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tv   The Civil War Slavery Depictions in Cinema  CSPAN  April 5, 2021 8:00pm-9:17pm EDT

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hampden-sydney college professor matthew hulbert looks at depictions of slavery in hollywood films ranging from birth of a nation and gone with the wind to django unchained and free state of jones. he talks about how early films glorified the lost cause and argues that while recent films show the horrors of the slave trade and resistance by enslaved people the idea of the white savior is still often central to the narrative, virginia tech's center for civil war studies hosted this event and provided the video.
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and today's speaker, dr. matthew christopher holbert is part of this series and he qualifies. he's an assistant professor at hampden-sydney college not too far out of his university of georgia phd program, but even though he's an up-and-coming scholar. he has already published four books. he's authored our edited these four books two of them are on the subject of film and memory very appropriate for tonight. and even though it's an online event. i brought a profile along with me. one of those books is called writing history with lightning and it's a collection of essays. he co-edited with john insco and really if you hear tonight and interested in slavery on the silver screen, i think you'll be interested in in this collection of essays as well. so dr. holbert is going to speak for about 30 35 minutes and that's going to leave us plenty
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of time for discussion. we will wrap things up by about 8:15. so about an hour and 15 minutes all together and for the discussion i encourage you to ask questions through the q&a feature of zoom so you won't be able to turn your camera on and speak. unfortunately, you won't be able to type things into the chat box, but the q&a box is where you will be able to ask questions. give us your comments and you can do that anytime one of the nice things about you know, and online talk rather than an in-person one is when a question, of course to you type in to the box you don't have to interrupt the speaker and then their questions will be there for us to view and answer as many of them as we can at the end of the lecture. so that's all from me. let's give a virtual round of applause to dr. holbert and pass things over to him. thank you. well, thank you, dr. quigley,
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and i would like to just thank you first for inviting me to talk with you about films this evening. anyone who knows me knows this is sort of a dangerous proposition because once you get me talking about movies, it can be difficult to get me to stop dr. quigley and i thought about initially narrowing the focus of today's talk down to a cluster of films or even a particular theme but and a student eval. i was once called as a compliment. i'll preface a militant film nerd and the militant film nerd in me has a very hard time narrowing list of movies. they tend to just get bigger and bigger and dr. quigley was kind enough to let me have a go at a full centuries worth so um, i like to thank all of you for attending virtually. i know that zoom fatigue is a real thing, so i will do my best to keep things moving along briskly and to keep you
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entertained and i will leave plenty of time as dr. quickly noted the beginning for q&a and i hope we will be able to explore lots of different facets of what the talk delves into this evening as i alluded to just a moment ago. we're going to take a 100 year tour of slavery on the silver screen. hopefully, no one is humming the gilligan's island, you know, the three hour tour. i promise it won't be anything like that. in fact, you might think of the great american movie ride at mgm but instead of indiana jones or alien, we will start in 1915 with dw griffiths the birth of a nation and we will conclude in 2016. with nate parker's equally controversial film of the same title and unfortunately instead of robert osborne you are stuck with me this evening. now before we get started, i
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will say that my goals are twofold this evening and we will revisit these periodically through the talk but very much so at the end of the talk the first is to give you just a broad overview of the major trends and thematic evolutions of what we've seen in these pictures of what we've seen from slavery on the silver screen and the second is to take stock of how much has really changed and how much really hasn't changed and the way we depict the peculiar institution over the last 100 years of movie making so i am going to do something dangerous and press a button on here. i'm going to hit share screen and hopefully this will take us where we want to go. if not, it'll be just like mgm when the ride breaks down. all right. i think we are in good shape. i'm getting a nod in a thumbs up. okay, so for state of recounting our progress this we're going to
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divide the century into pre and post civil rights movement. and then we will divide the films themselves into pro and antislavery camps and with that system of categorization in mind it will really come as no surprise to many of you and the audience this evening that pro-slavery films which are heavily influenced by the dunning interpretation of reconstruction and the loss cause broadly writ. these are the films that dominate by and large the priests civil rights era. and a lot of that has to do with one particular film released in 1915. and that is dw griffiths the birth of a nation this is going to lay the foundation for many of the tropes that will characterize pro-slavery films into the 1950s. so the influence of this film in its day is difficult to
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overstate but it's also very important for us to keep in mind just how influential it keeps being even outside of its own era of hollywood now as many of you know, the film uses a before and after look at the civil war to compare southern society and to underscore or it's jim crow audience that slavery had in fact been a positive good for both sides of the color line and much to dismay of african communities throughout the united states some of whom actually attempt to have screenings of the family. excuse me the film band because they believe it promotes and insights violence the birth of a nation very much glorifies paramilitary violence and lynching as the proper way to reestablish race relations. for those of you who have not seen birth of a nation i will give you a pro tip because the film is silent and because
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recording equipment in the early 20th century captured images slower than what we see today if you play the film in fast forward, you will actually watch it in something like people moving in real time. so don't be put off by the fact that it's three hours plus and its original format. you can actually watch it much quicker than that now, as we move into the 1930s we are going to see films like jezebel pictured here, which starred betty davis and a very young almost unrecognizably young henry fonda and films like gone with the wind pictured here starring vivian lee and clark gable. these are the direct inheritors of those tropes that the birth of a nation sets down as a foundation they very much take their narrative cues from griffith both of these movies
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are going to include paternalistic white plantation masters, they include contented and loyal slaves and they go out of their way to screen the chaos. that is supposedly unleashed when crass greedy yankee invaders show up and metal and southern society after the civil war. these films are immensely popular between them. they win several oscars, but what they really do for a generation of americans is they put a hollywood sparkle on the elite southerners who maintain the institution of slavery and for american moviegoers and especially those from the north or the midwest who are not as exposed to sort of the cultural artifacts of slavery on a daily basis. this is going to help these movie goers fall in love with these larger than life
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characters who really cannot be separated from their moonlight and magnolia lifestyles if you ever want to go down this pop culture rabbit hole go on ebay and look at some of the gone with the wind stuff, you know. that was produced during the film or subsequent international releases. there are plates. there are silverware. there are action figures. there's posters. there's dolls. there's anything you can possibly imagine and they really just reflect the reach of these films and this specific view of southern society that they're laying down as a blueprint that many moviegoers are going to assume is based in some way on reality now because these films are immensely popular it also shouldn't surprise us that a 1935 picture like so red the rose fails abysmally at the box office because it didn't get the memo so read the rose features a
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very emotional slave revolt seen it has a very dramatic manumission scene and it almost goes out of its way to present a different caricature of southern society as it is pillared by slavery and people simply don't like it so it sort of goes against the tide that griffith first set in motion and it will suffer for it in terms of take at the box office and film returns now so far we have mostly been talking about films that would be screened by adults some of you might remember being seven or eight and trying to sit through gone with the wind with your grandparents it's a hard sell for a young child, but hollywood understood this and as this view of southern society became more prevalent on film this fashionable portrait that we see of the old south is also going to trickle down to the
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youth market. so in 1935 fox will release a pair of shirley temple films the littlest rebel and the little kernel both of which co-star bill robinson who you might know better as mr. bojangles who is a pioneer and dancing especially tap dancing on stage and these films give viewers a very friendly benign take on the master slave relationship if you've spent much time in the archives looking at what's left of slave ledgers and auction descriptions. generally, we don't stop for a slow descending tap dance scene down the stairs, but that's very much what shirley temple is selling us slavery looks like on a daily basis a decade later. the film from which the still on your right comes really sets the hook on an entire generation and by that, i mean disney basically
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dangles lost cause bait in front of a generation of children, and they go for it hook line and sinker. this is of course song of the south which you might not have seen because it is much more difficult to find in its entirety song of the south is based on a compendium of uncle remus stories that are created by in atlanta newspaper editor named joel chandler harris and generally speaking. they start remus pictured here who is a lovable loyal former slave and in the course of telling story to his former owners grandson the little boy and the sort of awful velvet suit here. he essentially tells the child how great life had been before the civil war before emancipation back when he had been a slave back when everything was taken care of for him and life was just slower and easier and much more enjoyable. um, despite it essentially being
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exiled today surprise. you can't watch son of the south on disney plus. um, this gross is a very impressive 37 million dollars in 1946 when your dollar went a little bit further at the box office it even manages to win the academy award for best original song. so if you've ever hummed zippity doo dah to yourself or as the trailer for the film asked if you have that zippity doo-dah feeling you got that from song of the sound now, as audiences of different ages swooned over rep butler not giving a -- or uncle remus singing and dancing with all manner of animated animals and creatures hollywood is attempting to turn out antislavery pictures, but they really don't seem to have much hope of competing with the likes of griffith or victor fleming or
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walt disney in segregated american theaters even harry potter's very famous 1927 adaptation of uncle tom's cabin. which itself is silent but also followed silent versions of the film produced in 1910, 1913, 1914 and 1918 this sort of shows us that uncle tom's cabin is the most powerful antislavery vehicle. we have to put on screen. so we're going to try to do it over and over until one of them finally sticks. this was supposed to be the one it is even built as the movie that cost two million dollars to produce. it was supposed to be a spectacle and it simply could not mitigate the deep roots put down or the effects put down by the birth of a nation we can talk about this a little bit more. i hope in the q&a as it pertained to the actors themselves and the use of blackface.
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later films after seeing the dismal production of uncle tom's cabin and other antislavery pictures at the box office. they're almost going to go out of their way to make a mockery of abolitionist and they will often do that in the form of a wild-eyed john brown. so 1940s santa fe trail the screen both of these screen stills come from santa fe trail. it stars raymond massey as an overly militant uncompromising brown righteous to the point of self destruction, and he will reprise that same role in 1955 for another film called seven angry men. both of these pictures, but especially seven angry men are clear responses to the gathering push for civil rights. seven angry men is released. just one year after the brown decision comes down from the
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supreme court, and they're going to type cast northern abolitionists as troublemakers and intruders who essentially fail to understand the positives that the racial hierarchy of southern society has for african-american's themselves. brown is very much pictured as a guy in these movies who does more harm to african-american's to enslaved african-american then he does on their behalf and that is driven home toward the end of seven angry men when brown's own sons basically disown him they disapprove of his violent message and they abandon him. now not everybody gives up on antislavery pictures two years after 7ing. remen warner brothers is going to adapt robert pin warren's novel band of angels birth theatrical release and they go big in the casting department. so clark gable who is still a
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marquee name at this point. is going to headline the film and it's also got a heavyweight director and raoul walsh, but despite this the film is going to fare very badly with ticket buyers, and it essentially tanks at the box office the plot revolves around gable's character who is a slave owner but one who is open to the dark side of slavery. he is not sort of the unmoving devil who just can't see that slaves are actually people and he basically enters into a romance with a southern belle played by yvonne de carlo who part way through the picture learns that she is in fact herself mulatto and that she is a slave so clark gable buys her and their romance ensues as they fall in love the moral of the story, which sort of is a little on the nose, but it's the pure artificiality of the color line this is mostly lost on audiences
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right in the aftermath. of the 1954 brown decision and as massive resistance takes hold throughout the deep south critics regardless of where they are located do not appreciate the plot of band of angels. they basically saw miscegenation on screen as a cheap ploy to sell tickets. this was sort of shock value before we would think of shock value the way that we do today. they assume people were either gonna go see this so they could be outraged at the misogynation or that people would think that's the greatest thing i've ever seen in terms of politics for the mistagenation, but they're assuming you're either going to love it or hate it and you probably knew before you bought the ticket little did those critics know however, what was coming by the time we get to the late 60s and early 70s because in the immediate wake of
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what we might consider the nonviolent or the mainstream civil rights movement, and then the black power and the armed self-defense movements. we will get a new genre of films featuring slavery. and they will fall under the umbrella of blacksloitation. these films are an outgrowth of a broader genre of black expectation. so if you've seen the original shaft from 1971 or superfly from 1972 or foxy brown from 1974. you have a pretty good idea of the style of these pictures and that style inevitably bleeds over into plots involving slavery and involving the old south these films really did just attempt to sell ticket through shock and all and they also made a point of hiring black actors and black athletes and lead roles and then allowing
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antihero protagonists to wield very over the top violence against white masters. so starting with slaves the film poster for which is on the far left in 1969. these pictures are going to highlight racism in very sexual ways sex cells today sex sold in the late 60s and early 70s to this will generally involve interracial romances and very explicit rape scenes so slaves which stars oc davis and dion warwick strikes a chord with disillusioned black audiences. who weren't getting what they wanted to see of their own culture from hollywood and we will see a wave of films featuring these graphic revenge plots that are very much laced with sex. goodbye uncle tom quadrun the charlie films and most famously the one that hopefully some of you are familiar with richard fleischer's mandingo, which is
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released in 1975 the film stars the very venerable and apparently very broke james mason as a there are various explanations for why mason would agree to be in mandingo tax problems seem to be the most prevalent answer but regardless of why he takes the role he plays a psychopathic plantation owner and he is opposite former heavyweight boxing champion kid norton ken norton who plays a slave named me the movie features unbridled racism mandingo fighting rape interracial sex group sex and fantaside and one of the strangest endings in hollywood history this picture with the pop comes from the end of mandingo, but i'm not going to explain it. you just have to watch it for yourself. to even begin to understand what's going on in this image the film critic roger ebert
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calls mandingo quote manure and racist trash but the black exploitation here despite not winning over elite film critics or film aficionados is going to serve as a necessary counterweight to the moonlight in magnolia films of the past to jezebel and gone with the wind and the birth of a nation and because we now have these two opposite poles in the way. we depict slavery on film. this is gonna help for some americans somewhere back into the middle. we're going to have to find a more balanced and nuanced way to tell the slavery narrative and that process will really begin in the 1990s. so in 1995 miramax releases the journey of august king if you have never seen a journey of august king you are not in the minority. miramax was a much smaller studio than it is today and the movie is the first to address
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appalachian slavery on film but it lacks any of the grit or the sex or the violence of black exploitation. and because of that it was very difficult to get it in front of audiences. i used to joke with my doctoral advisor who paul mentioned at the beginning of the talk, john insco that in showing journey of august king to his southern history class every year over the years. he has probably actually screened it for more people than miramax did so they should figure out a way to pay john some sort of royalty regardless of that two years later is really when we get into this reconsideration phase with slavery on film and that comes with steven spielberg's amistad. this is a star-studded courtroom drama. it features morgan freeman anthony hopkins matthew mcconaughey, and it breaks new ground by showing the horrid
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conditions of the middle passage and the roles played by african stem cells in the slave trade. i wish i was technologically cap. look showing you that sequence from the middle passage. it's disturbing and it's heartbreaking and it really sort of gives you an idea of what the conditions you read about in textbooks might have looked like it's not a perfect representation. no film is but it gives you a pretty good place to start and i do hope we can address. the inclusion of africans themselves in the promulgation of the slave trade during the q&a if that comes up but through the popularity amistad and this sort of unappreciated release of the journey of august king southern slavery is going to disappear from hollywood studios for more than a decade and when it reappears in 2012, it comes
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in the form of two films with very large budgets and very unconventional plots. i am talking about abraham lincoln vampire hunter and django unchained so the former of those two pictures depicts president lincoln as a cross between van helsing and john wick he wages a secret supernatural war against the confederacy of slave devouring southern vampires. there's an apt metaphor there. it's a little clumsy. lots of people get chopped with axis. but by and large this was considered an entertaining and relatively successful film django unchained which came out that same year represents a clear nod to the black exploitation films of the 70s and it follows a former slave turned gunslinger as he exacts revenge on the sadistic plantation owner who has bought
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his why audiences love django even more than they love abe lincoln vampire killer, but the senses that they enjoyed these pictures more for their body counts than for their nuance depictions or explorations of slavery. thankfully if that is what you are looking for. you did not have to wait long the very next year film goers get a very realistic look at slavery through 12 years a slave. this is of course based on solomon northups autobiography and this film really set a new bar in terms of detailing the physical and emotional abuses and traumas that slaves had to deal with on a daily basis. so we see the degradation of human auctions families torn apart sexual assaults vindictive masters and really the overall commodification of human shadow. three years after 12 years a slave matthew mcconaughey returns to the silver screen as
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another antislavery protagonist this time. however, he does his work with a rifle not with law books. i'm of course talking about the free state of jones which was based on pioneering archival work done by the civil war historian vicky bynum the film essentially chronicles and interracial uprising in jones county, mississippi the county that very famously attempted to succeed from the confederacy after miss mississippi seceded from the union despite action sequences and some actually pretty decent performances the film received mixed reviews, and it was very quickly eclipsed by another antislavery film with a much smaller budget and far less studio fanfare. this one was written and directed by nate parker who's in the very of your screen here 2016 was sort of the year of the wide angle shot with everyone
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lined up holding guns and knives. the movie chronicles the 1831 nat turner slave revolt in virginia. it's not a holy realistic recreation, but it's one that does two things better than any other cinematic rendering of slavery had ever done before this is really the first picture that highlights the corrosive dehumanizing aspect of white southerners in their addiction to slavery. so you see the adverse effects that jefferson had first talked about obviously centuries before this film was released and we finally see in gory slow motion detail. why successful slave rebellions were virtually impossible to pull off in the antebellum south those of you who have taught a slavery course know the first question out of students mal's halfway through that slavery lecture is why didn't they
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revolt this film cinematically gives you a good mental image of why that was such a difficult thing to do. so a century after dw griffiths film about resurgence confederates and glorious klansmen this new birth of a nation wins double high honors at con film festival and then sees its mass appeal essentially evaporate overnight. there are boycotts from within the african-american community and from within prominent academic circles, and we can talk a little bit more about why in the q&a if people would like to okay, i have done my best impersonation of robert osborne. we have come nearly up into the present in our movie ride. so with our remaining five minutes or so, let's make sense of all the movies. we just saw. we see a very clear turning point and the collective tone and theme of slavery films after
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the landmark civil rights victories of the 50s and early 60s normal is going to pivot from pro-slavery to antislavery and then a little bit later in the 1960s normal will pivot from either not depicting black actors on screen or depicting them in black face to actually giving serious african-american actors lead roles and roles that don't ask them to pant to mind lost cause tropes so that don't ask them to be gus the interracial rapist or uncle remus or chrissy or mammy or big sam by the time we get into the heyday of the counterculture sort of the vietnam and immediate post vietnam era. this is when it becomes more acceptable to depict the horrors of slavery and more graphic detail a little bit of this has to do with loosening of censorship but most of the time this has to do with black
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exploitation and just pushing the envelope and as violence and sexual content become more prevalent in antislavery movies outright resistance to the institution as a plot element is going to grow though at first. this will just seem like violence for sake of violence by the time we get into the 1990s and then later films such as the birth of a nation will finally see the daily lives of slaves being explored in a thoughtful way. we almost see more of a social history on screen than anything previously made by a hollywood studio and we finally start documenting the reasons slaves like nat turner might have had to rebel in real life that said the majority of hollywood studios have shied away from depicting violence against the institution of slavery. cell and by that, i mean they don't like to show black on
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white violence minus some sort of final straw or a trigger to the epic violence that takes place and movies like django or the birth of a nation. so in django, it is the theft of django's wife room hilda in birth of a nation. it is the rape of nat turner's wife cherry that prompt these epic quests of revenge it is not the protagonist the fall state of enslavement. so hollywood even today oftentimes feels like enslavement itself is not bad enough to warrant the sort of violent push back. we see in these films there had to be a personal breaking point or a personal last straw for the main characters now at the same time we can see studios grappling with how to deal with black on white violence the rise of these more thoughtful films is going to spark a contentious debate and one that is still on going over how to properly way
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the agency of enslaved people's versus their so called white saviors on screen. so as this image or this slide, excuse me will illustrate pretty clearly virtually all of the antislavery films of the 90s 2000s and the more recent present with the exception of the birth of a nation. they fit in some way under the umbrella of a white savior movie which means the main character needs the aid or the benefaction of a white person to help them escape from slavery, they're not capable of doing it on their own. abe lincoln vampire hunter django unchained they are more or less guilty as charged in these movies lincoln and king schultz who is a middle bottom on this slide. they kill lots of bad guys, and then they basically give their lives for the cause of black freedom. and as unpopular as it is to let matthew mcconaughey specially off the hook for white saviorism
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on screen what we see in the free state of jones as well as 12 years a slave is that as overactive as these roles might be they are generally affirmed by the historical record. amistad is probably the most problematic of all its legacy falls somewhere in between. so on one hand the characters played by anthony hopkins and matthew mcconaughey. they reflect the real actions of real abolitionists in a courtroom, but they do a very poor job on the other hand of contextualizing those characters. within the broader debate over slavery that was happening in america and the 1830s and 40s. there was a big difference, especially in the north and in new england among everyday people who didn't think it was right to import more slaves, but who were still okay with other people owning slaves as long as they didn't really have to see it from watching amistad you
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would get the sense that everyone is like john quincy adams and just finds the institution abhorrent. um, perhaps the most telling observation of all that we can pull from this century worth of movie making is that of all the antislavery films that we saw produced between 1995 and 2016 only two of them vampire hunter and free state of jones actually have a plot that singles out the confederacy as an attempt to the institution of slavery. now to be clear, i don't mean to stay that we should hold films that depict the 1830s or 40s or even the 1850s accountable for addressing something like the confederacy that does not yet exist. it would make no sense for solar in northrop to be lamenting secession. but what i am saying is that we must remember that hollywood is
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a business a business intent on making money and one very adept at reading the proverbial room and then catering to the wants and needs of its paying audience so based on the last three decades of filmmaking, it's clear to us that hollywood believes americans are willing to conceive the evils of slavery and we have become increasing we increasingly willing to pay to see a slew of antislavery films many of which have won major awards and have made lots of money at the ticket booth, but it is also clear for the most part that studio executives do not believe that the everyday american is interested in connecting the dots between slavery and the civil war at least not enough to churn out many screenplays of that bent. so the idea that i will leave you with before we transition to q&a. is that in this specific case
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and connecting slavery to the civil war on screen. it's not really the movies. we see that tell us the most about who we are and how much we've changed and how far we've come as a society since dw griffith or shirley temple. it's actually the movies. we don't see on the silver screen and the things that we are not yet willing to show i will stop there. and i will turn it back over to dr. quigley. i think for q&a. thank you so much for a fascinating talk and it's very impressive that you're able to cover so much ground, but without feeling rushed. i mean, i feel like he gave us a wonderful overview of this century of cinema here. we have already got a good bank of questions by encourage people to continue sending them in again. we may not get to them all but we'll get to as many as we possibly can and some of the questions i've noticed so far
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are asking about films and television shows that you you didn't mention and i think we can completely forgive you for not mentioning everything especially television shows which i think wasn't officially part of your remit, but several people are asking about routes. i think mostly thinking about the original in 1977, but one person at least thinking about the remake just a few years ago and most people seem to be wondering. you know, how does roots fit into this? cinematic timeline that you've given us sure, that's a fair question. and if you could give me another hour the militant film nerd and me we could have worked in tv, too. i think the participant number we would have seen it plummet, but that's a totally valid question. and the thing that i would point to most is really the way we consume different forms of media.
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i don't know that it's fair to just say hollywood films are the most powerful content at least in the pre i could watch anything that i ever wanted to on my phone without cable or directv or having to go to the theater and sort of the more traditional divide between television and movies the majority of americans when you ask them to imagine a historical thing they think of a movie it startles my students when i say imagine the american revolution what popped in your head and sadly sort of for a lot of them, it's mel gibson right with the tomahawk. um, the same can be said of the war in slavery. so i think part of the reason i tend to prioritize these major studio releases because i think they end up reaching more people. i think they tend to have more staying power than television. that's not to say that television can't be powerful. i would say roots or even the way the ken burns documentary a little more than a decade a more than a decade and a half later.
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deals with slavery sways many americans, but i think there's just something about the experience of seeing things on the big screen that imprint them in our minds and sort of tell us if we're going to take history from the silver screen and those are going to become the default almost the clip art of the memories that we have but didn't experience. it's going to come from the movies think from the business aspect and then i will be quiet about this the way you make money from a film or from a tv show worked a little bit differently, especially in the 70s or 80s a mini-series like roots is primarily going to be concerned with selling advertising. um, and because it's not a show that has to go on for several seasons. once the advertising is sold. you've made the money. it's nice to say that you had a lot of viewers, but that's not going to sway potentially the
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content you put on screen quite as much with a film i'm entirely beholden by people coming continuously after reviews have come out to give me their money. so i feel like in some ways. there are better reflection partially of what society is thinking, but also what hollywood thinks society wants to see that might have made that might have made it worse, but i will stop there. now, i think that was really good response to the question and another kind of mini cluster of questions that i'm relating in my mind. anyway, concern productions like uncle tom's cabin, which of course in the 19th century and into the 20th was a very popular theatrical production. so we've got a couple of questions one is how do those early theatrical representations of slavery in the post civil war period go on to affect cinematic
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representations in the 20th century and then one very specific question, which i'm intrigued to hear your answer to do you have any comments on the performance of uncle tom's cabin as a play in the king and i in the 1950s? oh now now we're way into militant filner territory. i like this. um, so in terms of this transition from really i think if we go back even a step further sort of a literary literary tradition of antislavery narratives and then uncle tom's cabin because it is just it's hard for people to imagine. what a literary sensation uncle tom's cabin was it only lost to the bible in terms of sis. i mean if you own two books, odds are good in america you own the bible and you own uncle tom's cabin. you might have hated uncle tom's cabin, but you bought it if you lived in louisiana or mississippi so you could excoriate it.
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um the weird thing about uncle tom's cabin is that as powerful as it was i mean lincoln if we believe the story and i kind of like to because i like lincoln he pens part of the war on her, right? you're the little lady that made this big war that book was immensely powerful abolitionist propaganda, but the theatrical versions as widespread as they are and they're sort of different levels, you know, this could be performed at the local level. you could have a regional traveling company. you could have a fancy national level traveling company, but i feel like they don't necessarily achieve the potency that the book does because you've got to live near anybody can almost anybody can get a book, but you've got to live near a theater to see a performance of uncle tom's cabin. so it's almost like we skip a medium in terms of its power because it's it's much easier for someone to see a film in the 20s, then it probably was for them to go see a high quality
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production of uncle tom on the stage now, they're obviously other issues here of black face and sort of this jim earlier jim crow tradition of how black characters are portrayed and you can only imagine how bad some of the local performances of uncle tom's cabin probably are in the late. 19th century, but then as we move into film unfortunately, it doesn't get all that much better. these are really difficult to track down some of those very early silent versions for a couple of them. i don't know that full reels even exist anymore. they're sort of snippets left that you can find on dark corners of the internet, but people really thought with pollard's version. it's one of the best stories ever written. we've got all the money in the world for the first time ever. we're going to have a black man play uncle tom all of the other
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characters except for uncle tom are white actors and blackface but james lowe plays uncle tom so you had sort of this built-in gimmick slash first time thing and it just didn't play and i play with audiences and i think part of that has to do with the fact because people knew the story so well, there was partially well, it could never be as good as the book and then for a huge chunk of the country who immensely dislikes though and disliked uncle tom's cabin and who were still old enough to have experienced the war they were gonna buy tickets to go see that because they hated her right? so it almost had too much baggage later version. so in the 50s, they add sound and i think even one version they colorize the 1927 version and i think that was released in a limited basis on theaters raymond massey the same guy who played john brown actually does the narration there. that was more popular, but we
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had sort of crossed that civil rights threshold that sort of put the film in a new context. i can keep going on about this forever, but i'm gonna stop i'll adjust another question. thank you and a different kind of question now one you may have had before if you could produce a direct or write a movie on this subject to the enslavement of african-american's what kind of projects would you embark upon and then the the wording of the next part? i think you might appreciate is there an incident or an individual that would satisfy the dysfunctional demands of hollywood. so any kind of basis for a movie, i guess think of this as your pitch to a hollywood executive who maybe listening in the audience. i also want to say to ever asked about the king and i i did not mean to leave you out of that last question email me and we can talk more about that. i don't think that's an accident
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that that flips in there. there's definitely some ideological signaling going on there. i am on this because i feel like what we see the least of our realistic stories told about slavery. from the black perspective. i felt like the most recent birth of a nation really had a chance to change the way people thought regular people thought about slavery because it is just if you've seen it it is brutal. there are scenes that i can't watch again one of them. i won't fully describe. it involves a chisel and a funnel and it's just it's excruciating and i feel like in some ways. that's the kind of film that we need to just shock people out of you know, the traditional idea they have of slavery but part of me just finds it unbelievable that we don't have a really good john brown movie. and i know this sort of again diverts right back to that white
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savior umbrella, but of course brown, you know ends up saving people by failing so i feel like you could play i would that would be my angle on it to sort of sneak out from under the white savior umbrella, but i've long thought how is woody harrelson? not john brown, he's got kind of that wild looking as i i'm sure he could do a wacky accent for us. he's no stranger the killing things and zombie land. um, i think that would be a really interesting vehicle and it's really i think telling of the way people don't want to touch certain parts of slavery as it then connects to the war because how just how do you not make a movie about john brown? i mean he he swings broad swords at people he invades federal well, now as i think about this, i'm going to get in trouble saying he invades better arsenal don't invade federal anything. that's not good. you'll get in big trouble rightfully so different contexts
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at harper's ferry. um a couple of people are asking about a movie you haven't mentioned god's in generals and a movie. that's obviously not about slavery in any way shape or form or doesn't purport to be what do you make of films like gods in generals that continue to sort of perpetuate traditional views of enslaved people is either completely absent from the story all to the slave owners. so i'll preface this by saying gettysburg is a guilty put the civil war historian in me will watch gettysburg whenever it's on it two in the morning, you know when gettysburg tends to come on god's in general is another story. i'm assuming i could say this on c-span 3 guys in general is just a horrible movie all the way around and then when you throw
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in it's depictions of slavery, it is cringworthy. it's really bad. there's the one scene in particular that goes out of its way to just detach lee and jax and specifically where they explain to a slave. you know, we're really doing this for principle wait, we would free you this has nothing to do with slaves and if we win, we're probably gonna free you anyway, it is just totally detached. from reality and it's sort of a reversion back to these lost cause fantasies that by and large you don't see on this side of this. you know when we split our century in half for the most part you leave that behind after the 1950s you still get sort of i'm not saying lost cause goes away. that's very much alive in picture. it's in civil war movies specifically, but just the overt, you know, marsh robert
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was a great guy and he loved this slaves and he was gonna let him go. it's just so bogus. it's painful. it's hard to believe that it ended up in a movie. frankly. i don't know if i how to condemn it more. it's just so bad. so yeah. but well, i guess i will say it's so bad. i don't know that people took it seriously, so maybe the silver lining was you know people didn't really hear all the bad dialogue over the last. and a few people just in response to what you were saying two questions ago about maybe a john brown movie a couple of people chimed in with references to the good lord bird. have you been able to see it yet? if so, what's your take on it? this is the militant film nerd failing and i will throw my two kids who are four and two under the bus. i have not been able to watch
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yet, but if woody harrelson couldn't be john brown ethan hawke would have been in the running right? you've got kind of that gen x offbeat a thousand yards there. so i feel like he would make a good john brown and that is on my list this gets into a little bit if i can take the thumb like a one minute tangent the shifting mediums that we see the in the old days you had film or you had tv today. we basically watched both on the computer and neither exists as it did a decade ago, so it's hard to sort of decide the impact some of these have because you have these like a netflix series that wins awards, but then you find out a fraction of the people who might have seen. die hard 4 in theaters whenever that came out as escaping me now
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who who ended up watching the shows but as art, you know, they're sort of esteemed so i wonder if they're sort of this effect wherein the more popular something sounds on netflix or roku or fire stick, we assume it's reaching a bigger audience than it is and maybe it's changing more minds than it is. i don't know. i'm actually throwing that sort of a codian thing that i'll just dump on everyone else and let them solve. um, i saw one person votes for willem dafoe. i don't know if i see him as john burr. i don't know if he can ever be anyone other than elias running at the you know, halfway through platoon through the jungle being chased, but he's a great actor. thank you. and question about audiences and specifically african-american movie audiences and have american audiences changed in
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their racial makeup over the decades and maybe if so, what kind of effects has that had on the content of these movies about slavery. i think the absolutely have and i think part of this has to do with the feeder business itself and when you saw larger corporate chains, basically swallow up, you know. everybody dreams about why i won't say everybody i dream about seeing movies and the old school theater that only had one stage it had one screen. it had a balcony. it was almost an artwork unto itself, but it probably only seeded 80 people right today you go to the cinemax or the amc. you go to one of these giant corporate feeders and in the process of swallowing up these sort of private independently owned theaters or even drive-ins as well pair that with the
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gradual desegregation of american society and you're just giving access to watch films to more people than ever before and part of the reason that i think films are so powerful as opposed to literature or television. i'm not telling you to watch movies instead of read books. you should especially by edited collections about the 19th century south on film but a movie requires a very short attention span, and it does the reading for you. you don't have to binge watch a season of the birth of a nation or a season of gone with the wind if you can sit there for a couple hours with your popcorn and your cherry coke, you're gonna get the whole story layout for you to think about it. most movies tell you what you should think on your way out the door and people seem to like that in terms of african-american audiences. it's double edged. i over the most recent decades
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since desegregation african-american audiences have had more access to feeders. but as america writ large has had more access to theaters and america is still very predominantly white hollywood studios are gonna play to their largest consumer base. so even though african-american patrons can go to the movies more. they might not have all that much more say and what ends up on the screen? although i do think that is changing i think in the last decade or so, especially as we see a blending of media between music and film, you know, these used to be very separate businesses, but now you see common and lebron james and jay z. you see people producing films to 20 years ago. this just would not have happened. so i think that will start to open up a little bit but at the end of the day despite what hollywood wants to tell us at the oscars or in press releases or in their super bowl commercials at the end of the day if it doesn't sell tickets they're not going to make it.
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so it's really going to be a reflection of all of us that would would open the door for those perspectives to show up on screen more. yeah, and i i really appreciate the theme in your talk as well about the importance of hollywood as a business which you know knows its customers and and does its best to satisfy their existing needs and desires one of the questions though asks, you know even as movies reflect contemporary norms and you know social patterns that are already happening. do you also see movies as changing culture society politics as well? yes the way i try to explain this with students and the way john and scott and i tried to explain it in the book. i see movies and culture working on a loop culture influences
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culture is basically the way we want to see ourselves or the way. we imagine our society looking in the mirror and in pop culture or artifacts of our broader culture. that's how we try to reflect those things. they're the artifacts of how we think you know, we appear so when we project what we want to see of ourselves hollywood very smartly puts those things on film and then the more we see them on film it becomes self-filling because we think well, they put that on film because that's what right americans are like john wayne because hollywood said so hollywood said so because americans in the 60s wanted to project that they were like john john wayne so we get this of infinite loop that just grows and grows, but there's room for divergence to throw another film reference in there. there are always movements thinking outside the mainstream box. um new wave cinema gonzo films
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independent films. and now this is where these new mediums really take hold i don't need a major film distributor to pick up my movie i can sell it to youtube and more people can watch it in two days, then we'll pick up the entire summer blockbuster season. it's not the same experience not seeing it on the big screen so you might not internalize it the same way, but there are definitely ways to sneak alternative narratives in there and over time. this is sort of the process. we see the things that used to be outlandish. i mean think about the black exploitation films and how shocking that was to poor roger ebert. have said if you had shown him django unchained in 1975, he probably would have thought the exact same thing but by the 20 teens that was normal what had once been, you know, totally outside the box had been sort of
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corporatized. so that's the other process that unfolds in tandem. and i think that's what makes it hard to break the narratives that we cling to is over time. we even absorbed the ones that we didn't like or that we didn't consider as being mainstream and we force them into the mainstream, so i'm not sure what's left that you could really shock people with as it recall as it pertains to slavery. but over time i'm sure we would sort of integrate that too. yeah, that reminds me of a question. i was thinking about during your lecture you mentioned those attempts in the 1930s and 40s to bring slavery to the youth market. is there anything like that going on at the moment? is it possible given that recent representations of slavery have been so on flinching, you know 12 years a slave for example is not something you would want to show to a kid.
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i think there is but i think it's the components or the logistics i should say are slightly different in the 20s or 30s or 40s where you essentially had a children's pro slavery genres creepy as that sounds to say out. loud. you also had corresponding literature and you had corresponding school curriculum, especially in the deep south the udc as we know from david blythe or karen cox or carrie janey the udc is heavily policing the way american school children digest slavery and the war today. we don't see as much of the pop culture pro slavery element as far as i know at least there are no mainstream cartoons, you know that are kind of telling kids slavery is okay, but you read about some of the textbook battles and entire state curriculums that say slaves were
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migrant laborers, you know, or they were like imported laborers or that really try to sort of strip away the social traumas or the everyday problems faced by slaves. that to me seems like a bigger threat today than that coming through pop culture, which is so weird because usually we would think school undoes the things that you see on television or in the movies, but in this case 12 years a slave or parts of amistad or parts the birth of a nation might actually be undoing what you're getting in school book and texas or oklahoma or you know, where some of these other debates are unfolding. another question along the lines of what about this movie that you didn't mention one that i think you expected which is the recent movie harriet and several people are curious about your take on harriet, you know one way to pose the question might be isn't this the movie about
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slavery that we've been waiting for for 100 years. it is and it's not and i promise because we're not at a conference. i won't do the it's not my century. i won't like use the chronological cutoff to get away from this. at first look. yes harriet attaches. the issue of slavery or the survival of slavery to the war. we have an african-american character who dominates a finite share of agency and that film and is willing to wield violence but not in an over-the-top sort of django or black exploitation way my question with harriet is the reach of the film and this is part of where these new mediums in this blurring of technology and how we can track the impact of films comes into play actually wrote this down because i knew somebody was gonna ask this the film had a very small budget for what ended up being a very high profile picture it was made for a little more than 11 million dollars and
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then it grows about 43 million dollars at the theaters, and i don't think that was 2019. that was not a covid sort of cutting off interviewerships. so that was basically it's run it made money. it did well, but it didn't make anywhere near the money that a film like bingo or even i must i think vampire hunter even made quite a bit more. so my questions for that are yes, it projected the things that more serious. sort of observers of slavery on the silver screen wanted to see but i wonder if the reception of it hence it my final point from the lecture. will we see more films like harriet if they didn't make enough money, or if they didn't make a big enough footprint. and the reason i mentioned those different mediums is it's so hard to track how many people later saw it on hulu or netflix or roku or fires all these different ways that you can basically avoid leaving your
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house, but you can watch stuff that used to be in theaters. so it's possible that tens of millions more people saw harriet then you know, we would be aware of just from the old way of tracing the box office. i hope that we've sort of hit a turning point there, but there have been times in the past like with amistad where people thought look we finally showed this. we finally did it and then you know, it's a decade before we get another one so really time will tell i think but the current political climate especially the discussion we're having about race and violence and the united states right now, i would imagine that is going to help broad studios to exploring this more seriously. yeah, i would agree with that. it's gonna be very interesting to see what comes down over the next few years and a question several people have asked in
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different ways regards other countries and cinematic representations of slavery and you know, and again, i think this you know the scope of your talk and expertise is already massive just including the us but any thoughts on how other countries and their movie industries have have handled the subject of slavery. for the most part they are lagging well behind what you would see in the united states. well, i will i will i'll put parameters on that and say the cases that i'm directly aware of are well behind the russians, especially love to go on with the wind. it had its own sort of industry and russia, but russia does not go through a civil rights movement in the decades following the release of gone with the wind so they don't necessarily get the large scale corrective the clips of song of the south that i used to show my students before it became a
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little easier to access were from a german version of the film because nations that felt detached from american slavery didn't have the qualms about showing it depicted in ways that were not truthful or historically realistic. so whereas disney basically did it's very best to make you think song of the south never existed other countries. they don't care you can still buy it on dvd or i guess vhs depending on where you surely somebody still has a vcr. so generally speaking. because they're outside the context of our chronology of our loss cause our jim crow era our civil rights movement our sort of racial reckoning that we get in the 60s and 70s that leads to black exploitation and then what we hope is sort of this new era of dealing with things racial and i know we said that in the 90s we said that when president obama was elected people have
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said that in the last few months, it's hard to tell if we're really having lots of little new eras or if it's kind of one elongated one that started maybe in the 90s, but it'll be interesting to see i think the telling thing will be do other nations pick up. harriet do they pick up the films that go against what they had readily accepted as sort of being americana for a century because it's not just americans that like the moonlight and magnolia the soviets like red butler to everybody like brett butler, right? that's a difficult thing to display. yeah, thank you and more specific question. now one attendee says thank you for defending the free state of jones and goes on sale at the time. it came out. i spent a lot of time trying to convince people that it is not a white savior movie. i think it's much more complicated than that.
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can you discuss that further? absolutely. and i will pull disclosure. i know vicki fairly well and she is among the best historians that are field has to offer and that movie is largely based on a lot of the work. she did uncovering the story of newtonite and the free state of jones. i think part of the problem with the sort of white savior debate is because it's the white savior debate and it is often being had amongst white academics. there is an aversion to ever going in this to allowing to allowing it to be a positive thing new night does lead an interracial rebellion against the confederacy and jones county, mississippi a canadian carpenter really does help solomon north achieve his freedom. those are integral parts. of the story the stories would
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not have played out the same way without those characters, but when we say, oh, you know, that's matthew mcconaughey being the white savior again, and part of that is historic record because of other films he's done. he's sort of guilty of he's a repeat offender. we should say but so it's a hard debate to have because if you want to argue that middle sort of nuanced point. you're the one that has to kind of take on the oh, he's the one saying slaves couldn't read themselves, which of course that's the story we would all like to hear but in many ways that ends up selling short the horrors of slavery, right if it was really that easy. you know, we wouldn't be watching birth of a nation about the nat turner revolt and how it you know is just cracked down on and everybody gets killed. so it's a really complicated thing. i felt like free state of jones and as much as it showed the war and the reconstruction era was great. i think they got a little bit
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cute trying to jump back and forth in time to later cover miscegenation cases in the 20th century and i think in some ways it it drag it was almost like the last lord of the rings ending eight times free state of jones had multiple endings and it made it hard for people to track the true meaning of the film but to pivot just a little bit. i recall sitting in theaters watching the birth of a nation the nate parker version and i was actually the only moviegoer the only white movie goer in the theater and numerous people around me were crying through the film. and it was it was an interesting position to be in because i imagined for the most part for most of the century. the script was flipped and the black moviegoer who would have been watching that film or who might have been watching priest did of jones would have been the
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one or two in a theater packed with white patrons. so i felt like we were at least making progress on that front and we're at least willing to throw the stories out there now whether twitter or other corners of the internet like them, you know is is harder to say, but it's also hard to tell at this point is hollywood going to cater to that. or again. are they just going to cater to what makes money? i'm sorry. that was a very rambling response to free state of jones if you haven't seen it. it is absolutely worth watching. thank you, and i'm afraid to say you know, i really enjoyed our conversation. we are just about out of time though, and i really want to thank the audience we had you know over 200 people sitting in the offices and living rooms participating in the event tonight, and i want to thank each of you for taking the time to join us this evening. we really appreciate your
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attendance and the great questions you asked and by the way, i apologize we were not able to get to all the questions we received dozens of really good questions. we were able to get i think to a majority of them, so i'm glad about that but apologies if we didn't quite get to your question, but most of all i want to thank speaker tonight dr. holbert for sharing his expertise. i hope you know, you won't mind me saying that you're right about being you're being a movie nerd you you've put on full display tonight with you incredibly wide. knowledge and understanding of american movies about slavery and so much else besides and so thank you so much. we really appreciate it and i encourage everyone to check out the website you can sign up for the remaining events this spring at the website civil war thank you very much.
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american history tv on c-span 3 every weekend documenting america's story funding for american history tv comes from these companies who support c-span 3 as a public service. weak notes this month were featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span 3 tuesday night we look at pandemics and disease. in 1918 a flu virus infected one-third of the world's population. nancy bristow from the university of puget sound talks about the correlations between that earlier pandemic and today's global crisis watch tuesday beginning at 8pm eastern and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span 3 filmmaker and author john wilkman discusses his book
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screening reality how documentary filmmakers reimagined america which explores the history of nonfiction films and television from late 19th century thomas edison films to 21st century reality tv. the burbank public library hosted this event and the video was provided by the burbank channel. i just wanted to say that thank you all for coming. i'm a hubert kozak of the library staff and tonight's program is part of a series of programs that the library presents from time to time on topics related to the film industry. sometimes we take a look behind the scenes that help films in a specific genre army or explore how our particular movie was made. we did this recently for example with queens of animation. and with a look at the making of the movie chinatown just a few weeks ago now. tonight we're presenting a program on the craft and varied history of documentary


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