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Men Go to Battle and the Civil War’s Dark Turn

ABRUPT, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannonshot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it. Dr. Samuel Johnson beautifully said of another author’s ideas that they were “concatenated without abruption.”
                                                  – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Image of Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) in Men Go to Battle. A soldier with no real reason for going to war. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

In Zachary Treitz’s 2015 film Men Go to Battle, the Civil War becomes the site of a dark comedy. The film follows in a tradition of fictional accounts of the conflict that deal with the violence of war through humor. Just as Ambrose Bierce’s short fiction made the war seem comically ironic and disorienting, the film relies on a tone of dark humor to reconcile the violence of the era with the mundane lives of its central protagonists. In so doing, the film also speaks to the current scholarly focus on the war’s dark side. This places Men Go to Battle in a cinematic tradition of film as a critique of war, but updates that tradition for a twenty-first-century audience.

The film begins with brothers Henry and Francis Mellon, who eke out a living on their Kentucky farm, until the Civil War abruptly arrives. The film opens in November, 1861, in the fictional Small’s Corner, Kentucky. Francis and Henry struggle to manage their 200-acre farm. Low on resources, Francis begins making precarious financial decisions and taking out his frustrations in a series of escalating pranks on Henry, from buying two mules in the middle of winter (“I got a great deal!”) to throwing an ax at his brother in a drunken stupor. The ax throwing incident ends in a severe injury to Henry’s hand and the need for the town doctor’s services. Finding that the entire town has turned out for a party at the home of the Smalls, the towns wealthiest, slave-owning residents, the brothers seek the doctor there. Henry receives treatment for his hand and returns to the party, determined to speak with Betsy Small, for whom he clearly has amatory feelings. Following a fumbling and failed romantic gesture, an embarrassed Henry runs off into the night.

As Francis desperately searches for Henry, the seasons change and spring dawns with no sign of the lost brother. The only noticeable change on the Mellon farm is an ever-larger pile of firewood, the product of Francis’ frustration. Finally, a letter arrives, sent by one brother to another. Francis asks Betsy Small to read the note, discovering that Henry has joined up with the Union army at Bardstown and is in Huntsville, Alabama, with the 23rd Kentucky. The film shifts to depicting Henry’s experiences of army life, filled with endless drill, marching, and singing off-color songs with his comrades around the campfire after dark (and then catching himself on fire after falling asleep too close to the flames).

The film depicts Henry experiencing what the filmmakers clearly believe to be common wartime occurrences. While on picket duty Henry encounters a Rebel soldier with whom he trades coffee for tobacco. The Confederate asks him if he will bring a newspaper the next day. As his unit prepares to go into battle, Henry writes to Francis that “this war might last longer than me.” As the din of battle draws closer, Henry tears up the letter as the other soldiers around him do the same. After collapsing in battle, Henry decides he has had enough of army life, and, shedding his soldier’s coat and cartridge box, he sets out for home on foot, avoiding Union troops along the way. He returns to find that Francis has married Betsy Small, whose rejection of his advances had caused Henry’s initial flight from home. After spending a night in his old home Henry rises early the next morning and the film cuts to black, suggesting the farmer turned soldier will not be staying.

Henry Mellon (Tim Morton) and Francis Mellon (David Maloney). Down-on-their-luck farmers in rural Kentucky. Courtesy of FilmMovement.

The film’s depiction of the war draws on various strands of Civil War memory, though it does not fit neatly into any interpretive category, be it the Lost Cause, Emancipation, Union, or Reconciliation causes.[1] Henry’s motivation for joining the Union army is presented as a combination of his own embarrassment and their geographic proximity to the North. If anything, the film proposes that men like Henry and Francis had no reason to care about the war at all; it was simply something else to do—something other than unproductive hardscrabble farming. The war, the film suggests, could be joined and left at will. The film uses the Civil War as the backdrop for a dark comedy, where physical and emotional violence occurs with little effect on its characters. In some ways, this humorous yet disaffected portrayal of violence means that the film fits into a new interpretive category of Civil War popular culture and memory: the so called “Dark Turn.” This term describes the new wave of scholarly studies focused on the physical and mental violence of the Civil War and the lasting effects of that violence on those who experienced it.

Defending this new Dark Turn in Civil War scholarship, Brian Matthew Jordan has argued that such studies are crucial because “Civil War Americans themselves wrestled with the war’s purpose, debated its meaning, and were preoccupied by its violence.”[2] While this interpretative trend has its scholarly detractors, it is clear in Men Go to Battle that some of its preoccupations are filtering into mainstream cultural depictions of the Civil War. While the violence of the war itself intrudes on the lives of the Mellon brothers, their day-to-day lives condition them to accept a bleak future, which the film emphasizes through its under-lit scenes and grainy texture. The war throws friends out their homes, has neighbors on edge about being killed by their slaves, and sees Francis being punched by Union soldiers in the street. The only recourse the brothers have for countering the violence is their humor.

Lieutenant A.G. Bierce, 1862. Bierce served in the 9th Indiana Volunteers until he was wounded in 1864. Courtesy of The Ambrose Bierce Site.

The Civil War produced its own dark sense of humor, a tone Men Go to Battle channels in its screenplay. No soldier captured this tone better than Ambrose Bierce, whose short stories of the war are imbued with the same sensibility. For Bierce, war and violence could serve as a point of mockery or disorienting strangeness, as Stephen B. Cushman has discussed in his analysis of Bierce’s short story “Chickamauga.”[3] A veteran of that battle, Bierce knew of what he wrote. The experiences Bierce had in the army informed much of the short fiction he later wrote. The characters that Bierce depicted in his stories were often presented as heroes. Heroes, however, who could not escape the cruel irony of war, like Carter Druse in “A Horseman in the Sky,” forced to shoot his own father; or Captain Coulter in “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” who shelled his own house and killed his family. Walt Whitman famously said in reference to the Civil War that “the real war will never get in the books.”[4] In Bierce’s stories this platitude seems painfully true.[5]

If the real war never got into the books, it might follow that it will never appear on screen. While films from the post-Vietnam period contained similar critiques of war and its violence, in recent years the focus of Civil War movies has been trained on the celebration of an emancipation narrative.[6] Men Go to Battle offers a new imagining of the war for a modern audience accustomed to films centered on the conflict that are imbued with purpose and moral righteousness. Instead, Men Go to Battle evokes a mood reminiscent of the Dark Turn in recent Civil War scholarship, with its tacit acceptance of violence as a fact of the war and nineteenth century life. It combats this violence and the hardships experienced by its characters with a tone that is both humorous and disorienting, leaving the viewer uncertain whether to laugh at the struggles of two failed farmers or feel empathy for their plight. While the film certainly does not rise to the level of Lincoln, Glory, or Gone with the Wind as a tool with which to teach interpretations of the conflict, it offers students and scholars alike a moment to reflect on how cinematic Civil War will appear on their screens in the future.

[1] For an explanation of these categories and examples of pre-2008 Civil War popular culture in each interpretive vein, see Gary W. Gallagher, Cause Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). Scholarly work on Civil War memory such as Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015) has discussed the paradoxes of the memory of the conflict in the popular imagination—including the denial of the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause and the more modern emphasis on the Union armies fighting a war to end slavery (see Janney, 309).

[2] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016 < https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/>.

[3] Stephen B. Cushman, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shape What We Know About the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 115-145.

[4] Walt Whitman, Prose Works 1892: Specimen Days, ed. by Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 116.

[5] For a sense of Bierce’s fiction the edited collection Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, ed. William McCann (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1956) is an excellent starting point.

[6] As noted by Gallagher, “throughout the 1990s and beyond, Emancipation has achieved dominance, with Reconciliation maintaining a steady but secondary presence in a number of films.” [Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten, 92.]

Cecily N. Zander

Cecily N. Zander is a PhD student studying the Civil War and nineteenth century U.S. History at The Pennsylvania State University. She earned a B.A. in History from the University of Virginia. Her current work focuses on the intersection of the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Broadly, her work seeks to explore how the West figured in the military and political policy-making of the United States throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Mass Incarceration And Its Mystification: A Review Of The 13th

aaihsThis article was originally published by The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and is reprinted here with permission. Although some of the material falls outside the temporal boundaries of this blog, we believe our readers will find it to be a valuable review, due to its connections to the Civil War.

When prisoners in Alabama last spring proposed a national strike to protest “prison slavery,” they called out the infamous clause in the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment most known for abolishing slavery included a rider that sanctioned slavery “as punishment for a crime wherein the party shall have been duly convicted.”

That exception provides the foundation for Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, an exploration of racial criminalization from the end of slavery to the present. The documentary features interviews with several leading scholars, pundits, and activists working on the issue, as well as a host of other commentators, including journalists and politicians. It moves quickly through more than 150 years of history, with a clear goal of providing the backdrop to the present moment of racial violence and resistance.

“Kalief Browder, 1993–2015,” by Jennifer Gonnerman (Photo by Zach Gross).
“Kalief Browder, 1993–2015,” by Jennifer Gonnerman (Photo by Zach Gross).

The film is at its best when it chronicles individual fates of those who encounter the carceral state. For example, the tragedy of Khalief Browder, the 22-year-old New Yorker who committed suicide after being held for three years in Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges—ultimately dropped—of having stolen a backpack, is portrayed with wrenching grace. Browder’s courage is evident in his refusal to accept a plea bargain for something he did not do. Yet the violence he faced during his imprisonment, some of it captured on film, led him to take his own life after his release. The film also presents a thoughtful, searing discussion among Black scholars and activists about the ethics of visualizing Black suffering, from lynching to contemporary killings by police.

The 13th effectively demonstrates that criminalization has been a persistent feature of anti-Black racism. It shows the recursive nature of “law and order” politics, as DuVernay juxtaposes scenes from Trump’s speeches and rallies with police and vigilante attacks on Black activists in the 1960s. Such scenes, with the accompanying commentary, vindicate the mission, purpose, and structure of Black Lives Matter as the latest manifestation of a long struggle against criminalization. The footage underscores Malkia Cyril’s powerful comment that Black Lives Matter is “about changing the way this country understands human dignity.”

The 13th describes mass incarceration as a backlash to the civil rights and Black Power movements, with some compelling footage of Black Panther Assata Shakur and other activists. Yet the film focuses more on what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President Nixon thought than on what they—or others—did. The reference by CNN contributor Van Jones to the imprisonment, exile, or death of Black activists in the 1960s appears only in the context of why there was not more opposition to the 1994 Crime Bill rather than as part of examining the foundations of mass incarceration in the political repression of 1960s-era social movements. The film does not discuss the policies that gave greater power to police, prosecutors, and prisons in those critical years.

Mass incarceration is the recent expression of a larger edifice of carceral power. It is a political project that began in response to the rebellious social movements in U.S. cities and prisons during the 1960s. It began with state and national politicians giving greater resources and authority to police and prosecutors and expanding the criminal code before embarking on the world’s biggest prison construction program. It now maintains an interlinked system of policing, surveillance, and imprisonment concentrated on the most marginalized sectors of society.

Mass incarceration began through twinned campaigns of targeted antiradicalism alongside the broad political economic destabilization of working class communities of color in the 1960s. It was not simply the “evolution of racial caste,” as Michelle Alexander states. Rather, mass incarceration has always been a bipartisan political project of social control—a counterrevolution by liberals and conservatives alike. It is too narrow to, as the film does, date mass incarceration to Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the war on drugs in the 1980s and Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill.  That puts the onus on federal prison policy, when 90 percent of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country are in state prisons and local jails. Prisons, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore documents in Golden Gulag, were the state-by-state geographic solution to the American government in crisis.

aaihs-2In discussing the time between Bill Clinton’s presidency and the present, the film makes several significant factual errors: it states that arrests spiked after the 1994 Crime Bill when arrests have actually fallen since that time (the bill’s more pernicious effects concerned sentencing policy, not arrest rates); it shows a graph claiming that the prison population has expanded dramatically since 2010, when incarceration rates have plateaued or even fallen since that time; and it says that Black men account for 40% of the prison population, which has not been the case for several years. Although Black people remain dramatically overrepresented in prisons, the last several years have seen the number of Black men in prison drop and the number of white and Latino men—as well as women of all races—rise.

The prison system is racist and violent, but in ways that constantly evolve. Presenting old statistics or inventing new ones overlooks the deadly dynamism of mass incarceration. It can also reinscribe some of the same connections between Blackness and criminality that the film seeks to interrupt, such as the mistaken idea–taken from Bureau of Justice Statistics projections and debunked by professor Ivory Toldson–that there are more Black men in prison than in college or that one in three Black men will serve time in prison.

The film also suggests that mass incarceration is a profit-driven system controlled by the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), the shadowy lobbying group of major corporations and mostly Republican officials.  The 13th implies that mass incarceration is driven by private prisons and prison labor, and that ALEC oversees this nefarious scheme. These claims are simply false. As loathsome as ALEC is, it is a minor player in a complex network of public and private interests shaping crime policy. And as the Prison Policy Initiative has documented, private prisons account for less than ten percent of the overall prison population in the United States and are now at the frontlines of pursuing privatized alternatives to incarceration rather than mass incarceration itself. (The one exception is in the realm of immigrant detention, where more than seventy percent of detainees are held in privately run facilities.)

Beyond inflating the role of ALEC and companies like the Corrections Corporation of America, this focus on private prisons obscures the real ways money moves through or is extracted from the prison system, including both the vast expenditure of public funds dedicated to caging human beings as well as the nefarious ways private companies seek to profit off of incarceration. The film does cover the exorbitant rates charged for phone calls incarcerated people make to their loved ones, but only after the long and misleading emphasis on private prisons. Private companies, especially private prison companies, are not the driving forces of mass incarceration. They are the venal byproducts of racial state violence in a capitalist society. And as these entities now seek to steer the ship of prison reform, blaming ALEC for mass incarceration overlooks the true centers of gravity in the terrifying evolution of carceral control. It leaves students or others fired up by the film’s moral power with few places to turn to express their outrage.

Such missteps muddle the issue of where mass incarceration comes from or what it means to end it. One would be hard-pressed to find more astute analysts of racial criminalization and mass incarceration than Malkia Cyril, Angela Davis, Marie Gottschalk, James Kilgore, Khalil Muhammad, and some of the other commentators who appear in the film. Yet they appear alongside several people who have promoted and upheld anti-Black, free-market “solutions”—first to crime and now to mass incarceration. The film makes no narrative intervention to differentiate between its many interviewees, suggesting they are all equally reliable and trustworthy experts. While the cacophony of voices in the film—38 interviewees in 100 minutes—may be meant to suggest the breadth of voices opposed to the American carceral state, in practice it normalizes some dangerous or misleading analyses.

Some of the most robust avenues for understanding mass incarceration are unexplored in the film. The loudest silence is the inattention to women’s incarceration as well as the incarceration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. As many do, The 13th treats mass incarceration as only a story of Black men in prison. Yet while women have always been a small percentage of the overall number of prisoners, their rate of incarceration—especially for Black women—has been higher than men. The film also overlooks the other labor women and queer and trans people do as a result of mass incarceration in maintaining families and communities. Other distinctive, and distinctly racist, areas of American prisons—such as the death penalty and long-term solitary confinement—are barely mentioned or overlooked entirely.


DuVernay is exactly right to insist that criminalization has been and remains yoked to racism. And she has assembled some of the sharpest minds—if also, sadly, some of the dullest—to excavate why that is the case. The end result, however, is underwhelming. Overall, the film is too inattentive to the historical ebb and flow of racial criminalization, and it misses some of the most damning components of punishment. As Brett Story, director of another recent documentary on mass incarceration, The Prison in 12 Landscapes, told me, “dehumanization is the consequence, not the cause, of mass incarceration. It is not an attitude but a relation systematically organized and corroborative of other structures of abandonment.” Attending to those structures of abandonment is critical to understand and eradicate mass incarceration.

Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era. The book shows that prisons produce a unique and influential form of antiracist politics. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Right and Wrong in “The Free State of Jones”: Making Sense of the Civil War Film Tradition

No one quite knows what to make of “The Free State of Jones,” the latest big-budget feature film about the history of the Civil War. Some have praised it as the “final word on racism’s vicious legacy” while others have lambasted it for engaging in “the passive violence of distortion.” All this has left the future of the genre in doubt. In the wake of the film’s disappointing opening weekend, Variety wonders whether there is money to be made in “quality movies for adults with top talent” like this, which hope to contend with the successful formulas superhero and fantasy franchises. “The Free States of Jones” winds up accomplishing considerably more than its critics assert, and yet still much less than the genre of Civil War films needs it to.

Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones
Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones.

More than other recent films on the Civil War era, “The Free States of Jones” melds the racial politics of slavery with the politics of the nation’s greatest conflict. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013) was built on one of the slave narratives that helped fuel the antislavery cause, but understandably its plot never made it to the consummation of the abolitionists’ campaign. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) explored how the Civil War led to emancipation, but managed the feat while marginalizing the very subjects of emancipation, relegating them to roles as onlookers and reminders of the moral gravity of the work undertaken by national leaders, who are white men all.

In contrast, “The Free State of Jones” is centrally concerned with the intersections of race and slavery with the Civil War and its domestic politics — with some interesting gender complications thrown in as well. In a film tradition typified by reconciliationist fantasies, evasive race politics, and unexamined gender norms, this alone situates it on progressive terrain. Its story accomplishes even more, for it is the tale of Newton Knight, the Mississippi native who led a rebellion within a rebellion, establishing the interracial Free State of Jones as a challenge to a Confederacy built on class privilege and white supremacy.

The film quickly establishes its moral order, making no bones about its objections to slavery nor its Unionist sympathies. Its protagonist, Newton Knight, comes from a region of Mississippi as poor in slaves as in other forms of wealth. As the Confederate government demands ever greater sacrifices to defend itself against Union invasion (it has become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”), the disillusioned soldier-gone-AWOL leads his community in rejecting Confederate authority and establishing an egalitarian republic. “Every man’s a man,” Knight recites as the key principle of the new state, a statement that concedes to gender norms something the film itself challenges. Women take on strong roles throughout, to the point where pre-teen girls show down Confederate cavalry with hastily assembled shotguns. Knight’s love relationships cross barriers of class and propriety, elevating his enslaved partner Rachel to a prominent (though secondary) role. Indeed the legacy of this union is depicted in the plight of Knight’s mixed-race great grandson Davis Knight, who in frequent flash-forwards is tried for marrying a white woman despite having no discernible African ancestry (more on which later).

This is a film for the post-Charleston age, which does not soft-pedal its cultural politics for fear of offending large segments of its audience. It is unabashedly anti-Confederate, offering an ideal of class unity across racial lines. Resisting the Confederacy represents the central external challenge, but achieving cross-racial community constitutes the film’s primary internal struggle, and the higher moral goal the resistance itself serves. “You cannot own a child of God,” cites Moses, Knight’s closest African American ally, but it will take more than a rejection of property in man to unite the people of Jones.

The film’s delicate work around the N-word illustrates screenwriter Garry Ross’s skill at accomplishing this. In its first half hour, the film assiduously places “Negro” on the lips of white southerners who might be expected to use its vulgar alternative. But when a white resident of Jones uses the N-word to scold a black resident for seeking an equal share of food, the risk of division becomes apparent. Knight lectures the bigots, warning them to appreciate their black neighbors “before a whole new war breaks out here.” The script thus leverages the word’s historical appearance against its modern volatility. At some point, Knight says, “everybody is just somebody else’s nigger” — a statement dismissive of the unique plight of a people singularly subjected to chattel bondage, but necessary for building the cross-racial unity required of the moment. (Later, Knight will respond to a question about whether his community is one of N-words by stating, “Ain’t no niggers up there at all,” reasserting the humanity he shares with African Americans.) The film thus fully embraces a kind of progressive ideal: a polity that, if only briefly, embodies a class alliance of non-elite men and women across racial lines.

To understand the meaning of this achievement requires recalling the history of the Civil War film tradition, which amazingly enough has still not fully assimilated the scholarship and cultural politics of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the old Lost Cause classics (e.g., “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind”) gave way to softened depictions of race in the war. Those like “Shenandoah” (1965) presaged later films by accommodating the presence of African Americans, but at the cost of factoring out the racial issues at the heart of the conflict, and hence its moral significance. Others, such as “Major Dundee” (1965) and “The Undefeated” (1969), depicted the post-war reconciliation of North and South in the struggle against centralizing states. All shared a libertarian ethos that grew into later films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), which can largely be understood as a way of stripping the genre of Confederate sympathy without contending with the moral imperatives raised by slavery. The enemy became war itself, and the demands of powerful state authorities that it justified.

The genre never adopted a template that attempted to contend frankly with slavery. The most likely candidates were 1970s efforts like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973), a critically-hailed television version of Ernest Gaines’s fictional account of a woman who journeyed from slavery to civil rights. Yet it and another television milestone — “Roots” (1977) — failed to inaugurate a new era of Civil War interpretation in American film. When “Glory” (1989), the story of a black Civil War regiment, appeared, it came in the form of an androcentric military tale that failed to follow the story to the end of the war, let alone into the post-war Reconstruction — once mandatory for any epic examination of the era.

“Glory” broke a Vietnam-generated logjam on Civil War films, but most that have come out since then have seemed satisfied to let it mark an end rather than a beginning. Having tipped its hat to the role of race in the war, the genre largely excused itself from exploring it any further. “Gettysburg” (1993) put on screen Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), a popular novel that seems to excuse the racism of its central northern protagonist, Joshua Chamberlain. The follow-up, “Gods and Generals” (2003), is a notorious modern classic of Lost Cause mythology. Other films make similarly suspicious elisions. Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil” (1999) depicts border-state Confederate guerillas as historical underdogs (much like his Taiwanese compatriots), while the film version of Charles Frazer’s Confederate Odyssey, “Cold Mountain” (2003), is set in an Appalachia so far removed from the plantation zone that few blacks, slave or free, ever appear.

As recent works such as “12 Years” and “Lincoln” attest, the film tradition has become gradually more willing to focus on slavery itself. But it is frankly amazing that so many years have passed — six decades since Brown v. Board of Education, a half-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forty years since the Bicentennial, and a quarter-century since the genre’s rebirth in “Glory” — without a more incisive cinematic depiction of an era that has served as the subject of some of the most important films of pre-World War II America. Earlier films captured the national mood on race, slavery, class, and gender — while also melding well with contemporary historical scholarship. The rebirthed genre has found it difficult to accomplish the same.

It’s not as if the historical profession hasn’t offered ample fodder for reinterpretations of the period. It would be impossible in so short a space to survey the massive transformations that have struck the historical profession since the Civil Rights Movement, but suffice to say that they have been profound. While pre-Civil Rights era historians once considered the war a needless consequence of a “blundering generation” of politicians, most modern professional scholars cannot imagine its key causes and consequences unrelated to slavery. And once the province of antiquarians’ fetish for battle maneuvers and military personalities, the war is more and more understood as embedded in a broad social and cultural matrix. Maris Vinovskis’s provocative 1989 question, “have social historians lost the Civil War?” can now be answered with a resounding negative. The current scholarship examines an incredibly wide range of questions — from the role of the enslaved in the emergence of the Union’s emancipation policy, to veterans’ problems readjusting to civilian life, to the role of women in border-state guerilla activity.

How do we explain the disjuncture between the scholarship and the films? Has the historical profession failed to teach the public? Or is it something intrinsic to the stories one can tell with the historical materials at hand? Perhaps it is a combination. Telling the historical stories Hollywood likes to tell — of heroic individuals overcoming crisis-ridden personal histories while also working toward a more just society with enhanced freedom for all. But it’s not often that history can be made to serve liberal agendas in feature films while also remaining true to the past.

Consider the negative example of “Gangs of New York” (2002), Martin Scorsese’s effort to re-situate the revenge-driven gangster film in the class politics of the Civil War North. In the film, the protagonist Amsterdam must slay Butcher Bill Cutting, the rival who killed his father. Amsterdam, positioned between his Irish heritage and creole birth, must gather a multicultural force to take down Cutting, whose working-class politics are built on a nativist aversion to foreign immigration. In the film, the climactic fight between the forces of tolerance and intolerance is inexplicably interrupted by the Draft Riots of July 1863, which are depicted as utterly divorced from the moral conflict going on in the city’s underworld. In reality, though, Irish immigrants hostile to fighting for the freedom of African Americans formed the core of the rioters. History thus directly contradicts Scorsese’s script, for immigrant roots did little to build the multicultural tolerance the film so desperately tries to endorse.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves. We give Best-Picture Oscars to films such as “Braveheart” (1995), which relates the birth of “freedom” through the efforts of 13th-century Scottish brigand William Wallace to free his people from the Norman Yoke. The success of such films inspires other efforts, such as Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” (2010), which attributes to the social bandit of lore credit for no less a statement of freedom than the Magna Carta. These Whiggish visions of history — it unfolds as the troubled but inevitable march of progress and liberty — carry easily into the story of the United States, as told in such films as “The Patriot” (2000). Many of the most popular historical movies are thus about white people becoming free, or freeing others. Obviously, this leaves little room for agonizing over the ambiguities of the actual past — of American Revolutionaries holding slaves, or of working-class Irish heroes rioting against black freedom. Too uncomfortable; too difficult.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves…We delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans.

This is affirmed by freedom struggle films that are freed from the rules of history. Science fiction — that most social of film genres — loves to pose challenges to oppression in convenient hypotheticals that offer audiences the requisite resolution (liberty triumphs!) without the attendant difficulties (liberty for whom?). Think of films such as “Star Wars” (1977), “Dune” (1984), “The Matrix” (1999), “Avatar” (2009), and “Elysium” (2013) — as well as “Jones” screenwriter Garry Ross’s own “The Hunger Games” (2012). All concern the politics of liberation; all covertly rehearse the American Revolution and the journey from political slavery to freedom and self-determination. When they appear at all, people of African descent (or various forms of “natives”) do so as objects of the benevolence of a charismatic white protagonist, who in exorcising his (yes, almost always male) personal ghosts also gets to liberate others.

It’s not hard to imagine the thought process involved in green-lighting these film projects and not others. After all, few risk-averse studio executives get excited about trying to market films about black history to audiences that are largely white. In interviews following his portrayal of South African anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 eponymous film, Denzel Washington acknowledged that “because of the reality of economics of a $22-million film, it would be mostly the story of the [white] journalist, Donald Woods,” who escaped South Africa with the martyr’s story. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the brilliant, non-Hollywood “District 9,” which glorifies in rather than camouflages its historical analogy. By and large, though, we delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans’.

This aversion owes partly to objections from African Americans themselves. No matter how true to its source material, “12 Years a Slave” is brutal in its portrayal of slavery. Viewing it is an exercise in civic reverence rather than entertainment. Such films inevitably spawn critics who worry that their popularity may owe as much to the prurience offered in depictions of slaves’ torture as to their moral importance. As Saidiya V. Hartman argued in Scenes of Subjugation (1997), the depiction of brutality on black bodies has been a staple of white allies’ calls for black liberation since the earliest days of antislavery. Others contend that inordinate focus on the past prevents progress in the present. The rapper Snoop Dogg recently offered a candid version of this objection when commenting on the re-make of the miniseries “Roots”: “They going to just to keep beating that shit into our heads about how they did us, huh?… Let’s create our own shit based on today, how we live and how we inspire people today. Black is what’s real. Fuck that old shit.”

Forces conspire, then, to make it risky to depict the most difficult parts of our past in big-budget feature films. In the old formula, works like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” extrapolated from a racist historiography to appeal to even more racist public attitudes; they depicted the redemption of white civilization from a central national authority that has mobilized black savagery in its campaign of vengeance against a people who dared to be “free.” A new formula, nowhere near as sure of itself, is still only slowly emerging, with each entrant into the Civil War-era genre of vital importance in gauging its ultimate direction amidst the shifting winds of our popular historical consciousness.

“The Free State of Jones” must be understood against this backdrop of a film tradition badly lagging behind a scholarly revolution in the ways the Civil War era has been understood. It offers the boldest political vision yet of any Hollywood feature film about the Civil War. More than any other to date, it centers on the class and racial iniquities of slave society, exposing not just the maltreatment of the enslaved, but the impoverishment of non-slaveholding whites as well. But this does not mean it is unassailable. Indeed, the film’s numerous shortcoming reveal much about the sticking places in our historical consciousness, and the challenging work that remains.

Most tellingly, the film partakes of a “white savior” formula that has been the bane of all too many films about the black freedom struggle, from Robert Gould Shaw’s character (Matthew Broderick) in “Glory” to Samuel Bass’s (Brad Pitt) in “12 Years a Slave.” Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight is about as ideal as they come: steadfast and resolute, yet also honorable and sensitive. His demons are all external. He never abuses his authority, loses his cool when it matters, or wrestles with character defects. His courage emboldens those around him, as when Rachel begins resisting the sexual advances of her master; “I couldn’t anymore,” she states. When Knight cannot understand the awe-filled looks of the slave fugitives he keeps free, Rachel explains to him that “nobody done nothing like that for them before.” At points, the film risks descending into “Robin Hood among the maroons,” or “Braveheart meets Solomon Northup.”

To the film’s credit, though, the story it chooses to tell is indeed an extraordinary tale that requires (by Hollywood standards) little departure from the known record — a failing that often fuels scholarly criticism of these films. Whereas “12 Years a Slave” depended on only one source — a slave narrative self-consciously produced in the years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to perform the ideological work of antislavery — the story behind “The Free State of Jones” draws on many sources, from census and genealogical records to oral history and lore. The filmmakers have made a solid choice here, which relieves them of the need to fabricate much. Modern scholarship shows that the film is correct in moving the portrayal of dissention on the Confederate home front beyond its function as pretext in “Cold Mountain.” Ultimately the Confederacy lost because it could not conscript the huge fraction of its population necessary to stave off a numerically superior foe. Whether it came in the form of resentment toward the need to maintain the plantation police state through measures such as the twenty Negro law, or whether it came in the form of individual calculations weighing family security against the value of an independent Confederate state, homefront support proved decisive to Confederate defeat.

At a finer degree of resolution, it is surely forgivable that “Jones” (like many historical films) constructs composite figures to condense the cast. Lieutenant Barbour, for example, stands in for the many Confederate officials who deprived Jones County residents of cotton, livestock, and foodstuffs during the war. More critically, the filmmakers could not resist the urge for period detail not found in the record. We first encounter the fictional fugitive slave Moses confined in a horrible spiked collar, but I’m aware of no mention of this in the historical evidence surrounding the Jones uprising. Clearly, the filmmakers have borrowed the famous image of Wilson Chinn, an emancipated Louisiana freedman who in 1863 posed for a Union photographer in such a torture device. The resulting carte de visit likely served as propaganda, confirming the value of the fight against slavery in the northern public mind. Static images of African American workers in the field likewise recall contemporary photographs. (The film cleverly uses one of these staged scenes to suggest how little changed from before to after emancipation.) In toto, though, such gestures are not uncommon to historical feature films, and do not intrude on interpretations of scholars such as Victoria Bynum and Sally Jenkins, whose conclusions on the Jones uprising are, admittedly, often speculative. But they make “Jones” no less inaccurate than Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a work that lavishly touted its debt to professional historian Doris Kearns Goodwin yet departed from the evidence in many film-like ways.

Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana--Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863). Courtesy Library of Congress.
Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana–also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863).
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The biggest historical problem in “Jones” is also its most important feature. The pre-World War II film tradition around the Civil War notoriously posed the Reconstruction that followed the war as central to its themes. While Scarlett O’Hara merely stumbled upon the burning of Atlanta, the post-war years were her real hardship. In “The Birth of a Nation,” the war itself is merely pre-text to the real calamity that is to follow an honorable brothers’ war. Following the Civil Rights revolution, “Jane Pittman” and “Roots” sought to radically reinterpret Reconstruction as African Americans’ fight to make freedom meaningful, but the new vision never took hold in cinema. “Beloved” (1989), Oprah Winfrey’s beautiful evocation of Toni Morrison’s novel, is set in Reconstruction but is not about it. Not since “Sommersby” (1993) have audiences been treated to a Hollywood film with a meaningful setting in the immediate post-war period. That film used the end of the war as an excuse to narrate a soldier’s return home, much as in “Cold Mountain.” Sommersby’s antagonist is ultimately foiled by his incapacity to check his racial prejudice — the same motif as in “O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) — but the film is really about identity and relationship rather than politics. Spielberg’s story of the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t even get to its final ratification in December 1865; it ends with Lincoln’s death in April. And, according to its erroneous opening subtitle, “Django Unchained” takes place in 1859, “one year before the Civil War”; we never get to explore the life Django later crafted with Broomhilda.

“Jones” is the first major modern film to take Reconstruction seriously, and this alone makes it remarkable. That the film stumbles in this pioneering endeavor is a subject not for dismissal but contemplation. Once the Jones community is saved from impending extermination by Union victory, hope that the biracial community will thrive is reduced to despair. Government promises of forty acres and a mule are left unfulfilled, leaving black workers to toil in the fields just as they had before emancipation. “We free and we ain’t free,” says Moses. This apt summation feels clichéd to students of the subject, but does the necessary work of establishing a popular narrative for many unaccustomed to it.

The film should also be credited for portraying the Black Codes, the series of measures passed by the first southern state governments after Reconstruction. Crafted in 1865-66 by legislatures filled with former Confederates who had been pardoned on lenient terms by Lincoln’s inept successor Andrew Johnson, the codes severely limited the civil rights and working lives of former slaves. Among the most hated of their provisions were “apprenticeship” laws that compelled the children of former slaves to perform unpaid agricultural work for white planters. Knight saves Moses’s child from such a fate, but the film ignores the broader consequences of the laws, which led directly to the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibiting states from passing laws that discriminate against specific classes of people.

Inexplicably, this goes unmentioned, and we proceed directly from the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to the Fifteenth, which passed in 1869 — two full years after Congress took over Reconstruction and undermined racial restrictions on the vote. What follows is a jumbled story of decline and disunity that mirrors the community’s rise in reverse symmetry. We somehow jump from 1867, when the first open elections were held in Mississippi, to 1875, when a subtitle tells us that in 1875 the Republicans garnered only two votes in Jones County. The film neglects the intervening years of black and Republican achievement, fast-forwarding to their overthrow. African Americans seek to organize Republican votes, but too many whites fear the retribution of white terrorists who murder black organizers. Elections are lost to fraud and the church, the community’s symbol of civic unity and political organization, is burned to the ground. In the end, despite Knight’s persistence, his community cannot be saved by the national state, for that state itself has failed in its resolve to protect the rights it went to war to win.

The film’s concatenated timeline of Reconstruction is not exceptional. “Birth of a Nation,” for example, completely omitted the period of Andrew Johnson’s rule, and thus the entire premise of Congressional Reconstruction. But if we are to see more films examining the period, it will be important to craft a narrative that makes sense. This is no small feat, for if the moral purpose of the Civil War remains open to debate, the meaning of Reconstruction is truly challenging. We are still waiting for that movie — a big-budget feature film that offers Reconstruction itself as an American freedom struggle.

The genre’s failure to depict Reconstruction is the most telling reminder that American popular culture still has not come fully to grips with the real meaning and consequences of the Civil War. Perhaps this is so because Reconstruction is now rightly regarded within the academy as a narrative of decline rather than victory — of diminished rather than expanded freedom. To its credit, “Jones” wrestles with this. As Rachel comforts Newton amidst the experiment’s implosion, “It ain’t your fault we lost that war.” The downward trajectory of the actual historical narrative will continue to bedevil filmmakers. Filmmakers might choose to free themselves from convention and embrace narratives that end in collective defeat. The record, though, is not good, as 2004’s box-office disaster “The Alamo” attests.

The other possibility is to find ways of wringing success from the jaws of failure. It is likely for this reason, I suspect, that Ross chose to frame the story of Newton Knight around the 1948 trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight, for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws by marrying a white woman. While Davis loses his case, he scores a moral point that the audience knows will soon be vindicated by civil rights gains. In this way, the film links a story of freedom’s failure to a future of success. This is the same move that “Jane Pittman” makes, and may become a theme in any successful Reconstruction formula that emerges.

We might dare hope for even more. If the popular historical consciousness ever does become capable of telling stories of Reconstruction’s failure, it may be a healthy sign of maturation, an indication that we can come to own our disgraces as well as our glories. For no period in our past ever put our commitment to democracy to a stricter test, and none has ever witnessed a more ignominious failure. It is the very stuff of epic history. Having submitted the fate of slavery to a trial of arms, the nation could determine the fate of slavery, but not of freedom. The victorious Union struggled to define that condition in law and constitution, but lacked the political will to make it a reality on the ground. In its zeal to achieve in peace what arms could not secure it in war, the white supremacist South launched the most potent terrorist campaign in American history. It won by breaking the will of the public to support continual federal intervention. This left African Americans friendless against those who refused to grant them the most basic human dignities, alone to battle for decades against the grossest perversion of democracy the country has ever known. As Newton Knight says of the national politicians who permitted the South to return to home rule, “their war is over.” African Americans’ had just begun.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

Aiming for Accuracy: Free State of Jones, Contingency, and the Meaning of Freedom

Early in Free State of Jones a Confederate soldier proclaims he is not fighting for slavery but rather “for honor.” His comrades, including poor Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), needle him. Considering the “Twenty Negro Law,” Conscription Act, and tax-in-kind law, they point out that their blood only helps slaveholders get richer. After deserting, Knight leads poor farmers and former slaves against conscription, taxation, and re-enslavement. Against a shared enemy, the Confederacy, he brings black and white fugitives together. But when Knight and his black comrades-in-arms attempt to move from the bullet to the ballot box, white allies fade away and white supremacists rise up.

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.
At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote. Image from the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Beginning at the Battle of Corinth in 1862, Free State of Jones is about a long Reconstruction. It uniquely explores African Americans’ struggle for political and economic rights in the face of white power. Here, emancipation has an asterisk. Slavery ends with the war, but freedom does not follow. After former Confederates return to power and reassert slavery’s white hierarchy, political organizer and ex-slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) captures the reality for black Americans: “We free and we ain’t free.” Unlike other films, Free State of Jones illuminates the contingency of black freedom in the South after the Civil War in the face of white supremacist violence, northern Republican abandonment, and insufficient federal troops. After the battle scenes, the Federal troops are entirely absent.

Throughout the film, class, race, and gender overlap and challenge the assumptions of viewers and characters. Women and men, black and white, resist, fight, and survive together. When a white member of Knight’s company tries to deny Moses food because he is black and a fugitive, Moses responds, “How you ain’t?” How, if both are fugitives from compulsory service to slaveholders in a cotton field or on a battlefield, are they different? Through spirituality and experience, Knight considers this equality of the oppressed to be self-evident. McConaughey’s portrayal of Knight suggests Nathaniel Bacon and John Brown: a natural leader wild-eyed for solidarity and justice in the face of economic and racial oppression. Director Gary Ross highlights the many methods of resistance employed by fugitive slaves and enslaved people: fleeing to the wilderness, like Moses; remaining on plantations but assisting runaways, like Rachel (Gugu-Mbatha-Raw); remembering, like Moses’ wife (Kesha Bullard Lewis) and son Isaiah (LaJessie Smith). White characters resist Confederate authority similarly, but Ross also delineates the differences in experience. Rachel’s and Moses’s bodies bear witness to their physical and psychological torture, scars that mark the limits of white abilities to fathom black experiences.

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Free State of Jones. Image from IMDb.

Committed to historical authenticity, Ross consulted historians Martha Hodes, Eric Foner, Margaret Storey, and Victoria Bynum, whose book 2001 The Free State of Jones was optioned for the screen. He also published extensive footnotes for the film that are available online, perhaps unprecedented in Hollywood. Does it suggest a trend towards fact over fiction in historical movies? Only the box office will tell.

Matthew McConaughey as in Newton Knight. Image from IMDb.

Free State of Jones stands out for exploring Reconstruction, but it is not perfect.   Few characters are developed beyond Knight. This is a missed opportunity considering the depth Mbatha-Raw and Ali bring to Rachel and Moses, respectively, and the reality that, while Knight leads, he joins a preexisting fugitive slave network. The story of the 1948 Mississippi miscegenation trial of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight is all elbows. The pacing disorients, but while this hurts the narrative it strengthens the history.   Familiar Civil War and Reconstruction benchmarks are absent, leaving audiences open to surprise when scenes or subtitles challenge assumptions. In one scene, dozens of African Americans pick cotton in a field under the supervision of white overseers when the words “One year after emancipation” appear as a subtitle. “What changed? What was freedom?” perplexed viewers may ask. An apt question, then and now. In Reconstruction, conditions changed both essentially and unnoticably, quickly and slowly, permanently and temporarily. The film unintentionally mimics this.

Free State of Jones emphasizes the inherent inequality of the Confederacy, the violence of white supremacists, and the broken promises of Reconstruction at a poignant moment in our national discourse. Many will find the ending unsatisfying, abrupt, and unfinished. But maybe historicity should get in the way of a happy ending, especially when it reminds us that racial injustice today has deep roots in America’s slaveholding past. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “but it bends towards justice.” By bringing one story of Reconstruction to the silver screen, maybe Free State of Jones will recruit a few more hands to reshape a more just ending to this American tale.

Image from IMDb.

Tom Foley

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com.

Hateful and Forgetful: Tarantino’s Latest Chooses Gore over Racial Commentary

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“The Hateful Eight.” Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2015.

Is Minnie’s Haberdashery, the one room stagecoach stop in which all but a few scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight take place, the director’s version of hell? If so, hell is a cold place of contradictions, unexpected alliances, violence, vulgarity, and truly bad coffee. Stuck in Wyoming blizzard with a half-dozen unsavory characters, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) must keep himself and his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) alive long enough to reach Red Rock and claim a $10,000 bounty. This not-yet-committed murder mystery whets the viewer’s appetite, but the film’s pace is lugubrious, as if slowed by the very snowdrifts that trap its characters. A full hour passes before wordy monologues introduce all “Hateful Eight.” But the film accelerates as the plot thickens: one of the eight is not who he claims to be. Despite its historical guise, Tarantino’s eighth feature is not about the West or postbellum America. More Reservoir Dogs than Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is another Tarantino argument for rhetorical, physical, and sexual violence as a creative art.

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“Production Still.” Image Courtesy of Andrew Cooper and Entertainment Weekly, 2015.

The Hateful Eight is big in every sense. With an ensemble cast and a score by Ennio Morricone, the maestro behind the music in classic Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Hateful Eight runs 187 minutes (for the Road Show edition), is shot in Panavision and presented in 70mm widescreen. Like Morricone’s contribution, its format is an homage to the Golden Age of Westerns and epic films. Much heralded, the 70mm presentation feels underutilized in the close confines of Minnie’s. Those expecting the deep snow banks of Wyoming to recall the sweltering sand dunes of Lawrence of Arabia will be disappointed. The few shots of the Wyoming wilderness make the format seem like plenty of pomp but little circumstance.

Tarantino fills the film chock-full of monologues, flashbacks, twists, and a series of whodunits topped with gratuitous gore (he has a reputation to protect, after all). Yet the film’s under-explored themes make it seem hollow. Tarantino’s lusty use of racial epithets drowns out provocative lines about race in post-slavery America, memory and massacre, and the meaning of justice in the West. He condenses the complicated and tragic history of race in postbellum America into a one-Noun punch line.

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“Sheriff Chris Mannix.” Image Courtesy of The Weinstein Company, 2015.

With war criminals, outlaws, bushwackers, and bounty hunters trapped together indefinitely, Tarantino constructs an eternity in which the violence of the Civil War defines the postbellum, too. It seems simple: kill or be killed, question it and be killed, too. “That’s the thing about war, Mannix, people die,” John Ruth reminds the new sheriff, a former Confederate raider. But while characters condemn bloodlust in others and debate the meaning of “dispassionate justice,” this movie is ultimately about its director. It is Tarantino who decides who lives, who dies, who suffers and how, all the while expecting laughter and applause. The Hateful Eight is rated R for bloody violence, language, and a scene of violent sexual content. (187 minutes).

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University.
He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com