An historian’s review of The Highwaymen: “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant point blank in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?”

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The line of dialogue used above in my title is from Netflix’s new original film, The Highwaymen, and says much about the corrective the film gives us about the two infamous outlaws, Bonnie & Clyde.

Disclaimer: I’m certainly not an expert on Bonnie & Clyde. Yet besides baseball history and film history, true crime was one of the first things I dabbled in when I was a kid just falling in love with history, and I remain a frequent reader of those topics today (antebellum and Civil War America are my fields of specialty). So while I have done no original research on Bonnie and Clyde, over the years I’ve taught about them, and especially their era, in my US history courses. As a cinema history buff, I also understand their place in film history.

I first saw the Arthur Penn directed Bonnie and Clyde on VHS as a teenager, and it immediately bothered me, even though I appreciated it as an excellent film. Without knowing anything about the true facts, I recognized who the real bad guys were.

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Dunaway and Beatty as the glamorized Bonnie and Clyde

Sure, it was made during the antihero, counterculture, stick-it-to-the man late 1960s (and spawned a new generation of director-as-auteur films and anti-establishment movies), but I saw it as a young teen in the conservative 80s and was as curious about the cops that hunted down the murderous duo as I was Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty’s sexy and charismatic depictions of the title characters.

When I did a little reading, I was angered by the depiction of Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, a  legendary law enforcer well before he tracked down Bonnie & Clyde. Played by Denver Pyle (soon to be Uncle Jesse on TV’s Dukes of Hazzard), the film portrays him (in completely invented scenes) as a petty man who engineers the duo’s deaths mainly out of spiteful vengeance because they publicly made him look like a bumbling idiot and fool.

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Pyle’s Hamer, ridiculed by the duo in a totally fabricated scene

He’s clearly the film’s bad guy, as the free-wheeling, deeply in love couple go on an exciting crime spree, staying one step ahead of the law, entertaining themselves and a country in the throes of the depression, before meeting a tragic Shakespearean-like ending.

This romanticized take on Bonnie & Clyde endures, a product of the film’s cultural power. Even a recent PBS documentary that tried to set the record straight relied on commentators that were clearly admirers of the outlaws and/or related to them. The effort to de-romanticize the couple was mainly an acknowledgement that their life on the run, living out of stolen cars and one step ahead of the law, was exhausting. Awww, poor things!  More recent, NBC’s Timeless did paint them as killers and Hamer as “a good man,” but dwelled mostly on how much in love the couple were, causing the show’s heroes to realize their own affection for each other. Aww, how sweet.

I’m certainly not the only one annoyed by the 1967 film’s impact. Frank Hamer’s family sued the movie’s producers in 1968, winning a hefty settlement, but the damage was done.  Legendary actor Robert Duvall (one of my all-time favs) has always made no secret of his disdain for the film, openly criticizing the acting as being over-the-top, but especially its treatment of Hamer and the Texas Rangers. And John Fusco, one of the producers and writer of this new movie, hated Bonnie and Clyde too.

Approaching Hamer Jr. for help and his blessing in making a corrective film, Fusco found the legendary lawmen’s son understandably leery of Hollywood, expressing outright hatred for Warren Beatty’s role in slandering his father, and he labeled the famous criminals “two pint-sized punks who weren’t worth the caps that were busted on them.”  Fusco was able to win Hamer Jr.’s cooperation, however, when convincing the lawman’s son that he agreed with those sentiments.

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The real Gault (above) and Hamer

The result was a script about Hamer and his ranger partner Maney Gault, garnering interest from Robert Redford and Paul Newman (wow, what a movie that would have made).

Unfortunately the project got tied up in Hollywood limbo, until now, with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the Texas rangers that hunted and gunned down the pint sized punks. They’re no Redford and Newman, but they’re dang good replacements.

Unlike some historians, I am just fine when a film takes certain liberties with the facts if it serves a greater truth. For a tight two hour movie, events have to be contracted, some people and their actions have to be condensed into composite characters, action scenes have to be heightened. Further, dialogue has to be invented that gives background and fleshes out characters and thus sometimes has them speaking in ways they may not have actually spoken.

These things all-too-often annoy nit-picky historians that do not understand the craft and needs of the filmmaker, especially when it steps into their field of specialty. But if these liberties are done in a way that paints an overall picture and interpretation that is accurate (sadly not the case with the 1967 classic), I’m just fine with it.

This is definitely the case with The Highwaymen, as it sometimes plays fast and loose with the specifics, and yet does so in ways revealing historically accurate generalizations.  A perfect example is a scene in which our heroes (the rangers!) encounter their prey, fail to catch them because a crowd of the killers’ fans and admirers get in the way, resulting in a car chase.  Clyde then does some slick driving in a dusty open field that loses Hamer and Gault. This simply didn’t happen.

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The real Clyde Barrow posing with his car of choice, a Ford V-8

But the invented scene reveals historical truth: Bonnie and Clyde were cultural heroes to many at the time, he was damn good behind the wheel of a V-8 Ford, specialized in alluding the police, and often covered hundreds of miles in doing so.

Other liberties are taken. Maney Gault didn’t join Hamer until the later days of the chase, for example, but his presence throughout the film helps flesh out Hamer’s past and devotion to justice, and essentially becomes his inner conscience. While Hamer was chasing them, the Barrow Gang had two separate events in which they killed law enforcers. The details of the first one, the killing of two motorcycle cops in what are known as the “Grapevine” murders, are taken from eyewitness testimony that has been questioned. The second murder is fudged because the details are quicker to depict than the actual details would have been. Some scenes are complete inventions, but serve the purpose of showing the support the killers had from family, friends, and admirers, and the lengths to which law enforcement was willing to go in order to bag them.

But these liberties create a movie with a steady narrative flow, character development and drama, and yet still gives the audience a needed and accurate historical corrective. Bonnie and Clyde were bad people, committing hundreds of robberies (both large and petty) across many states and murdering 13 people (or possibly more), 9 of which were law enforcers.

In depression-era America they were viewed as modern-day Robin Hoods. But they definitely weren’t, as small-time mom-and-pop stores and isolated gas stations were their favorite targets, not the hated banks of the Great Depression, and they were not handing out to the poor.

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The most famous picture of these two sociopaths

The killers were extremely heavily armed (with military grade weapons like a BAR), making them a serious danger to even an experienced manhunter and killer like Hamer. Yet despite the help they got from family, friends, and admirers, Hamer chased them down using old fashioned methods, cutting deals, and setting up an ambush on an isolated rural backroad near Gibsland, Louisiana that brutally ended their sinful ways.

And he did so because of a devotion to the law and his anger that cop killers were being treated as heroes. These historically accurate broad truths are ably revealed in The Highwaymen.

Look, the film is no masterpiece, but the performances from the two famous leads carry it along nicely and give it punch. It isn’t the sexy and freewheeling 1967 film. Rather, it is appropriately dark and gritty. The Great Depression setting provides accurate and interesting visuals and the story is nicely situated within the era.

Admittedly, there is some weak dialogue (but some that is excellent), and one or two scenes feature moments that way too conveniently serve the narrative. This is not a complex film, although it surprisingly dwells on the psychological consequences of killing (even in the name of justice) in ways that most action films do not, featuring some good contemplative dialogue. In the end, it is an enjoyable, old fashioned movie, where the good and bad guys are clearly distinguished.

****Warning, spoilers ahead as I further address the film’s accuracy. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to jump now to the last two paragraphs****

Bonnie Parker is definitely depicted as one of the bad ones, and I can tell you now that many Bonnie and Clyde buffs/amateur historians are going to be miffed about it.

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She was clowning around in this pic, but make no mistake, this is no heroine

In The Highwaymen, she is just as involved in the shootings as Clyde, providing covering fire in shootouts and brutally offing a motorcycle cop as he lay disabled on the ground.

These facts are disputed, and many of her sympathizers point to the fact that under oath gang members absolved her of killings. Yet eyewitness testimony does exist that she did fire at law enforcement. Further, the “Grapevine killing” scene (the killing of two motorcycle cops that had stumbled upon the gang and thought they were stranded motorists) is based on the testimony of one witness that was the closest to the murders of several other witnesses, a farmer that claimed Bonnie delivered the coup de grace to one of the officers. Gaining his 15 minutes of fame, the farmer told his story over and over, even for newsreels, and some claim his details changed over time. This has led many to discredit his testimony,  embracing instead that of a married couple that were farther away with an obscured view and that said Bonnie didn’t shoot.

We’ll likely never know the truth for sure, but I am fine with the film going with the original witness, because people at the time believed it, Hamer believed it, the ballistics on the scene supports it, and it led to more public support for downing the duo. The scene therefore serves the greater purpose of painting Bonnie as equally guilty. Heck, even she didn’t try to deny it: shortly after the grapevine killings the gang killed another cop (depicted in the film) and shot and kidnapped yet another (left vague in the film) letting him go with Bonnie’s only request being that he tell the press (that had pinned her with one of the Grapevine killings) that she didn’t smoke cigars! Apparently, she felt that was more damaging to her public image than was being a cop killer.

But whether she pulled the trigger or not, make no mistake, Bonnie Parker was going along with hundreds of robberies, and running with and abetting (and bedding) a repeated murderer. She doesn’t deserve our sympathy, and by depicting her popping off the policemen, the movie makes that truth clear and palpable.

The other aspect of the film that requires the most scrutiny regarding accuracy is the set-up and carrying out of the famous last ambush. The six members of the posse (led by Hamer and including Gault, 2 Dallas deputies, and 2 local Louisiana officers) all told different stories.

How was it set up? The movie’s story is that Hamer and Gault predicted (based on the gang’s established pattern of going to a member’s home after each spree) that the killers would show up at the Louisiana home of the father of one of Clyde’s gang members, Henry Methvin.

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Woody and Costner in pursuit

Methvin’s father was then pressured to help set up the ambush if his son was spared the death penalty (and possibly all charges) in Texas (other states’s charges would still be in place). The ambush was then arranged as soon as Henry could slip free from the couple, as the group had an agreement that if they got separated they would meet up at (or possibly nearby) the Methvin place near Gibsland, Louisiana.

Is that actually how the deal went down?  It is possible that Methvin’s father made the initial contact with law enforcement, not the other way around. Further, was he a willing participant, as in the 1967 movie, or a reluctant or even forced one? Or might he not even been involved at all?  We will likely never know the exact details because Hamer was intent on keeping his methods secret, covering up details as much as possible and protecting sources.

Which is also the case with the ambush. In my mind, the big question is how the posse managed to get Barrow to slow down or even stop, as he normally pushed his stolen V-8 Fords on back country roads at top speeds. The generally accepted version is that they used Methvin’s father’s truck to slow Clyde down, placing it in the road as though it were broken down. But was the father also willingly out in the road as a decoy by his truck?

In the 1970s, one posse member claimed Methvin’s father was never a willing participant in the deal and that Hamer handcuffed him to a tree on the side of the road and then used his truck as the decoy. In the 1967 film version, he is a willing participant, but The Highwaymen plausibly splits the difference, having the father agree to the deal, but depicting Hamer as not trusting that he wouldn’t warn the killers, and thus forcing the father to be there with them on the side of the road (but as a decoy, not shackled to a tree).

After the car slowed or stopped, were Bonnie and Clyde offered a chance to put their hands up? All six guys told different stories. Why?  Some argue that the three groups distrusted and disliked each other, so they all told self -serving stories. Perhaps the differences were just a product of the natural phenomenon that different people will often see the same event in different ways, particularly if it was fast and violent. Personally,  I think it is a product of both those things, but also that Hamer swore them all to secrecy about what actually happened, because it is very likely the first shot was fired prematurely, without warning, before the killers even made a move.

Again, we will never know for sure what actually happened that morning, but the film depicts (in a scene filmed on the actual site of the real ambush) that a warning was given.

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The ambush site today. The film was shot here, though it required covering the road with dirt and bringing in foliage so that the woods appear closer to the road, as they were then.

Hamer himself delivers the demand of “hands up,” coming out into the road (VERY unlikely), followed by a few breathless moments of fear on both sides. Bonnie then makes a move for her weapon, leading to the excessively lethal barrage.

Yet once again, I am OK with this depiction, because the brief pause gives us the film’s first close-up of Bonnie and Clyde’s faces. Before that moment, we only see them briefly and usually from a distance (something some commentators have criticized). Yet the beauty of this decision is that once we see Hamer and Gault’s prey for the first time up close, we realize, as the two rangers must have, that these monsters were essentially just kids that went down a very wrong path, paying an appropriately heavy price for it.

(And yes, the scenes involving crazed souvenir hunters is accurate, with the reality being even more insane than is depicted).

Thus the film’s ending is shocking and somber, just as was the ending of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. But where that film wants us to feel sad for the tragic couple and angered by the brutal trap that was set from them, The Highwayman simply wants us to feel the tragedy of violence.

The ending is appropriately not rousing and triumphant, as our heroes literally ride off into the sunset. The jolting and somber finale makes the film’s point, as Bonnie and Clyde clearly understood, that those that live by the sword will die by the sword, and that the wages of sin are death.

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Actual photograph from moments after the slaughter

“They Shall Not Grow Old”—See it, Seriously. Just Do It.

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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.

Seriously.

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:

DO NOT MISS THE FILM IN THE THEATER AND IN 3D.

Just trust me.

Public History, the NPS, and the Shutdown

During the partial government shutdown I wrote a little piece for the Daily Beast about the impact Trump’s war for his wall was having on the public historians that work for the National Park Service. Based on interviews I did via email with several rangers, their frustrated voices came through loud and clear.

In many ways, however, I consider the piece a small love letter to the work they do at the sites of our nation’s most important historic events. When I was first started falling in love with history and visiting those sites, the rangers and their tours were a great inspiration to me. I eventually become a seasonal park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park back in the 90s, and still cherish those years of working with such great historians to bring the importance of the sites and the Civil War to the public. There are many days in which I wish I was still doing it.

Anyway, during the shutdown, my thoughts were mostly with them because I knew not only about their financial sacrifices, but how much it was hurting them to not be able to do a job they dearly love. I am happy they are back on the job (for now), and let’s hope the government will no longer hold federal employees and their important jobs as hostages during a political fight.

 

My favorite ghost tales: A specter from Ancient Rome, and the “Moon Ghost” of Virginia.

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Happy Halloween!

I’m a big fan of ghost story folklore, especially because almost every culture and era of human history has its share of ghost “sightings.” In the ancient world, spook tales abounded in Mesopotamia and Egypt, with perhaps the most famous ancient ghost story coming from Rome, recorded by the Roman lawyer and writer Pliny the Younger (61 AD-151 AD).

In a letter, Pliny asks a friend about his thoughts on “specters.” “[Do] you believe they actually exist,” he inquires, “or are [they] only the false impressions of a terrified imagination?”  He then relates three stories he had heard, the best of which involves a house in Athens where “In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of [chains]. At first it seem[s] at a distance, but approach[es] nearer by degrees.”

“Immediately afterward,” Pliny records, “a phantom appear[s] in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the [chains] on his feet and hands.”

Several different inhabitants of the house apparently witnessed this phenomenon, Pliny relates, until eventually no one would live in the house, so that it was “at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable.”  However, “in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity,” the owner offered it at an incredibly low price for sale or for rent.

Eventually,  “Athenodorus the philosopher” inquired about why the place was so cheap, and when learning that it was haunted, he was not discouraged and in fact “was more strongly inclined” to rent it out. During his first night in the house, the apparition emerged, chains and all, beckoning the new resident to follow him.ghost.jpg When Athenodorus did so without fear, he was led to a certain spot in the house’s courtyard, where the specter then vanished.

Athenodorus quickly “marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves,” Pliny relates.  “The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains. . . .  The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense.”

After that, Pliny insists, with the ghost now properly buried,  “the house was haunted no more.”

As for Pliny, he was convinced of the tale’s veracity. “This story I believe upon the affirmation of others,” he told his friend. But do the details of this ancient story sound familiar? Haunted house; Chains; Improperly buried corpse; A Ghost needing a mystery solved so it can move on. All of this obviously formed the basis for many ghosts tales to come, which is why I find it so interesting.

But my all time favorite ghost story is one that is actually documented and comes from Reconstruction-era Virginia.  No, I’m not saying that there is actual documentation that proves the existence of a ghost, but there is documentation that indicates some really strange things were happening on an estate about 12 miles south of Charlottesville from 1866- 1867 that were observed by (and freaked out) A LOT of eyewitnesses.

ghost-moon-small-thumb-300x170-10896.jpgWas it a real ghost? Doubtful, but the question of how someone pulled off such an amazing prank night after night for over two years makes the story all the more incredible. If you are unfamiliar with it, I don’t want to spoil it for you and will just direct you to read about The Moon Ghost of Virginia.

What the heck was going on? (Did it involve former slaves “haunting” their former master?) Trust me, it is good stuff and has long been my favorite spook tale.

Enjoy, and don’t forget to check out my Top Ten Ghost Movies!

Spike Lee’s definitely got something to say: A review of BlacKkKlansman

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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.

I’m sure glad I did.

The opening sequence of BlacKkKlansman is borrowed from Gone With the Wind, and is perhaps the most famous use of the Confederate flag in cinema history.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

It doesn’t get more stark, or timely,  than that.

 

TCM is my lifeboat: Escapism, and taking comfort in the fact that there is no “Golden Age.”

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As I mentioned in my previous posting, like many folks today I am a bit burned out trying to keep up with the daily insanity that is the news during the Trump era. As a professional historian, it is a bit surreal and highly fascinating to watch these truly historic events play out in real time.

But it is exhausting! And frankly, terrifying.

Viewing events from a historical perspective gives us many reasons to be worried about what is transpiring these days. We have lots of faith in our constitution and democratic system, but, history demonstrates, democracies can and do fail.

Yet one of the comforting things about viewing events from a historical perspective is also the knowledge that we as a nation have faced trying and divisive times before, and came out on the other side all the better for it.

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More divided now than ever? Um, no.

I’ve repeatedly asserted here and in my classrooms that our current divisiveness and tribulations will ultimately actually reshape the nation in positive ways, and that’s where this whole story is headed. Americans are increasingly getting “woke,” and that’s refreshing when we have had so much electoral apathy for so long.

But it isn’t always easy to keep that optimism.

In that vein,  I am following up my reading of John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump with Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. I’ve yet to complete it, but so far it has been a nice tonic for the daily news.

That’s where Turner Classic Movies (better known as TCM) comes in.

Like most historians, I love movies. I think we tend to relish them because at the core of our passion for history is a love of storytelling and stories. You’ll find very few professional historians that will not profess a love for the movies, and when we are not talking about historical events, you can almost bet we are talking about our favorite films. (Here’s me discussing my favorite.)

And of course history and movies have always been linked to one another. Many of the greatest films of all time are historical dramas. And in our classrooms, historians frequently analyze the ways in which films either reflected their times, and/or helped shape them. Birth_of_a_Nation_1915.pngFor example, no discussion of the Jim Crow era, or racial perceptions in the US, is complete without reckoning with The Birth of a Nation (1915), or Gone With the Wind (1939). How can one analyze the late 1960s without dealing with Easy Rider (1969) or The Graduate (1967)?

In our current age when Hollywood seems stuck in a rut of poor dialogue and computer generated imagery, in which remakes, retools, and big budget “the-world-is-endanger-someone-save-us-now” flicks rule the day, going to the movies isn’t what it used to be.

The best new movies these days, I believe, are the independents, not the big studio pics. I’m particularly tired of all these films in which the world is somehow on the brink of disaster, with the only thing standing in the way of armageddon being a band of superheroes, or a rogue government agent/assassin.

Which is why, more and more, TCM is the place to go when I need a break from current events. After watching all the talking heads on the news channels hash and rehash the latest and daily insanity, it is refreshing to flip over to TCM and be greeted by one of the network’s affable and knowledgable hosts as they provide a little background, historical detail, and interesting opinions both before and after a feature presentation.

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Muller, Malone, Karger, & Mankiewicz

And they are all equally good. Ben Mankiewicz’s dry and sarcastic wit never fails to crack me up. Alicia Malone’s interesting commentary and opinions are delivered with a constant smile and sunny demeanor that are downright infectious. (Yes I have a crush on her). Dave Karger’s smooth delivery and pleasant personality never fails to charm. And Eddie Muller’s “film noir” lessons are insightful, fascinating, and always delivered with just the right amount of macho style.

Not every movie TCM shows is great, of course, but they rely on films made during a time when, as Mankiewicz explains in one of TCM’s promos, “we didn’t know how to blow up buildings (or rely on CGI) so we had no choice but to tell great stories, with great characters.” Most of the films they show were made in Hollywood’s heyday—the 1930s and 40s, but also the 1950s, & 1960s. (Although they frequently feature movies from the 70s, 80s’s, 90s, and even more recent films).

I’ve loved TCM for several decades now (and still mourn the loss of the incomparable Robert Osbourne), but I have come to cherish its value as escapism more so now than ever. But most comforting to me, is knowing that these films were escapism for audiences even when they first came out.

Many people (classic film lovers especially) have a tendency to think of the past in terms of a “golden age,” overly romanticizing a bygone era when things were supposedly so much simpler and more innocent than they are now.

But that’s pure hogwash. Every era of time has had its own stresses and problems, causing people to feel just as distressed and burdened by current events and realities as at any other time in history (and often more so).

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Some good 3-D fun, circa 1950s

Thus, when I watch the films of the 1930s, I put them in the context of the Great Depression and the growth of global fascism. During the early 40s, there was the stress of having loved ones fighting and dying overseas, and the enormous burden of supporting the conflict on the home front. In the late 40s, veterans returned home to a world and families that they struggled to integrate back into, many suffering from PTSD. The 50s brought another overseas war,  the fear of atomic destruction, red scare paranoia, and Civil Rights tensions. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the ever-growing death toil from political assassinations, and the Vietnam War divided us culturally and politically in extreme ways that we are only just now starting to experience again.

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A film as timely now as it was then

It is often argued that 1939 was the greatest year in Hollywood’s history (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Young Mr. Lincoln, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din). Just think for a moment what terrifying events were going on in the world when those films were in the theater breaking box office records.

And if you were African American during any of those eras, life was far from a “golden age,” as it was the heyday of Jim Crow, unpunished lynchings, and residential segregation, among other burdens.

But even during those dark eras, there was always the movies–Films that swept audiences up with their humor, excitement, and music, helping them escape, even if only two hours, from the world outside the theater. The big studios turned out every genre of film, created imaginary worlds, and took viewers away from the harsh realities of their times.

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Gable, headed off to war

And that’s the beauty of TCM now. Those very same films are still offering a bit of escapism, as Garland, Bogart, Hepburn, Stanwyck, Gable, Lombard, Stewart, Wayne, and oh so many other timeless actors fill the TV screen with great characters, great dialogue, and great stories. All the while reminding us that we have always needed the movies to take us away from a world that seems out of control.

And just as Americans survived and triumphed over those dark times then, . . . so shall we again

Trump, evangelical Christians, and a history of fear: A review of John Fea’s Believe Me.

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. 994854356-1.jpgMy last blog posting was over two months ago.

I could blame vacation and general burnout, but the primary reason for my lack of blogging is that the #1 thing I would want to post about are the never-ending Trump outrages. And yet I find myself not wanting to write about Trump for one reason:

I am tired of hating him.

As my closest friends know, I have been grappling with the fact that Trump inspires so much sheer hatred in my heart. As I watch him destroy the dignity of the office, repeatedly lie about big and small things, separate families at the border, enact tariffs which will inflict wounds on our own economy, weaken the alliances that the post-WWII Western world has been built upon, describe the free press as an enemy of the state, and coddle up to murdering and tyrannical madmen, (just to name his most recent misdeeds), the anger in me swells. And every day it’s something new.

1*JRxEPJZ6EjasBIDh9GkPSw.pngIt’s exhausting, and I know that many of you feel exactly the same.

My Twitter followers and Facebook friends know I frequently vent my feelings in short diatribe postings, or by passing along news stories and the writings of others. But this has long become annoying to me, and I’m sure to others. Oh, how I long for the days when my Twitter feed and Facebook wall were filled mostly with interesting history-related stories, the good news of family and friends, sports commentary, or jokes and fun comments about pop culture.

Those are still there, of course, but are clouded and overwhelmed by the ever-frustrating and increasingly-frightening news. Living through world changing events in real time is fascinating as heck, but the fear and hatred it stirs has become oppressive.

And what good is all that fear and hate?

I’m a big believer that nothing good ever comes from hate. As MLK wrote (perhaps leaning on Romans 12:21), “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Perhaps Maya Angelo said  it best:  “Hate has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not yet solved one.”

Indeed, has it not been hatred and fear that has caused this current problem? As we know, Trump’s narrow election victory owes much to the fact that he received the support of 81% of evangelical Christians. It seems ironic that perhaps the most immoral man ever nominated for president received evangelical support.

But is it? And was it not their fear and hatred that helped make his victory possible?

That argument is at the core of historian and Messiah College Professor John Fea’s new book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump5101e574-4c2f-4e5a-8b90-5366b66f02f1._CR63,0,375,500_PT0_SX300__.jpgPurposely choosing a publisher of religious books (Eardman’s), the Christian author’s main target audience seems to be other evangelicals. Yet anyone interested in understanding the 2016 election through solid historical context and analysis should pick up Fea’s fascinating and incisive work.

(Quick shoutout to the small independent bookstore where I picked up my copy,  Ernest & Hadley’s. Shop local, y’all.)

Like Fea, I too was dismayed that a large majority of fellow Christians embraced such an immoral man like Donald Trump, especially when considering that these were the same people that excoriated Bill Clinton, insisting that beyond his perjury, his sexual improprieties and other character flaws made him unfit for office. What happened? If character mattered then (and I believe that it did), why did it not seem to matter now?

Further, I wondered, how could evangelicals be blind to the fact that embracing Trump would only widen the conception of Christians as hypocrites? Couldn’t they see that the goal of spreading the good news would be severely hampered? Who would want to convert to a religion of such blatant hypocrisy?

Instead of letting such questions bewilder and anger him, Fea went looking for answers, and has reached what I feel are convincing explanations. Simply put, Trump tapped into the long standing evangelical tradition of using fear as a tactic, embraced their political playbook for recreating a nostalgic American past that never really existed, and rallied their leaders to his cause by seemingly offering positions of political power and influence. Fea concludes that many evangelicals “decided that what Donald Trump can give them is more valuable than the damage their Christian witness will suffer because of their association” with him.

Fea builds his case by providing a “short history of evangelical fear,” touching on Puritan Massachusetts, anti-Catholicism in colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum America, the fear of deism in the early republic, southern fears about race war and/or miscegenation that drove them into secession, the Nativist response to Jewish and Catholic immigrants, images.jpegand the modernist cultural forces of the 1920s that brought about the revival of the KKK and lynchings (and a war on the teaching of evolution).

Thus by the time of the Civil Rights movement, Fea demonstrates, evangelicals had a long history of revealing their fears in how they “responded to the plight of people who do not share their skin color,” as well as how they responded to anyone that “might challenge the power and privilege that evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants . . ..” And those responses “have led to some dark moments” in the history of the United States.

Indeed.

After WWII, Fea narrates, evangelicals were dismayed by “a renewed emphasis on the separation of church and state, the removal of prayer and Bible-reading from public schools, the influx of immigrants from non-Christian Western nations, the intrusion of the federal government into their schools (desegregation), and the court’s endorsement of abortion on demand.”

As a result, the 1970s saw evangelicals turn against the forces of big government, making them a natural fit for the more than welcoming (and wooing) Republican Party. (Fea doesn’t point it out, but he reveals there was more at play here than just the infamous “southern strategy” that was based on blowing racial dog whistles).

Furthermore, Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” developed what Fea labels a “political playbook” in order to defeat the forces that seemed to be winning the cultural wars. mf1000.jpgSimply put, this playbook encouraged Christians to restore America to its Christian roots (which required historic revisionism to argue that America was founded solely by Christians, upon Christian principles) by contending for political power via the recruitment and financial support of candidates dedicated to using government to achieve the church’s religious goals.

Christians in political office would then place Christians in the courts, and these judges would limit the separation between church and state (which would allow the passage of laws enforcing Christian morality), and ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade. “While control of the presidency and the Congress is certainly important to the successful implementation of this playbook,” Fea argues, “the control of the Supreme Court is essential.”

And yet, despite forty years of following this playbook, by 2015 it had had little if any success. Abortion was still legal. The internet had made pornography more widely and easily available. Gay marriage was upheld by the Supreme Court. Crime rates seemed to have not dropped. America was becoming more ethnically and racial diverse than ever.  Some states had legalized the recreational use of pot. Christian church membership was dropping substantially. A man many Christians (ridiculously) believed was a foreign-born Muslim had been twice-elected president. Etc. etc.

And then came Trump. Despite his life-long commitment to greed, sexual infidelity and immorality, shady business practices, and outspoken crudeness, he quickly understood his best path to the White House must involve picking up the evangelical vote. Drawing to his side what Fea labels the “court evangelicals,” Trump learned from certain Christian leaders how to speak the language and embrace the playbook. These leaders saw a man that would not just give lip-service to the playbook, but would faithfully implement it and place them into positions of political power and influence.

These court evangelicals include the Christian Right (such as James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr.), the followers of “prosperity gospel,” (such as Paula White), and the Independent Network Charismatics (some of which insist they prophesied Trump’s victory and his role in their ultimate success). Donald-trump.jpgWooed by Trump’s apparent commitment to the playbook, these evangelicals have become his staunchest defenders, insisting his past does not matter, that he is a faithful Christian now (despite all evidence to the contrary), and even that he is the fulfillment of prophesy.

Fea’s work is thus powerfully enlightening, helping to explain why a man with Trump’s deficiencies would find favor with Christian evangelicals. Though he does not explore it, his work also explains why these long-time Republican faithfuls would embrace a man that campaigned on and has embraced so many anti-Republican Party policies (such as his hostile tariffs and questionable commitment to our traditional alliances and NATO responsibilities).

Further, Fea’s work helps explain why, despite Stormy Daniels and Trump’s continued deplorable behavior (such as his easily demonstrable lies and disgusting moral equivalencies), evangelicals refuse to abandon him. With Trump appointees taking judgeships, and with one on the Supreme Court and more possibly coming, why should they quit on him now when their playbook finally seems on the verge of success?

In his later chapters, Fea begins to more directly address his message to fellow evangelical Christians. Taking aim at the slogan “Make American Great Again,” the author rightfully asserts that there is no time in America’s history when things were “great” for a majority of U.S. citizens, and that our past is more often filled with dark and dangerous times for people that were not white male native-born (and heterosexual) Protestants.  Trump thus relies on nostalgia for a time that never really existed.

For most Americans, the evangelical playbook’s success would be regressive, not a restoration of greatness. (For those of you that have been watching Hulu’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, how frightening does all this seem??) “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” Fea asserts, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for–not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

On abortion, Fea argues that even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, the issue would go to the states, where certainly a large number would keep it legal. That impoverished red state women might not be able to afford travel to blue states would likely reduce the number of abortions, “but it will bring our culture no closer to welcoming the children who are born and supporting their mothers.” How much more could have already been done in America to end abortions, Fea ponders, had the billions of dollars given to pro-life candidates been spent on more economic, social, and cultural solutions to the problem, rather than political ones. Now there’s food for thought.

In his conclusion to Believe Me, Fea finds inspiration in the Christian leaders of the Civil Rights movement,mbb1-1.jpg
encouraging evangelicals to end their faith in the playbook, stop relying on the politics of fear and embrace a message of hope, be inspired by true history and not a nostalgic version of it, and seek to shape American culture through more humble and less political means (you know, like Christ).

“Too many [evangelical] leaders (and their followers) have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges,” Fea concludes, arguing that we should thus not be surprised by the number of people leaving the Christian church altogether.

Believe Me is powerful stuff, made all the more so by Fea’s readably jargon-free prose, confident authorial voice, and gently encouraging tone. I have some quibbles with it: I would have liked an organization that maintained a more chronological flow, racial dynamics needed a bit more emphasis, and his conclusions seemingly disregards the political agenda of the Civil Rights movement. Fox News and political tribalism needed to be in there somewhere, too.

I think his conclusion also misses the opportunity to point out that African American Christianity has almost always centered on a message of hope for future justice, helping blacks endure bleak times in America. That’s a powerful contrast to Fea’s outlining of the white evangelical history of using fear.slavery-2.jpg

I’ve long awaited Fea’s book, and it did not disappoint. If you have read much of my blog, you know that I often express my belief in the view of history that embraces the idea that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice. These times that we are living in however, are a great reminder that it is our responsibility to keep it bent in the right direction. American history has always shown that this involves fighting against powerful forces, so we should not be surprised by what we are up against now, as unprecedented as many of these events are.

I see much to be excited about, as perhaps the Trump backlash is helping to end political apathy in America. And yet, as I acknowledged above, the unrelentingly disturbing and frightening news has been weighing me down with hatred.

Fea’s book has thus come at just the right time for my soul, demonstrating that fear and hatred are what have given us Trump’s America. So, as he concludes, it must be resisted with humility and hopeful determination that looks forward and not back. The resistance can’t be driven by negativity and fear.

“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Damn right.

 

 

Review of NBC’s Timeless second season finale. How well did they handle the Civil War? Did they break their own rules?

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Timeless’s heroes meet Harriet Tubman

So, the season finale of Timeless was a doozy, receiving big critical praise and trending #1 last night on Twitter. It blew the minds of its fans, and made a pretty strong case to NBC for renewal of a show that currently sits on the proverbial bubble.

I loved it too, but have to admit I’m angry at the Civil War historical inaccuracies, and also that the show’s creators broke their own time travel rules, apparently just to shock and surprise us. (Which worked).

SPOILERS AHEAD.

The opening scene was set in June 1863 in coastal South Carolina, yet we see what looks to be the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia hanging in the tent of a Rebel officer.  I knew at that moment we were in for some pretty basic historical inaccuracies, and boy, we sure were.

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Battle flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. NOT the Confederate flag.

Yet, I reminded myself, the flag is just a fairly minor detail.  Most people think the Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag is the Confederate flag, so just let it go.

Later, however, Wyatt (one of our time traveling heroes) explains to Harriet Tubman that he and the others are spies sent by “General McClellan” to help her with her planned raid into the interior of the state.

Oh come on! This is just lazy research by the writers, as Little Mac was removed from command as general-in-chief of all Union armies over a year earlier, and was in fact not in command of anything (except his New Jersey household) in June 1863. Lincoln canned him in November 1862.

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You say McClellan sent you? Hmm.

If Wyatt had told Tubman that McClellan sent them, instead of taking the group into her fold, she surely would have taken the assertion as proof that our heroes were particularly ill-informed Rebel spies, and then would have promptly unloaded her gun into them.

As if this historical error weren’t enough, the Rittenhouse “sleeper cell” agent working as a Rebel colonel reveals to other Confederate officers that Grant is converging on Vicksburg and that they must now maneuver to get him. “We leave at dawn,” the colonel declares, “face them on the road before they join forces. Should be easy pickin’s'” He knows this because he has a copy of a “military history of the Civil War” that tells him everything Union troops are going to do before they do it.

Too bad the show’s writers didn’t read the same book.

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The book contains a military history of the Civil War. The writers apparently skipped almost everything about the Vicksburg Campaign.

First of all, Confederate troops in coastal South Carolina would have had little to do with maneuvering in Mississippi, and secondly, that Grant was moving on Vicksburg was hardly unknown in June 1863.  He had been converging on that city for over 7 months, had tried digging a canal across the river from it, had already fought several battles as he marched there, and in fact was already entrenched and besieging the city!

I’m sorry, colonel, but you’re too late. The Yankees had already “joined forces” outside of Vicksburg. So much for “easy pickin’s.”

I have to wonder how Confederate officers would have reacted had the Rittenhouse agent delivered the news that Grant was trying to get Vicksburg.

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This is all just lazy research on behalf of the writers, but what was most maddening about the episode is that they would have us believe the Combahee River Raid was a pivotal moment in the war.

Yes, it was a unique campaign in that it was planned by an African American woman, Harriet Tubman, and was a spectacular success for the Union, achieving all its primary objectives. For the estimated 700 or more enslaved people that got their freedom as a result, it was a pretty huge deal.

But did it alter the course of the Civil War? Not even close. It was a minor raid that is rightfully famous today only because of Tubman’s involvement and because it was a Union operation mainly for the direct purpose of liberating slaves (and getting them into Union uniforms). It is a great story, and one of the war’s largest emancipation events, but hardly a crucial event in the course of the Civil War.

Had Rittenhouse wanted to change the outcome of the war by changing events, June 1863 in South Carolina would have been a strange place to start. (Unless they targeted the 54th Massachusetts before its assault on Fort Wagner).

And yet, when Tubman’s raid is thwarted on the show by Rebel troops tipped off by the Rittenshouse agent, one of our heroes declares, “so we’re too late? History has already been changed? The South’s going to win?”

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The real Tubman was definitely hardcore.

Um, no.

FYI: the real raid involved Tubman directing two Union ships up the river (she was aboard ship, none of which we see in the episode), avoiding Rebel mines thanks to intel she gathered from local runaways, and her singing songs to attract and encourage some 700 enslaved African Americans to escape, many of which then enlisted in Union service. They also destroyed southern plantations and supplies in the process.

The irony is that Comedy Central’s Drunk History hilariously covered the raid, and did a much better job at getting the details correct. Check it out (language warning):

And yet,  if the biggest thing viewers take away from the episode is that Tubman was “hardcore,” (as one of our heroes rightfully observes) that’s pretty great. The show provides a quick and accurate biography of Tubman (including the rightful assertion that she claimed to see visions). Most people know of her Underground Railroad activities, but fewer know she was involved in Union military efforts during the Civil War.  Actress Christine Horn’s performance as Tubman was fiercely on-par with that of Aisha Hinds, who played her so memorably in WGN’s Underground.

(We could definitely use more Tubman on screen. What happened to the project HBO announced several years ago, as well as the separate theatrical film? What’s taking so long? My guess: the difficulty of securing funds for a movie featuring an African American female protagonist. Come on Hollywood, it’s time).

The best part: Timeless demonstrates that Tubman and the enslaved community probably wouldn’t have needed the help of our time traveling heroes anyway. Despite the setback, Tubman is determined to just change plans and try again, convincing our heroes to go along with it AND go after the Rebel spy (the Rittenhouse agent) as equally important missions. Yet when the decisive blows are struck, Tubman fires the shots, backed up by runaways and black Union soldiers.

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Standing strong against the bad guys.

Further, as hoped, the whole episode was a hit on the Lost Cause. Timeless has the evil democracy-hating forces of Rittenhouse trying to engineer a Confederate victory.  It’s clear that a southern triumph would have sucked for African Americans and democracy, and that the Union cause became intertwined with the liberation of enslaved peoples. (I loved when Rufus referred to the Rittenhouse agent/Confederate officer as “David Duke.”)

I especially appreciated the depiction of African Americans heroically fighting against their oppressors—the Confederacy.  “Believe me, we are we NOT going to lose this friggin’ war,” African American time traveller Rufus stubbornly assures Tubman, indicating the importance of Union victory for the future of African Americans. Timeless’s 2.4 million viewers last night were shown that in the American Civil War, the Rebels were the bad guys and that African Americans played an aggressively active role in bringing them down.

In the end, that lesson is way more important than flags, General McClellan’s career status, and the whereabouts of Grant’s troops in June 1863.

On another note . . .

Let me bitch about something apart from the episode’s historical accuracy. Timeless got a lot of attention last night because of its surprise ending. I too was pretty wrapped up in the show (which took us far afield from the Civil War, and ultimately into 1888 San Francisco) and caught off guard. BUT, it’s because they broke their own time travel rules.

At the start of the first season, the creators told us that their rules would be simple, because they wanted to focus on the history, not the sci-fi. For example, our time travelers couldn’t revisit a place/time where they had already been. And, to quote co-creator Eric Kripke, “What we’re trying to avoid is the overly complicated time travel trope where you’re meeting slightly older and slightly younger versions of yourself.” For example,  “we didn’t want an older version of Lucy meeting a younger version of Lucy.”

And yet that is EXACTLY what they did in the shocking last seconds of the show. Making this worse in my mind, is that in an interview with Entertainment Tonight actress Abigail Spencer (Lucy) tells us that they had been planning this all along.

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Future Lucy and Wyatt. Wait, what??

“What you see at the end of the finale,” Spencer claims,”was pitched to me in my meeting when [executive producers] Shawn [Ryan] and Eric [Kripke] asked me to play the part.”

So that means the creators established and publicly shared their time travel rules, just so that it would be a shock to audiences when they broke those rules at the end of the second season?

I call foul. That’s cheap audience manipulation.

Anyway, that aside,  I was still admittedly very entertained by the pulse-quickening episode that paid off all the more because of the strong character development we’ve gotten, especially this season. I also appreciated the overall message about Tubman and the Civil War (though the writers should have done their history homework better), and everything positive I wrote about the show last week still applies.

I sure hope NBC renews it.

 

PS: Also count me as one of the ones hoping Lucy ends up with Flynn and not Wyatt. Yes, ordinarily I would cheer for the “good guy” instead of the “bad boy,” but there is something about Wyatt that rubs me the wrong way. Flynn is way more of an interesting character. But maybe that’s just me.

(And one more thing, please get that modern make-up off Lucy’s face, especially when she is in the 19th century).

 

“Great man” theory, “contingency” and NBC’s Timeless.

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Now that NBC’s Timeless is about to wrap up their season with another visit to the Civil War, I have had a few people ask my opinion of the show after it has had two seasons. (What’s with these short TV seasons these days? Remember when a full season of a show was 22+ shows?)

Initially, I viewed the show as pretty harmless fun, and I still feel that way, but it is actually a bit more than that.

In case you haven’t been watching, Timeless involves a team of time-traveling heroes that are at war with an evil Illuminatilike organization called Rittenhouse, which is desperately trying to destroy democracy so the world will be run by a select few superior peoples. Namely, themselves.

The nefarious organization tries to accomplish this task via time travel and the planting of “sleeper cell” agents in the past, who at the right moment, are ordered to complete a task that will alter humanity’s time-line which is marching toward greater democracy. This almost always involves an attempt at killing some key historical figure at a moment before they can accomplish their deed. The job of our heroes, of course, is to stop them, and/or to mitigate the damage.

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It is up to this diverse group of heroes to keep the arc of the moral universe bent towards justice.

The show’s creators have wisely decided to keep their time-travel rules simple so that the show is less about the sci-fi and more about the history. I like that choice, of course.

But our heroes do have to make sure that the time-line gets altered as little as possible, and that does not always happen. The big events essentially remain the same, but some of the details get altered because of their efforts. Let’s call it a small price to pay in order to save the world from tyrannical rule.

So from the perspective of an historian, what is good about the show, and what is bad?

The Good:

If you have read many of my blog postings, you know I am sympathetic to the “arc of history bends towards justice” view of American history that President Obama has championed. No, that doesn’t mean that the arc always goes the way we want, instead, it means we are responsible for keeping it moving in that direction–and that despite the significant forces pulling the other way, mankind has slowly overcome them and successfully kept things on the right trajectory. It is a fight we must vigilantly continue.

Timeless seems to embrace that concept as well, as Rittenhouse goes into the past to essentially try to bend the arc in another direction, and our heroes are there to stop them.

Each week we are treated to a little history lesson that often demonstrates that the past was not a great place for minorities. That alone helps fight the “golden age” concept that gets peddled too much these days (that there was a time in the past that was so much better than our present, and that we need to get back to that again).

But we also get a history lesson about a historical figure with which most people are probably unfamiliar. Rittenhouse knows their history well, so their targets are usually more obscure figures that did big things.

This of course also makes it more difficult for our heroes to know exactly what they are up to. If you track the bad guys to landing on December 7, 1941, it’d be pretty obvious what they were trying to shape. But what if they have landed in San Antonio on November 23, 1936?

Yes, in the largely inferior first season we did get storylines and brief appearances by Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln, and the second season had an episode involving JFK (in his high school days. That was kinda cool). But more frequently this season, audiences have learned about more obscure figures who nevertheless did big things.

And there is great diversity among these figures. Timeless understands the world has been shaped by more than just white men. So far this season, viewers have been treated to little history-lessons-of-the-week involving less familiar people such as Marie and Irene Curie, Hedy Lamarr (1940s Hollywood! Fun!), Abiah Franklin, Grace Humiston, Alice Paul (who should not be less well known), as well as African Americans Wendell Scott and Robert Johnson.

That’s a pretty good lineup, and Timeless usually gets most of the details about these people and their contributions to the world mostly correct (the Alice Paul storyline being the biggest exception). The show is getting about 2.5 million viewers per episode (which is way down from the first season, but the critical response has been higher). This means they are educating a lot of people about the diversity of historical actors that have shaped and created the more democratic and inclusive world we currently inhabit, and they are doing it mostly well. Bravo, Timeless.

The Bad:

But here’s the ironic thing, in doing so, they are at the same time embracing the “great man” theory of history. That is, simply put, that the history of the world has been shaped by certain great men that were born as exceptional individuals, and that their actions alone have shaped most of history. The history of the world, the theory argues, can thus be told within the context of the biographies of these great and exceptional men.

Yes, the historical figures on Timeless are more obscure, and very often not men, so how can one say that the show embraces great man theory?

Because the creators are often attributing big events and movements to the actions of just one individual, and if that individual does not accomplish their task, the whole world would be different. Abiah Franklin can’t be killed in the Salem witch trials, we are told, because if so, Ben Franklin would never be born to advance democracy.

Two other examples from this past season make the point stronger. In one particularly excellent and fun episode, we learn about African American blues guitarist Robert Johnson. He makes a recording of his inventive and distinctive style of blues music in San Antonio in 1936. If that recording doesn’t get made, Timeless tells us, his influence on American music is destroyed, and with it, the emergence of rock-n-roll, and with no rock, we get no 1950s and 1960s protest/counter culture, which means no Civil Rights movement, no withdrawal from Vietnam, no fall of Nixon.

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The Robert Johnson episode. Rock must be saved!

Huh? As a blues lover, I love Johnson, and I appreciate the effort to demonstrate the cultural and political influence of Rock, but the show asks us to disregard the myriad other musicians and influences that shaped American music, especially those that came before Johnson. As an amalgamation of African American jazz, gospel, and blues, with elements of country music stirred in, rock was coming, Johnson or no Johnson.

As for protest/counter culture, doesn’t the liberal consensus, the Cold War, and television insure its emergence, with or without rock? Didn’t those very same things provide momentum for Civil Rights, which provided momentum for the war protests, etc. ? How is rock music the most essential key ingredient? It was an important one, no doubt, but crucial?

The other example: another episode focused on suffrage hero Alice Paul. I was very excited about this episode, as I am a big fan of Paul and believe she should be much more well known than she is. Yet the episode argues that if she had not delivered one particular diatribe within earshot of, and directed at, Woodrow Wilson, the suffrage movement would have failed, and American women would have never gotten the right to vote.

Not only does the episode get the details wrong about Wilson’s stance on women’s suffrage at the moment in time depicted (he had already succumbed to the movement’s intense pressure), but it asks us to believe that a movement that had gained steam after close to one hundred years of work by untold thousands of suffrage workers would have been wiped out in a moment had one particular speech not been given.

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The suffrage episode: somebody has to make that speech!

Most frustrating to me in the episode is that when Rittenhouse succeeds at killing Paul, our heroes implore the other women to make sure the speech gets delivered, yet none of them are willing to do so. Paul was exceptional, but come on, there were plenty of motivated and eloquent women in that movement that could have easily stepped up to the plate. Lucy Burns comes to mind, for just one example.

So Timeless is giving us moments in time in which just one person’s actions (or non-actions) can change all of history. Instead of the “great man of history” theory, it is peddling “a great person of history” theory.

The Judgement:

So does the good of the show outweigh the bad?

I am a big believer in what historians often refer to as “contingency” in history, and Timeless’s entire premise is based on it. Events in history have not been inevitable, and are the product of decisions, choices, and actions that mankind has made. Different decisions or choices would have resulted in different outcomes.

(And yet at the same time, Timeless also asks us to consider whether or not certain things are destined to happen, no matter what we do. Consider this season’s JFK episode, for instance).

It is important for people to understand historical contingency, because it encourages us to become actively involved in shaping what happens to our world. Keeping the arc bent toward justice requires our vigilance and action. Contingency teaches us that it is our responsibility to keep things moving in the direction we want. What happens is not inevitable, because what has happened in our past was also not inevitable.

Timeless brilliantly makes that point, and does so by demonstrating that our world has been shaped by more than just dead white guys, highlighting a diversity of history’s most important contributors. But the cast of heroes charged with ensuring that things stay on the right path is also a very diverse group. The point of the show could not be any more clear, and it is a needed one.

I’d just like to see more sophisticated stories than just “we’ve got to make sure this person doesn’t get killed!” Or “we’ve got to make sure this one person gets to do their thing!”

Anyway, in the end, the show is a bit of harmless fun, and at its best it is giving good history lessons to large audiences. And it is doing so in a way that diversifies our history and embraces contingency theory—showing how important our actions and decisions are in shaping the world in either positive or negative directions.

That, and debunking the “golden age” of the past, are pretty important message to be sending out right now.

The two-hour season finale (and possibly the series finale) is set for this Sunday. It appears that Rittenhouse is headed back in time to help the Confederacy win the Civil War. Uh oh!

And it looks like it will involve Harriet Tubman. Yeah boy!

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A scene for the upcoming finale of Timeless.

That should prove to be an interesting episode, and perhaps a hit at the Lost Cause. Let’s see how well they pull it off.

Stay tuned.

(Oh, and if you subscribe to Hulu, you can quickly get caught up on both seasons one and two).

Dear Kanye: Runaways and violent rebels were NOT the only enslaved peoples who resisted, and who deserve our admiration

 

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These people did not choose to be enslaved, so let’s talk about what they did choose . . .

Dear Kanye West,

You’ve recently demonstrated that you have some educational deficiencies when it comes to understanding American slavery. “400 years” of enslavement, you said, “that sounds like a choice.”

When you said it, you were quickly shot down by TMZ‘s Van Nathan, in a “mic drop” moment that seemed to warrant no additional comment.

Yet you wouldn’t let it go at that. “To make myself clear” you tried to clarify later on Twitter, “Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side (they weren’t) means that we were mentally enslaved.”

You also tweeted that people were attacking you for having original thoughts. Further, you claimed that had you lived during slavery, you would have been a “Harriet,” meaning a runaway, or a “Nat,” meaning a rebel that violently resisted and went down fighting. You’d never be “mentally enslaved!”

But these aren’t original and new thoughts that you’ve stumbled upon. Honestly, the first thing that came to my mind was Eddie Murphy’s 1987 “Raw” performance, when he comically and frankly confronted the idea that you just put forth as new.

“The first dude that got off the boat said that,” Murphy joked.

WARNING: VERY foul language:

Murphy’s comedy aside, I could spend my time trying to educate you about the extensive mechanisms that white Southerners put into place to subjugate and control the enslaved– from laws, to slave patrols, to militia companies, (all of which continued in various forms to maintain white supremacy after the Civil War and explain, in some part, the gun culture of the South). The failure of Nat Turner’s revolt, and especially the subsequent brutal retribution meted out to the mostly uninvolved black community afterwards, is evidence of just how well-prepared and equipped Southern whites were for dealing with large-scale violent slave resistance. John Brown’s Raid further makes the point. The enslaved understood this, because it was their reality.

Or, I could use this time to point out that the chances of escaping slavery by running away were just too great to expect very many to be successful.

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Amos, and thousands like him, were clearly not mentally enslaved. But neither were the ones that didn’t run.

Historians are now heavily involved in collecting, quantifying, and digitizing slave runaway ads from period newspapers, and the more they find, the more we see just how many enslaved peoples made the attempt, despite the odds against success. Yet the truth is that successful runaway attempts were relatively rare, which is why Tubman is justly famous. For most, the risks were too high, and the punishments and separation from families too great a deterrent. The enslaved also understood this.

So does this mean that the vast majority of the enslaved who were not Harriet or Nat were weak? Were they mentally enslaved, as you asserted? Were they so completely dominated and subjugated that we should consider them unworthy of honor and admiration?

Kanye, your recent words imply just that, and THAT is what pisses me off. So please let me address that here.

Listen, you are definitely not the first one that thinks this way. In fact, many white Americans during and after slavery pointed to the relative lack of Harriets and Nats as proof of the docility and inferiority of the race–and thus they viewed that fact itself as justification for black enslavement. Your words implied the same thing.

Is that really how you want to use your high profile voice–making the same argument as the defenders of slavery? That’s the point Van Nathan was making when he took you down.

But you’re also not the only person in our present time that seems to make the same point for which you have received so much backlash.  Anyone that has read many of my blog postings knows that I am annoyed by much of our recent pop cultural depictions of slavery. Thankfully, Hollywood no longer peddles the image of happy and contented slaves like we used to get prior to the Civil Rights movement (à la Gone With the Wind). And that is definitely a good thing. 9781623567804.jpgBut recent exceptional films and TV shows like 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, the Roots remake, and WGN’s Underground, have painted most of the enslaved as essentially subhuman, non-resistent drones, all the while casting violent rebels and runaways as the heroes.

In telling their stories that way, these films miss the same point you do, Kanye. The enslaved did not choose to be enslaved, but what the vast majority of them did choose was to not let enslavement define them, their culture, or their race.

They resisted the complete domination of their lives not by risking death or separation from family by becoming Nat or Harriet, but by constructing and living in a culture largely of their own making, much of it outside of white control.

As I have insisted before: “Slaves routinely played tricks on their owners, covertly left the plantation for moonlit social and religious gatherings, entertained themselves, and created strong bonds that enabled them to maintain sanity and hope.

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There are no Harriets or Nats here, but make no mistake, these are heroes.

Slaves laughed at their master’s expense; told stories to teach their young how to outwit, control, and fool their owners; engaged in slowdowns and “laid out” to negotiate their work load; and worshipped a Christian God that they believed would one day free their people and damn their masters to hell.”

Unfortunately, there are few glimpses of this type of resistance, self-determination, and hope depicted in our current pop cultural depictions of slavery. And yet this is how most of the enslaved resisted. They were resilient, powerful people, taking the worst of what man can do to man and surviving it. African Americans live and thrive today BECAUSE of THEM.

In surviving this way, they built and passed along lessons to their descendants about self esteem, self reliance, and hope. And the culture they built has shaped America’s pop culture to a remarkable degree, especially considering all the mechanisms long in place to fortify white supremacy. Such things as America’s religious practices, foods, fashions, entertainments, and music are largely constructed upon, or heavily influenced by, what the enslaved and their descendants built and shaped in order to resist domination. (The irony, Kanye, is that your own career is part of that story).

Thus the enslaved deserve our acknowledgement and appreciation for all of this, as well as our respect and admiration. They made choices that all of America, black and white, have benefitted from and have been shaped by.

What they certainly do not deserve is your derision because they could not all be Harriets, or Nats.

Peace,

Glenn David Brasher