As I spend the weekend putting the finishing touches on a web course on the Reconstruction Era, I am reminded of this moving speech by film star Hattie McDaniel, the first black person ever to be awarded the Academy Award. In the course, the final segment engages history and popular culture – in particular the film, Gone With the Wind. I focus on McDaniel’s portrayal of Mammy as well as a few notes on the actress herself. She was a fascinating woman off screen – a outspoken supporter of civil rights, she once lobbied the city of Los Angeles to purchase a home in an exclusive all-white neighborhood. Please take a moment to watch this clip – what does it suggest to you about race, historical memory, and Hollywood in 1940?
PS – the course will be live the week of January 18, 2016
As far as Civil War films go, this one is about as good as it gets. Why? For starters, the film addresses something that had gone more or less unnoticed in cinema until 1989 – but mainly because it gets the important stuff right. I have been using this film as a teaching tool since, well…I have been teaching.
The film has come under fire – primarily because it tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all black regiment, from the perspective of a white protagonist – the unit’s commander, Robert Gould Shaw, portrayed by Matthew Broderick. I was concerned less with that than its treatment of Shaw, who comes across as more of a crusader than a whiny privileged twit , which is probably more of an accurate assessment (read his letters…you’ll know what I mean). But I will let that one go – I mean, Ferris Bueller did look like Shaw and after all, the other stuff is so much more important.
The “other stuff” to which I refer is the unequal treatment of black soldiers who were fighting for the Union cause – how they suffered the indignities of racist United States policy, received less pay, were assigned mainly manual tasks, how they risked execution if captured by the Confederates, and how despite all of this, they fought and died for the Union cause (to be fair to Shaw…he risked much as well and was killed leading his troops in combat).
In the end, we challenge how the United States could ever limit the rights of individuals (as it clearly did…) of those who put on the federal uniform, took up arms, and risked their lives to preserve the Union. The film never fails to leave my students asking this very question. As such – this motion picture did its job in splendid fashion…and continues to do so twenty-six years after it first premiered.
In a section of my current book project on the D. W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, I will be interrogating the notion of the plantation trope, if you will, as it appears in the first scenes of the film. Many early-twentieth century musings on this subject are clear reflections of a romanticized “Old South” plantation life that conjured up images of the benevolent white patriarch and the happy but simple-minded darky.
Griffith enlisted the film medium to enshrine this mythos as visual…or if you like, living history. And he is in near perfect step with a prevailing white sentiment concerning the antebellum South that took root with the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and spread to a national audience by the end of the nineteenth century. While there are a number of notable exceptions – groups and individuals who rejected the film’s interpretive bent, I question how such a sectional narrative took hold and captured the imaginations of (and “historically” educated) a national audience.
In an effort to move beyond insular academic circles and engage the general public on the idea of visual representations of history, I ask: what cultural, ideological, and intellectual tendencies informed the “making” of The Birth of a Nation?
Of course, such a question can get tricky – so I welcome all comments and suggestions in the comment section below. This week, I will be working on so-called scientific studies that supported the racist sensibilities running throughout the film.
I have been toying with the idea of adding a movie/television review section to each issue of The Americanist Independent. There have been a couple of reviews in the past, but I want to make it a regular feature in each issue. Of course I’ll need people to contribute short reviews on recent films or television shows that cover topics of significance to United States history.
I suppose I should not be surprised here. The Interwebs are all abuzz over Clint Eastwood’s latest effort at war drama, American Sniper. This film offers the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America’s most lethal crack shot, who saw several tours in the Middle East, and was killed stateside in 2013 by a disturbed Army veteran he was trying to help.
Discourse, if one can call it that, concerning this film has distilled to a troubling reflection of the political polarization in this country. Those who lean right claim that the film honors the greatest American hero since Audie Murphy – a true flag-raising inspiration. Those who lean left say the film celebrates a racist war-mongering sociopath.
Internet pundits have reduced American Sniper to a political football, and yet none have stopped to consider that this is really a crappy film – no matter what your political affiliations.
Kyle, as portrayed in American Sniper, is nearly emotionless and almost entirely one-dimensional. Eastwood misses a golden opportunity to unpack the psychological and emotional roller coaster that combat veterans surely experience, both in the field and back home. Eastwood attempts an artistic evaluation of the human experience in war and gives us a flat monotone. Based on the film alone – do we empathize with, reject, celebrate, or feel remorse for Kyle? Not really. All (or nearly all) of the emotion stirred by American Sniper is incidental to the film’s story itself, not to mention its main character – the hullabaloo is a post screening layer of punditry applied only because many feel the need to take sides on a divisive topic and a war fraught with controversy.
There are plenty of films that offer nuanced and beautifully staged depictions of humanity faced with the grim realities of combat: The Thin Red Line, Full Metal Jacket, and The Hurt Locker come immediately to mind – and there are many others. But American Sniper, politics aside, falls disappointingly short.