Green Book.”) No one will ever be able to convince me that people are not interested in history, but think about the diversity in those films: Powerful white guys in the White House; A Mexican female housekeeper in the 70s; A gay rock star; A black jazz pianist and his white bodyguard traveling in the segregated south; Two female cousins vying for the affection of Queen Anne in the early 1700s; A black police detective that infiltrates the 1970s Klu Klux Klan.
That’s an impressive array of historical diversity. Don’t forget I reviewed BlacKkKlansman back in the summer. I don’t think it is the favorite to win, but it is also up for 5 total awards (including director for Spike Lee and supporting actor for Adam Driver). It is a powerful film.
But the movie I’m posting about today is the WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old from Peter Jackson. It may have came and went from your local theater without you ever realizing it, as it was presented in December and mid-January as a Fathom Event (which puts limited-run programs into theaters, such as classic Hollywood movies, concerts, operas, and Broadway musicals). It broke records during its first two-day run, so they brought it back for two more in January (which is when I caught it).
Thankfully, both appearances of the documentary did so well that they’ve decided to open it up on February 1st in 500 theaters in 150 markets. I can’t encourage you enough to see it if it comes to a theater near you (and if not, consider a road trip) . Rearrange your schedule if you have to, but DO NOT MISS IT.
It uses the Imperial War Museum’s collection of WWI footage, along with interviews with veterans that were done by the BBC in the 1960s. There are no historians or a narrator, just the vets themselves, telling the story of their experiences; training, arriving and living on the Western Front, going over the top, dying or arriving at the hospital, and then going home. There is no thesis or agenda apart from hearing and seeing the British soldiers themselves.
What makes it so spectacular, however, is what Jackson has done with the film footage and the sound. I really don’t want to tell you much because, honestly, it really is just too difficult to explain the power of this film until you see it for yourself.
It is deceptively simple just to tell you that he corrected the original speeds of the footage, colorized it, put it into 3D, and added a meticulously accurate soundtrack (so much so that they had lip readers decipher what the soldiers were saying, then hired voice actors from the same geographic regions as the soldiers on screen so that the accents would be accurate). But really, that just doesn’t even come close to explaining the experience of seeing what Jackson has done with this footage. (Stick around after the credits for Jackson’s explanation of how it was all done).
Do not wait to see this at home on DVD or Blu Ray. The big screen and the 3D are key to its visual power (and I tend to loathe 3D). Those things will be lost at home, no matter how big your screen is.
The first twenty minutes or so of the movie saves its punch for when the troops arrive in the trenches. At that point, Jackson pulls you into the trenches in a way that is stupefying and mesmerizing.
Again, it really can’t be described. Just see it. It is nothing short of perhaps the most visually stunning experience I have ever had in a movie theater.
In the end, however, what you will be struck with the most is the way that Jackson uses the faces of the soldiers to tell their story. The images that are most imbedded in my brain are of men just minutes away from going “over-the-top” to what was certain death. You can see in their faces that they know it is their last moments on earth, and they are scared to death.
No movie or documentary has ever presented the true face of war as stunningly as They Shall Not Grow Old. We are looking at men about to die on the Western Front, but they just as easily could be men moments from dying in any war.
Jackson has truly captured the face of battle.
When it was over, I couldn’t help but feel the film is perhaps as powerful to look at in our times as it was for 1862 New York audiences to have seen Matthew Brady’s “Dead of Antietam” for the first time.
You know that famous quote from a New York Times reviewer: “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
Well, that’s pretty much what Jackson has done.
Let me say it one last time as emphatically as I can:
First a disclaimer: While I have a PhD in US history and teach 20th century history every semester, I do not specialize in legal history, women’s rights, the career of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even modern U.S. history. I’m far from an expert on those topics. That said, I found the historical accuracy of the new biopic On the Basis of Sex to be praiseworthy, but better still, it’s just a darn good movie that reminds us that most of our rights have come from people fighting for more than what our Founding Fathers intended.
I’ve been excited about seeing the film since the trailers started running several months ago, but alas my college town is not one of the chosen ones when films open in “select cities.” It was only this past week that it went nationwide, so I joined a couple of my fellow historians and caught it on a Saturday night when my local mutliplex was bustling with a large crowd of diverse filmgoers. Most were there to see the latest action flicks, comedies, and family films, of course, but I was pleasantly surprised by both the number of people there to see On the Basis of Sex, as well as the diversity in the audience. Excellent. Different races, genders, and ages were represented, and I even had two families with young children sitting behind me. While that wouldn’t be surprising in a big budget action film, it was encouraging to see for a history film about a modern feminist icon.
On the Basis of Sex tells the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s path toward becoming one of the most successful legal champions of gender equality, from her early days in law school to one of her first successful cases before a circuit court.
1 of only 9 women in her 1956 Harvard class of over 500
Along the way, we learn the important role her husband played in her career (It’s nice to see a flip on the normal Hollywood script of a male protagonist with a doting and supportive wife. Here it’s the other way around), but more importantly, her legal battle plan for taking on sex discrimination.
A little history: Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP’s success in Brown V. Board of Education came because the building blocks of legal precedents were in place before that landmark decision. The problem in the war against sex discrimination, however, was that when Ginsburg started her fight, the legal precedents did not exist. What did exist, however, were hundreds of laws nationwide that differentiated between the sexes, many of which restricted the rights of women.
Lawyers like Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray had argued for gender equality in the past, but had been unsuccessful, Ginsburg felt, because America’s culture was not ready for it. As she has noted, “the courts are seldom out in front of social change.”
Yet by the late 60s and early 70s, a cultural revolution had begun to bring about a social change for women, so Ginsburg set about to build the legal precedents for gender equality, one case at a time.
“I [saw] myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days,” she explained in the recent critically acclaimed documentary, RBG, “because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.” This required her to hone a non-confrontational yet educational argumentative style that served her well, all the way to her current seat on the Supreme Court. In lower courts and often before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, she successfully built a string of legal precedents which interpreted the 14th amendment as providing equal protection for citizens regardless of gender.
“My expectation,” she explained in RBG, “was that I would repeat that argument maybe half a dozen times. I didn’t expect it to happen in one fell swoop. I think generally in our society, real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
On the Basis of Sex focuses on just one of the first steps, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In it, Ginsburg and the A.C.L.U. did something seemingly ironic, taking on the case of a gentlemen for whom the law discriminated against in a tax-deduction law because he was a man.
Though not in the film, this case was not the only time Ginsburg used discrimination against men to build legal precedent for the unconstitutionality of sex discrimination (one case even included some frat bros challenging a law that allowed women to buy beer at a younger age than men!). This was not reverse psychology, it was constructing important legal building blocks that challenged gender-based discrimination.
On the Basis of Sex is an entertaining film that works because of a uniformly fine cast with particularly solid performances from Felicity Jone as Ruth, and Armie Hammer as her husband Martin. They make for a very attractive couple, which was true of the real life Ginsburgs.
But so too were the real Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Hammer & Jones, a good looking pair.
The set designs and wardrobes are subtly authentic (they don’t over-the-top scream “This is the 50s. This is the 60s! This is the 70s!” as we get in so many other films and shows), the story pacing feels just right, and the dialogue sounds true-to-life. The film also works on several levels; as love story, social commentary, and courtroom drama.
Warning: Some spoilers coming next. You might want to see the film before proceeding—
As with most history movies, the film has to simplify and condense some elements in order to suit the needs of a well-paced and dramatic two-hour story (something that all-too-often annoys historians as they nit-pick a film’s accuracy). In this case, most of these factual distortions are pretty minor (for examples, Ruth didn’t actually spur-of-the moment fly out to Denver to meet her client, the ACLU was not as reluctant to take the case as portrayed, there was never a moot court that led them to decide on splitting the argumentation between the husband and wife).
The biggest bending of the facts are understandable and forgivable. In truth, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray
Ginsburg & daughter meet with Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates).
were not involved in the case as depicted in the film (the above mentioned distortions were created for the purpose of getting them in the story). In real life, their names were added to the legal brief as a show of respect and acknowledgement of their pioneering work, and thus their additions in the movie come from the same honorable motive.
Further, the climactic court room scene before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals features a dramatic moment when Ginsburg gets a bit rattled by the challenging questions she received from the circuit justices. This requires her to buck up her resolve and find her voice, dramatically winning over the court during rebuttals. That’s all hogwash, as Ginsburg never actually faced that moment of weakness, she took control of the proceedings with her powerful argumentation from the outset.
Still, we can forgive the screenplay’s punching up of the drama (it was written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman), as it gives the film some tension-filled moments that ramp up the triumphant tone of the ultimate victory. I’m ok with that, it’s a movie that has to sell tickets. Unlike some historians, I sympathize with films taking a little dramatic license, as long as the the greater historical truth is told. That’s very true in the case of On the Basis of Sex.
The climactic moment in the film prominently features a quote that shows up in the movie’s commercials and trailers, and it seemingly challenges the assertion that On the Basis of Sex is accurate. In response to a judge’s assertion that the word “woman” does not appear in the Constitution, Ginsburg dramatically reminds the court, “nor does the word freedom.”
“Nor does the word ‘freedom,’ your honor.”
A knee-jerk reaction might be to point out that it DOES appear in the Bill of Rights, certainly that makes it in the Constitution.
Uh oh! Major error?
But the scene requires context. The unamended version of the Constitution in fact does not include “freedom.” Thus Ginsburg was reminding the court of something I try to remind my students of every semester. Our Constitution is not restricted by its framer’s values. It can, and has been amended to extend its rights and protections to people that our founders excluded.
Praise be! Otherwise, as I tell my students, many African Americans would still be legally enslaved, women would have few rights, and only white male landholders would have the right to vote!
Thus the line is not inaccurate and is in fact a powerful reminder that part of the story of our nation’s history has been the extension of rights beyond original intent.
While the movie ends there, the Moritz victory led to Ginsburg’s other 1970s victories in bigger and more important cases, most immediately Reed v. Reed (which the film shows Ginsburg writing the legal brief for, building on the Moritz case’s argumentation). Ending the film with this early triumph provides it with an appropriate running time and victorious moment, yet misses the challenges Ginsburg and the women’s right movement faced in the 1970s from conservative forces like Phyllis Schlafly.
The film’s focus also allows it to sidestep Ginsburg’s sometimes controversial thoughts on Roe v. Wade. While certainly not an opponent of the decision, she’s famously expressed the belief that grounding its argumentation in the right to privacy, rather than as a matter of equal protection, made it a questionable ruling without enough precedent to make it more firm. “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped,” she has argued, may prove unstable.” Further, “Roe v. Wade sparked public opposition and academic criticism, in part, I believe, because the Court ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”
These sentiments (as well as a more moderate reputation she earned while on the DC Circuit Court–voting more with Republican appointees than Democrats and straying little from precedent) are part of the reason why many feminist groups initially privately opposed Ginsburg’s nomination for the Supreme Court.
But will the ongoing shift in the court’s make-up ultimately prove Ginsburg to have been correct about Roe v. Wade? Should it have been based more firmly on the precedents she established?
Also in light of current events, another thing that struck me about On the Basis of Sex stems from it reminding us in the ending titles that Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate, 96-3. This seems most remarkable now, and it is, especially considering she was a Clinton appointee. Of course her confirmation was a breath of fresh air that the nation needed after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill tawdriness, and that likely played a role in the vote count.
And yet the tally still tells us much about how our current polarization has unfortunately politicized our court, certainly not what the Founders intended for it. During Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing, Senator Orrin Hatch told her, “I disagree with you on a number of things, and I’m sure you disagree with me. But that isn’t the issue, is it? And frankly, I admire you. You’ve earned the right, in my opinion, to be on the Supreme Court.”
Can you imagine Hatch or very many other senators saying something like that now?
Anyway, go see On the Basis of Sex, it is an accurate and timely reminder that not all of our nation’s heroes have been men, that protests and cultural revolutions often have to precede changes to the law, and that the expansion of rights in this country has had to be fought for by those wiling to buck the system established by our Founding Fathers.
After spotting some commercials and a trailer (see below), I was somewhat interested in seeing Spike Lee’s new “joint,” the true story of a black Colorado Springs police officer named Ron Stallworth that somehow managed to infiltrate the KKK, establishing a connection to David Duke back in the early 70s. TV commercials have played up the comedic aspects of the story (and there are plenty), but considering Spike Lee’s involvement, I knew there had to be a deeper message.
What really drew me in, however, was an interview that Spike did with CNN’s Anderson Cooper discussing the movie’s attempt to connect the past to the present. Cooper confessed that seeing the film shook and unsettled him. After that, I made sure to put the movie at the top of my weekend agenda.
Perhaps the most famous film use of the Rebel flag.
Recalling that Spike said he wanted to connect the past to the present, when this scene popped up on the screen my immediate thought was: “Oh man, Spike has definitely got something to say.”
Based on just my Twitter feed, I’m surprised that historians have apparently not paid much attention to this film, especially when they seem to be consumed right now with analyzing what Charlottesville and the Confederate monuments debates tells us about modern race relations, politics, and Civil War memory in the Trump era, and/or debunking Dinesh D’ Souza’s Death of a Nation book and film.
I don’t want to give away any big spoilers here, because everyone needs to see this film, so I will tread lightly.
From start to finish, Spike Lee offers a primer on how movies have shaped perceptions of race in the United States. Besides Gone with the Wind, he makes heavy use of Birth of a Nation (1915), but also has characters discussing the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 40s, as well as the “Blacksploitation” films of the early 70s.
Spike’s use of Birth of a Nation is particularly interesting (and satisfying) to watch because he uses one of D.W. Griffith’s pioneering film techniques, crosscutting, to make a powerful point about how that film distorted history. I won’t give the scene away, but you’ll know it when you see it (it’s a pleasure to see Harry Belafonte on screen again), so take pleasure in seeing Spike use Griffith’s own technique against him.
One of the film’s most engrossing scenes is a speech delivered by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) to a group of African American college students, in which he focused on how blacks had allowed American culture to define how they saw themselves.
Hawkins as Ture. “Black Power!”
The role is played by Corey Hawkins, and he is mesmerizingly good, delivering a wake-up call to the film’s protagonist. It feels historically and artistically authentic, and is an unforced method of kicking the film’s narrative into motion.
As if this were not enough to get the attention of historians, Spike more directly connects the present to the past by demonstrating the way that racial politics have evolved, from the disgustingly upfront and honest language of “massive resistance” in response to school integration and desegregation, to the “dogwhistle” political tactic of speaking about traditional America values, law and order, taking back our country, and “America first.”
Spike makes clear that the latter is the more dangerous form of racial politics. In one particularly well-written scene, a character explains to the film’s protagonist Ron Stallworth (exceptionally played by John David Washington) that someday someone might get elected president using such tactics. When Stallworth then expresses disbelief that someone like David Duke could ever get elected president, he is told that he should not be so naive.
Duke is played in the film by Topher Grace (don’t be surprised if he gets a best supporting actor nomination), and he is a strong contrast to the other Klansman in the film.
Grace as Duke
The rest are the dimwitted, redneckish, gun-obsessed buffoons that most people associate with the Klan. Duke, however, is a smooth talking, well -read, and deep thinking charmer who understands that “dogwhistle” techniques are more politically powerful than terrorism. As Topher Grace discovered when researching the role, and as Spike powerfully demonstrates, Duke predates Trump’s use of “America First” and making America “Great Again.”
The film also features another fine performance by Adam Driver as Stallworth’s partner. He’s quickly becoming one of our best and most intense actors, and his character’s evolution is also at the core of the film’s point about identity.
Driver and Washington
Driver plays a Jewish detective that never really gave much thought to being a Jew (“I was just another white kid”), until he must reckon with the Klan’s anti-Semitism. Suddenly, the white privilege he’s enjoyed most of his life seems fake. He too is the member of a marginalized minority, and he’s just been “passing.”
All this is wrapped up in a well-paced action/comedy/buddy film. I don’t know Stallworth’s story well enough to comment on how much of it is true and how much of it is just based on truth, but from what I have read, the specifics of what the investigation accomplished is accurately told, uncovering Klansmen in the military and NORAD, and thwarting cross burnings and violence. (Although you’ll be able to tell that the film’s climactic moments and timing are most likely pure Hollywood formula).
The acting is uniformly fine, the dialogue believable, and Spike’s recreation of the 1970s is evocative. (One extended dance sequence makes great use of the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose classic soul hit “It’s Too Late to Turn Back Now,” oozing with the pride of the blossoming Black Power and “Black is Beautiful” movements.)
Ultimately, BlacKkKlansman does an excellent jump of connecting the Confederacy to current events, and demonstrating the line from David Duke to Donald Trump. By now you’re probably aware of the TV news footage that Spike uses at the end of the film to not-so-subtely tie his story to the present (if not, I won’t ruin it), and it is a powerful jolt.
Rather numbing, actually.
And yet for me, the most powerful jolt coming out of the theater was in placing the film in context of even more up-to-the-minute events.
Just last week, Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham made comments about immigration policy that David Duke publicly praised. The big news today as I write this is that tapes exist of our president using racial slurs, and even the White House Press Secretary can’t guarantee that it is not true. Oh, and H.U.D. has eliminated the strongest effort in decades to combat housing segregation.
And in my local cineplex, BlacKkKlansman is now playing on the opposite end of the hallway from D’Souza’s Death of a Nation.
My friend and fellow professional historian, Christian McWhirter, said that to me a few months back, and I am reminded of it today because of a New Republic article that has been making the rounds on the internet. It claims that Trump’s ignorance of basic US history has “radicalized” historians. It is an interesting and short piece, so I encourage everyone to read it.
I am not sure exactly what they mean by “radicalized,” but the context suggests it means that historians have become more publicly vocal about their views on current politics. And more active in the resistance to Trump. Of course many of us spoke out before he was elected, and the fact that he won has many of us wondering if people even listen to historians, or perhaps even that our railing against him only actually made people love him more. (Probably so).
I have discussed this here before, but one of my biggest goals as a college educator was to never let my political leanings become clear to students. Most of us have had the experience of sitting in a college class, as a professor has used his captive audience as a chance to spew out political diatribes. I recall, for example, taking a course on Gilded Age America, but having to endure a professor that spent well over 50% of our class time holding forth on modern politics and all the problems he had with a current governor. I didn’t always disagree with him, but I got increasingly angry because I wanted to study the Gilded Age, not his political opinions about current events.
As a result of such experiences, when I began teaching college in the late 90s I dedicated myself to never letting my politics shape my lectures in an obvious way. Not only because it would be more fair to my students, but also because it would make my lectures more objective. I am a firm believer that one of the most important things that studying history does is create open-mindedness, forcing students to look at things from different perspectives than their own. I felt (and still feel) that having clear political leanings in my lectures only hinders that goal, as students will only become defensive (and thus close-minded) about their beliefs if they feel the professor is trying to indoctrinate them with a particular party’s political agenda.
Thus my goal has always been to remain as objective as possible, with the goal that students would actually have a hard time figuring out my personal political sympathies. When asked by students if I am a Republican or a Democrat, I’ve always refused to answer. If I can create a classroom environment in which a student’s preconceived political leanings are challenged, whether they are a Republican or Democrat, I feel I have done my job. I think I have a history of being successful in that regard.
Further, when I started this “blog,” I never intended it to include long musings like this. I did not have time for it and felt no one would be interested anyway. My sole purpose was to simply post links to history related stories and blogs that I found interesting, share a comment or two, and encourage other folks to check them out. And I most certainly did not want to fill it with political diatribes. I still prefer it to be that way, and try to stick to that format.
Thus both here and in classes, I never intended to comment extensively on current political events. But yes, Trump changed that.
During the election, I felt he presented such a grave danger to our country that I had to publicly speak out, using my position in the classroom to demonstrate the danger of his ideas and his utter lack of preparation and qualifications for the job. Trump began to make regular appearances in my lectures, whenever a particular historical topic seemed to shed light on his shortcomings (which turned out to be numerous). I was uncomfortable with this, and still am, but it increasingly feels like a duty.
I have gotten some small blow-back from students, and have heard one or two grumbling about my Trump attacks. To counter such sentiments, I have increasingly argued that much of his policies are not mainstream Republican ones (especially foreign and trade polices), pointing out this is one of the big reasons that the Republican leadership tried so hard to derail his candidacy. You don’t have to be a Democrat to be concerned about this buffoon (just ask John McCain or Lindsey Graham).
And this carried over to my blog. If you have spent anytime here, you know that my friend Christian is right. Trump did indeed turn me into a more traditional blogger, as I find it near impossible not to unleash diatribes like this one whenever sharing a story involving him.
Part of me despises Trump for causing these changes to my classroom and this blog, but on the other hand, is this not exactly the role that historians should play? Again, I think that our most important work is to help encourage and develop the open-mindedness that is so sorely lacking in our world. How can an historian do that if they stay quiet when they hear Trump making asinine, untruthful, and historically ignorant comments?
Trump wants “truth” to be as he defines it, and anything that challenges that is “fake.” Isn’t that pretty much the definition of close-minded?
Thus if I were to just keep quiet about Trump in my classrooms and here on this blog, would it not in the end work against my own personal dedication to encourage and promote open-mindedness? I think so.
Sadly, however, I have to wonder how much good my efforts actually do, considering that Trump’s true believers listen intently to Fox News every night. There they are told that anyone that disagrees with Trump is a leftist radical, a “snowflake,” or a pompous self-important liberal. No, actually, that is not the case, and I am proof of it.
Disgraced political hack Bill O’Reilly took to Twitter and his podcast last night to explain to his followers how wrong American historians are about Trump’s recent comments on Andrew Jackson and the Civil War. Despite the fact that we make the study of both those things our professional career, knowing the history and the sources far more than he likely ever will, he labeled us “morons.”
I am more than certain that his and Trump’s folks believe that to be true, despite our academic pedigree, or most likely because of it. So why listen to a well educated professor? Bill O’Reilly says the president is right, so they have to be wrong.
Thus when I open my mouth in class to criticize Trump, even from a historical perspective, I am sure that my most ardent Trump supporting students only dismiss it as the inaccurate rantings of a liberal professor. The enemy.
In the past I would never have been someone you or anyone else would ever see as a radical (or a liberal). And in fact I would have run from such a label.
So does that mean that Trump has turned me into a “radical?” Sadly, in the era of Trump and Fox News, adherence to basic facts, objectivity, and open-mindedness have come to be seen as just that. In a world of closed minds, objectivity is now radical.
So be it. I’m a radical.
And as radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proclaimed during the presidency of slaveholder Andrew Jackson, “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.”
Oh my gosh! Look at that man erasing history! NOT.
Quick thoughts on monuments in the news:
So, New Orleans has begun the process of taking down monuments, starting with one that is NOT a Confederate monument (no matter how it has been labeled as such by the media). They are set to remove three others that ARE Confederate monuments in the coming days. I really don’t have the desire to comment much on these types of removals, because I think I have made my position on this very clear in the past. Simply put, I prefer contextualization and/or counter monuments (which is a powerful way of confronting and challenging the iconography of previous generations in a way that is in itself educational) instead of removal. Yep, you heard me right. I do not think removal is the best way to deal with this.
BUT removing them is NOT “erasing history,” it is an attempt to be honest about it. If I hear or read another person claiming this is an attempt to erase history, I am going to have a full on conniption fit. As I have seen other historians say, don’t worry folks, we are not going to be letting anyone suddenly forget what the Confederacy was and what it stood for, I promise you that. It is what me and a great number of other people are paid to do, and we do it passionately. Research and teaching about the history of the southern confederacy and the Civil War isn’t going anywhere, monuments or no monuments.
So don’t worry, hundreds of Civil War books are going to keep coming out every year, the Civil War is still going to get taught in class, more and more battlefield land is going to be preserved (which has only increased in recent years), and historians are going to keep increasingly getting involved in public history and on social media.
But you say, it is erasing older interpretations about the Confederacy and the Civil War, and replacing them with ones you don’t agree with. Nope. We may be correcting/challenging older interpretations, but we aren’t erasing them. The fact that people once interpreted the Civil War in the ways reflected in the monuments is not going away either. It too is part of the story, and I can again promise you that historians are not going to let anyone forget how the Civil War used to be interpreted. This is called “historiography,” and every professional historian is trained in it. You can’t be a good historian without learning how events have been interpreted by others, and how that has evolved over time.
In fact, the removal of these monuments only adds to the story that historians tell about the Confederacy and the Civil War. In essence, it is Confederate history continuing to be made today. The removals are now part of a story that will never be erased. So please just stop saying that history is being erased. Just stop it, please.
But as to the removals, regardless of mine or anyone else’s opinions, these decisions are best left to local communities that have the right to commemorate or not commemorate whatever they want to.
Yet there are two things I find funny/hypocritical in the nationwide reaction to New Orleans’ decision. 1) We hear people say that Trump protestors need to “get over it” and move on. Yet the people that say that seem to be the most vocal against these removals, which is ironic given that the placement of the monuments themselves was done by people who couldn’t “get over” their loss in the war. It was their attempt to reframe what it was all about. (The “Lost Cause.”)
And 2) it seems that Republicans are the most vocal against these removals (like this clown pretending to be a southerner and running for governor of Virginia), which is ironic because they are supposedly the champions of letting state and local governments do most of our governing. So shouldn’t we let local governments/communities make their own choices about these monuments? I’m just calling for some consistency, . . . again.
And while we are on the Lost Cause, yesterday was “Confederate Memorial Day” here in Alabama. Ugh. But I take it as a sign of progress that the ceremony marking the day at our state capitol building was attended by a whopping 150 or so people. Nice. It is a good thing we have these people around to remind us of the Confederacy, since its history would apparently just disappear if they weren’t here to remind us.
Lastly for today, and on a different subject: Another news story that is all over the place is that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence has been discovered in a British archive. Unfortunately, the story is getting blown out of proportion and/or misunderstood by people that are apparently inspired by that stupid Nicholas Cage movie. My local news got it all wrong last night, as has been the case all over social media. This is not an unknown second “original” copy of the Declaration. It is a handwritten copy that was made on parchment in the 1780s, which is rare indeed, but not exactly an original and/or something that should set off conspiracy theories. Researchers believe it was commissioned by James Wilson (who was the signer that was treated so poorly and portrayed so inaccurately in the otherwise awesome musical 1776). How did it wind up in Britain? That seems to be mostly a mystery.
It really rankled some conservatives that Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night was universally praised. Thus some of them took the low road of criticizing her for mentioning that slaves had helped build the White House, alleging that the comment was merely an effort to divide us along racial lines (white guilt). At first there were denials that slaves had worked on the White House, but when the evidence became overwhelming that they had, some pundits despicably reached for the argument that slavery was not so bad. Most famously, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly (who fancies himself an historian after writing a series of poorly researched books), while acknowledging slaves worked on the White House, made sure to note that the slaves had been fed and housed well. The reaction from historians was swift, and there are many stories and blog postings (too many to count) about it all over the web today. As Edward Ayers points out in his interview for Time, O’Reilly’s comments are nothing new, harkening to the antebellum proslavery response to the abolitionist attack on slavery, as well as the “Lost Cause” justification of the South by southerners after the Civil War. Kevin Levin digs even deeper on his Civil War Memory blog, nicely pointing to a letter written by First Lady Abigail Adams in which she noted that some of the slaves she saw laboring around the White House were “half fed, and destitute of clothing.” Meanwhile, food historian Michael W. Twitty responded to O’Reilly by examining slave diets, challenging the Fox News commentator to try the typical enslaved person diet for one week “to go along with his southern fried crow.”
To be fair, O’Reilly did not overtly defend slavery, but we have to wonder why he felt the need to claim the slaves were fed well. In the end, it matters not a bit if these enslaved laborers were well fed and lodged, or even if they had never had their flesh ripped open by the lash. So why bring it up? What purpose does it serve? Whether he wants to admit it or not, doing so (and without any proof) does harken to the proslavery/Lost Cause defense of slavery. No matter their diet or housing, the fact still remains that as enslaved individuals they could not own and control their own labor, could be sold at the whim of their masters, could have their children or spouses sold away from them, had no rights that were recognized either culturally or legally, and could make no decisons about where they wanted to be or what kind of life they wanted to have. Bill O’Reilly’s comments are tainted by his failure to view slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, rather than just from that of white masters.
Listen, I think Bill O’Reilly is intelligent enough to know that Michelle Obama’s reference (as accurate as it was) was not really about the White House specifically, but was a way of personalizing her connection to how much progress we have seen in America. I also actually believe that he knows better than to embrace such a ridiculous proslavery argument. The fact is, some conservatives were so upset about the First Lady’s universally praised speech that they looked for something, anything, for which to criticize it. As a friend of mine noted, “this election is bringing out the worst in everybody.” Indeed.
Lincoln actually had a great retort for people that made the proslavery argument, so I’ll let him have the final word of response to Bill O’Reilly:
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”
Immediately after delivering the Gettysburg address, Lincoln reportedly (though he probably didn’t) said, “that speech won’t scour.” (Meaning he didn’t think it could be cleaned up to be memorable and stand the test of time.)
Michelle Obama’s speech last night will scour.
Listen, if you are objective, and even subtract away the things she said specifically about Clinton, focusing on what she said about leadership, I think she made a pretty good case for why Trump is not qualified for the presidency (and did so without even mentioning his name). If your concerns about Hillary hinder you from being opposed to Trump, I beg you to go back and listen to her speech again, focusing not on her Hillary comments, but her comments on leadership.
But the moment that her speech elevated itself into something that really blew people away was when she put her life and moment on the stage into historical context. I have always preached that one of the most important things about history is that it connects us to something bigger than ourselves, tying us to the story of all mankind. President Obama has consistently delivered speeches during his presidency that resonate and carry emotional power because he has a keen understanding and appreciation for American history, embracing MLK’s insistence that the arc of history bends towards justice. I immediately felt that the speech he gave at the Pettus Bridge in Selma would stand as his best, because he connected our founding and its principles to the Civil Rights movement and then to the present, in a hopeful narrative of American history (which is why I loved seeing this article the other day from the Washington Post pondering which of his speeches “is the one for the history books.”) His interpretation of history is what often gives his speeches their power. I do not know who wrote Michelle’s speech last night, but she too included an optimistic appraisal of America’s historical trajectory, and it was when she did so that audiences became the most emotionally connected to her words. Commentator after commentator pointed out that her historical allusions were the moment that her rhetoric soared, moved people to tears, and, as The Atlantic put it, became “a speech for the ages.” Both Republican and Democrats agree that she nailed it. To quote:
“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, intelligent, black young women –- playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters –- and all our sons and daughters -– now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”
That, my friends, is the power and importance of history. It is how I feel the American story should be told: emphasizing our failures and the obstacles that we’ve had to overcome as individuals and as a nation in our fight to keep the arc of our history bent toward greater justice. Acknowledging that it can and often does goes backwards makes it all the more imperative to inspire us to keep it in the right direction. The optimistic emotions the speech invoked in audiences is the very reason why I think our history should be taught this way. Further, the speech is the type of language and vision of our nation that all of our greatest American leaders have harkened to in their finest moments (the Founders, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, TR, Alice Paul, FDR, JFK, MLK, Reagan, etc). It is those kinds of words that have inspired and helped us lift ourselves out of our darkest times.
With everything going on in our country and the world right now, the contrast between what we heard last Thursday night and last night couldn’t be stronger, or more profound.
Famed historians David McCullough has seen enough of Trump
My name is Glenn David Brasher, and I approve this message:
When I started teaching close to 20 years ago, I was determined that I would keep my own personal politics out of the classroom. We’ve all had classes in which the professor used their time in front of the class as a platform for political diatribes, especially in history or political science classes. That always angered me, and thus I decided that I would never do it. I think I have been very successful at that over the years, and take pride in the fact that most students can not figure out if I am a Republican or a Democrat. It isn’t very hard to accomplish this political ambiguity when you commit yourself to being as objective as possible.
But this past year is different, as I have found it near impossible to not lash out at Donald Trump’s candidacy. Any student that has had me in the last year knows where I stand on him, and why. In fact, it seems that pretty much every class (no matter the lecture topic) offers a lesson that seems appropriate when considering Trump. I make no apologies for it, and feel it is in some ways a duty. I do hate that it caused me to break my commitment, but I blame him and his popularity for that. I’ll go back to objectivity when he is defeated. To quote Bram Stoker’s Van Helsing: “make no mistake, he must be stopped.”
Anyway, I say all this because I am very proud to see that some seriously big-time historians have decided that they can not stand idly by and do nothing to stop a Trump presidency. Led by David Mccullough and Ken Burns, they have created a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump where they have posted short video diatribes against the presumptive Republican nominee (and will continually be adding new ones). I do not like that so far there is not a lot of diversity in the line-up (its largely older, white male historians), but perhaps that is exactly the demographic that we need to reach the most, because the bulk of his support comes from white males.
I have many Republican friends and family that confess that they too loathe Trump, but that Hillary Clinton would be worse. Trust me, I REALLY understand their reluctance to support her, (if she were not such a weak/problematic candidate, we would not even be facing a possible Trump presidency) but I simply can not agree that she (or perhaps anyone!) would be worse or more dangerous. DANGER is the operative word I think we all need to consider.
All those that proclaim to rever historians, history, and history’s lessons, I implore you to check out the videos posted on this Facebook page. To throw my support in, I will start posting one of the videos with each of my postings, starting with the highly revered David McCullough:
(David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize — for “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001) — and twice received the National Book Award — for “The Path Between the Seas” (1977) and “Mornings on Horseback” (1982). His other acclaimed books include “The Greater Journey” (2011), “1776” (2005), “Brave Companions” (1991), “The Johnstown Flood” (1968), “The Great Bridge” (1972) and “The Wright Brothers” (2015). He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award).
Free State of Jones makes it clear who the bad guys are in this Civil War epic.
It would have made for an awesome HBO miniseries, but as a movie, it’s still pretty darn good.
For the majority of Free State of Jones, I was riveted and pleased. All the work that director Gary Ross put into consulting professional historians was very apparent in big ways, and more interestingly, in small ones. For instance, we see an enslaved woman teaching herself to read by clandestinely watching the white children during their lessons. Or even better– the film depicts the same female playing an important role in keeping slaves that were “laying out” supplied and informed. That is some solid historical research on display and it had me almost giddy with delight. I was also pleased that some of the most perceptive dialogue is spoken by enslaved characters, and it is sometimes slyly comedic (perfect). The battle scenes are well crafted, the field hospital looks realistic (I was so glad to hear the line, “they have ether there.” Thank goodness, no infuriatingly inaccurate scenes of anesthesia-free amputations!), and the story is gripping. The whole cast is superb, especially (no surprise) lead actor Matthew McConaughey, the dialogue is well written (the conversations between Newt Knight and runaway slaves are particularly interesting), and the pacing is exactly what I like from my epic films (it takes its time to let the story unfold and is not afraid to hold a shot for more than a few seconds). I quickly got emotionally invested, and judging by the audible emotings from the audience I saw it with (sighs, shock, anger), so was everyone else.
Best of all, like Newt Knight frequently does during the over two hour running time, the film opens up with both barrels on the Lost Cause. The Confederacy is clearly the film’s evil entity, and it is refreshing to see Rebel soldiers doing bad things in a movie, instead of Union soldiers like we usually get (in fact, after the opening battle scenes, there aren’t any boys-in-blue anywhere to be found). There is no need for me to expound here on why it is so important that we finally get a pop cultural depiction of a divided South, because it is done so well here in this Slate article by Rebecca Onion. Now that I have seen the film, I think she and the historians she interviews are pretty much dead-on in this regard, especially in the contention that this “isn’t just another white savior movie.”
Still, what I appreciated most was the story arc that takes us from Newt and his band of men starting out with simply having anti-Confederate sympathies (rich man’s war, poor man’s fight! Damn the tax-in-kind! Damn conscription!), to later having more pro-Union sentiments (the enemy of my enemy), and ultimately deciding that the only cause worth fighting for was themselves. We simply do not know enough about Knight’s motives to know definitvely that this is an accurate depiction (he did later claim strong Unionist sympathies, but did so when he was petitioning the U.S. government for financial compensation), but this trajectory is definitely accurate for many southern Unionists, and thus the film depicts a larger truth. Further, Rebel atrocities were sometimes the catalyst that pushed southern whites with anti-Confederate sympathies into having pro-Union ones, and this is ably and compelling demonstrated in the movie.
Thus, for the bulk of the film, I was sitting there wondering why the heck reviewers were not shouting its praises. But then the war ended and Reconstruction started. I understand why director Ross felt it was important to not let the film end on a triumphant note, and I am VERY sympathetic to that. The film’s transition from Andrew Johnson’s presidential Reconstruction to military Reconstruction flows fairly well (despite the strange absence of Union troops). But then suddenly the film resorts to a quick fast forward through the transition from Congressional Reconstruction to Redemption. It tries to accomplish this task through the use of informational title captions and historic photographs, but in a movie that had thus far taken its time to deliver its story, the change is jarring and very ineffective. I imagine that less informed audience members will feel dazed and confused (sorry, I had to) by the quick and incomplete attempt at a history lesson. Whether or not a film sticks its landing largely determines how an audience feels about the movie when they walk out of the theater. I am convinced that this is the reason why so many reviewers are down on the film.
Still, I understand why Ross made the decision to include Reconstruction, and I agree with Christian McWhirter’s fine review when he argues that Ross should be praised for attempting an honest view of “ground-level Reconstruction.” Further, perhaps audiences SHOULD walk away from a Civil War movie with a dejected feeling of “was it all in vain?” as white supremacy is restored in the post-war South. I can’t help feeling that if Ross had had more time to work with, his exploration of Reconstruction could have been as riveting as most of the movie. Yet doing more with Reconstruction would have required a running time that would have exhausted audiences (let’s face it, as attention-holding as Gone With the Wind is, it also loses a lot once it transitions to Reconstruction. The topic isn’t easy to present in a riveting way, as most history educators will attest). Yet even in the hurried final scenes, there is some strong stuff, like visuals involving the site of the Klan on the ride at night, and ESPECIALLY an effective montage of one of the main characters working tirelessly to get African Americans registered to vote. Thus I can’t help but wonder how well Ross could have told his story in an miniseries for HBO. Sadly, we will never know.
In the end however, the film’s strengths (both in its historical accuracy and its narrative drive) far outweigh the limitations and failures of its last act. So don’t be deterred by the critics (and not all of them are negative, see A.O Scott’s review in the NY Times. I think he nails it. I’ve also noticed that the audience rating on Rotten Tomatoesis much higher than the critics’). Go see this film, it deserves a wide audience, and goodness knows we need the hard hit it gives the Lost Cause.
Thanks to this post from the Journal of the Civil War Era, I finally watched the first two episodes of WGN’s new television series, Underground last night. I must say, it was surprisingly good. Afterwards, I went looking for what other historians had to say about it, and came across this blog from the African American Intellectual History Society. I agree with pretty much everything the author writes here, especially when they point out that there is a lot of slave historiography on display in the show.
As I have argued many times before, I think that what is missing in much of our newer pop cultural presentations of slavery is just how powerful and resilient the enslaved community was. Further, it seems that unless slaves are running away or violently resisting, they are seen as submissive automatons. My initial fear about Underground was that because of the focus of the show, it would fuel the perception that only those slaves that ran away were heroic. But what I discovered in the first two episodes was a vibrant enslaved community, practicing the art of deception to survive on a daily basis, and not allowing masters or the institution of slavery to define them. Of course the protagonists are planning an escape, but the other slaves around them are not the personality-less drones that we see surrounding our main characters in 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. There are different modes of survival on display and a dynamic culture that the enslaved have created for themselves outside of white control. The characters are three dimensional, and that surprisingly includes a slave catcher that provides a really good opportunity for the show to depict how non-slaveholders in the South were also impacted by the slaveholding economy (and the role they played in buttressing the system). There are two white abolitionists that will no doubt become more important as the show goes on, but surprisingly they are by far the two least interesting characters at this point. This is not the tale of the “white saviors” that we so often get in Hollywood stories that involve African American history.
Yes, the music is jarringly anachronistic, but sometimes this does work to good effect. I also have no doubt that historical accuracy will become more questionable as the series progresses, and it all does feel a bit too much like lusty pulp fiction, but as the blog above notes, historians should get behind this series because “we should publicly support any endeavor that breaks down misinterpretations of slavery.” Agreed, but not just because we need to make people understand how brutal the system was (destroying the Lost Cause’s “Moonlight and Magnolia’s” depiction of the Old South), but also because we need depictions of how powerful and heroic the enslaved were, even if they did not engage in an overt rebellion or run away. As the story progresses and our protagonists eventually do flee the planation, I hope that we still get scenes involving the ones they left behind, or other non-fleeing slaves they encounter along the way. Based on what I have seen so far, I’m guessing we will.
When I went looking for reviews of the show, I was struck by the number of commentators that expressed surprise that a series about slavery could be so entertaining. (Like this one, for example, or this one, or this ). Most point out that watching movies or shows about slavery is often numbing and difficult to get through. They credit this show for being different because it adds in the element of a prison break or heist, which is true, but I think much of their surprise is coming from the fact that this slave community is more accurately depicted than what we have seen in recent films. Again, I feel that this is because slaves are often portrayed as weak and totally dominated and docile, rather than as the cleaver, resilient, and powerful individuals that they were. The very fact that these reviewers are surprised by what they are finding on Underground is the very reason why we have to get behind this show.