Skip to main content

tv   The Civil War Slavery Depictions in Cinema  CSPAN  April 6, 2021 11:35am-12:51pm EDT

11:35 am
hinton sidney college professor, matthew hullbert looks and 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
11:36 am
central to the narrative. today's speaker, dr. matthew christopher hulbert, he qualifies and is an assistant professor, not too far out of his phd program, but even though he's an up and coming scholar he already published four books, he's authored or 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 unlined event, i brought one of the collection of essays. really, if you are here tonight and interested in slavery on the silver screen, i think you will be interested in this collection of essays as well.
11:37 am
so the doctor will speak for about 30, 35 minutes and that's going to leave us plenty of time for discussion. we will wrap things up by about 8:15, so an hour and 15 minutes altogether, 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, and you won't be able to type things into the chat box but the q & a box, you can ask questions and give us comments, and you can do that at anytime. one of the nice things about an online talk rather than in-person, when a question occurs to you, you type it in the box and you don't have to interrupt the speaker and the questions will be there for us to view and answer as many of them as we can at the end of the
11:38 am
lecture. that's all for me. let's give a virtual round of applause to dr. hulbert. >> thank you, dr. quigley, and thank you for inviting me to talk about films, and anybody that knows me knows it's a dangerous proposition because once you get me to talk about movies it could be difficult for me to stop. dr. quigley and i thought about initially narrowing the focus of today's talk to a cluster of films or even a particular theme, but in a student eval, i was once called, as a compliment, a militant film nerd, and i cannot narrow the list of movies and they just get bigger and bigger, and dr. quigley was kind enough to let me go at a century's worth.
11:39 am
i know zoom fatigue is a real thing, so i will do my best to keep things moving along briskly and to keep you entertained. i will leave plenty of time as dr. quigley noted 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 eluded to just a moment ago, we will take a 100-year tour of slavery on the silver screen. hopefully nobody is humming to gilligan's island, the three hour tour, and you might think about the great american ride at gmg, but instead of "indiana jones," we will start with "the birth of a nation" and conclude in 2016 with nate parker's
11:40 am
equalliy controversial film. before we get started, i will say my goals are twofold and we will revisit these periodically through the talk, but the first is to give you a broad overview of the major trends and evolutions of what we have seen in these pictures, of what we have seen from slavery on the silver screen and the second is to take stock of how much has changed and how much has not changed in the way we depict the peculiar institutions of movie making. i will hit share screen and hopefully this will take us where we want to go, if not it will be just like mgm when the ride breaks down. all right, i think we are in
11:41 am
good shape. i'm getting a nod and a thumbs up. okay. for the sake of recounting our progress this evening, we're going to divide the century into pre and post civil rights movement, and then we will divide films in to pro and anti-slavery camps. post slavery films, which are heavily influenced by the dunning interpretation of reconstrustion and the lost cause broadly writ, these are the films that dominate the pre self rights era, and that has to do with "the birth of a nation." this will lay the foundation for many of the tropes that will
11:42 am
characterize post-slavery films into the 1950s. it's difficult to overstate but it's important for us to keep in mind just how influential it keeps being outside of its own era of hollywood. now, as many of you know the film uses a before and after look before the civil war to prepare southern society and to underscore for the jim crow audience that slavery had been a positive good for post sides of the color line, and much to the dismay of african communities throughout the united states, some of who attempt to have screenings of the film banned because it promotes and incites
11:43 am
violence, it glorifies lynching as a proper way to look at race relations, and because the film is silent and because recording equipment in that century captures images slower than what you see today, if you play it in fast-forward, you will watch it in people moving in real time, and don't be put off that it's three hours plus in its original format, but you can watch it much quicker than that. as we move into the 1930s, we're going to see films like "jezebel" pictured here that starred betty davis and almost an unrecognizable henry fonda, and then these are the direct inheritors of the tropes that
11:44 am
"the birth of a nation" sets down a foundation, and they take their narrative crews from griffith. both of the movies will include white plantation masters and they include 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 meddle in southern society after the civil war. these films are immensely popular. between them they win several oscars. what they really do for a generation of americans is they put a hollywood sparkle on the elite southerners that maintain the institution of slavery and for american moviegoers, and especially those from the north or the midwest who are not as exposed to the cultural
11:45 am
artifacts of slavery basis, they will help you fall in love with the larger than life characters that cannot be separated from their moonlight and magnolia lifestyles. if you ever want to go down the pop culture rabbit hole, go on ebay and look at some of the "gone with the wind" stuff that was produced during the film or subsequent international releases. there are plates and silverware and action figures and posters and 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 are laying down as a blueprint that many moviegoers are going to assume is based in some way on reality. because these films are immensely popular it also should not surprise us that a 1935 picture like "so red the rose",
11:46 am
and it features a slavery volt scene and has a very dramatic mission scene and it almost goes out of its way to present a different caricature of southern society and people simply don't like it. it goes against the tide that griffith set in motion and it will suffer for it in terms of take at the box office and returns. so far we have mostly been talking about films that would be screened by adults. some of you may have remember being seven or eight and trying to sit through "gone with the wind" with your grandparents, and it's a hard sell for a young child. as the view of southern society
11:47 am
became more prevalent on film, this fashionable portrait that we see of the old south is going to trickle down to the youth market. so in 1935 fox will release a pair of shirley temple films both of which co-star mr. robinson, as you might remember better as mr. bojangles', and these films gives viewers a benign take on an slavery relationship. generally we don't stop for a tap dancing scene down the stairs, but that's what shirley temple is selling us aop on a
11:48 am
daily basis. and disney basically dangles lost cause bait in 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's more difficult to fine in its entirety. it's based on uncle stories and generally speaking they star remus, pictured here, that is a loveable and loyal former slave and in the course of telling stories of his owner's grandson in the awful velvet suit here, he tells the child how great life had been before the civil war, before emancipation, back
11:49 am
when everything was taken care for him and everything was slower and easier and much more enjoyable. despite it being exiled today, you can't watch "song of the south" on disney plus. it grossed $37 million in 1946, when your dollar went a little further at the box office and even manages to win an academy award for best original song, so if you ever hummed "zip-a-dee-doo-dah," you got that from "song of the south" as audiences of different ages swooned over rhett butler not giving a damn, or remus singing and dancing with animals and creatures, hollywood is trying to turn out anti-slavery
11:50 am
pictures but they don't have much hope of competing with the likes of griffith or victor fleming or walt disney in segregated american adaptation tom's cabin" which itself is silent but also followed silent versions of the film produced in 1910, 19 13, 1914, and 198, it shows us it's the most powerful anti-slavery vehicle on screens so we'll do it over and over until one of them finally sticks. this was supposed to be the one. it is even billed as the movie that cost $2 million 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
11:51 am
bit more, i hope, in the q and a as it pertained to the actors themselves and the use of black face. later films after seeing the dismal production of "uncle tom's cabin" and other anti-slavery pictures, they're going to go out of their way to make a mockery of abolitionism, and they will often do it in the form of a wild-eyed john brown. so 1940s, santa fe trail, both of the screen stills come from "santa fe trail". it stars raymond massey as an uncompromising brown, righteous to the point of self-destruction. and he'll reprise the same role for "seven angry men". both of these pictures, but especially "seven angry men" are
11:52 am
a push for gathering rights. it's one year after the brown decision comes down from the supreme court. they're going to typecast northern abolitionists as intruders who essentially fail to understand the positives that the racial hierarchy of southern society for african americans themselves. brown is very much pictured as a guy in these movies who does more harm to african americans to enslaved americans than he does on their behalf. and that is driven home toward the end of "seven angry men" when brown's own sons disown him. they disapprove of his violent message and abandon him. now, not everybody gives up on anti-slavery pictures. two years after "seven angry men" warner brothers is going to adapt "band of angels" for
11:53 am
theatrical release. clark gable, still a marquee name at this point is going to heavy weight the film. it also has a heavy weight director. despite this, the film essentially tanks at the box office. the plot revolving 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 bell played by evonne decarlo who learns she is, in fact, herself melato and is slave. clark gable buys her and the romance ensues. as they fall in love, the moral of the story, which is a little
11:54 am
on the nose, but it's the pure artificiality of the color line. this is mostly lost on audiences 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 it as shock value before we thought of shock value the way we do today. they assumed people would see this to be outraged or that people would think that's the greatest thing i've ever seen in terms of politics, but they're assuming you're going to love it or hate it, and you probably knew before you bought the ticket. little did those critics know,
11:55 am
however, what was coming by the time we get to the late 60s and early 70s. because in the immediate wake of 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 black exploitation. these films are an outgrowth of a broader genre of -- if you've seen the original "shaft" from 1971 or "superfly" from 1972 or "foxy brown" from 1974, you have a good idea of the style of the pictures. and it bleeds over to plots involving slavery and involving the old south. these films really did just attempt to sell tickets through shock and awe, and they also made a point of hiing black
11:56 am
actors and athletes in lead roles and then allowing anti-hero protagonists to wield very open the top violence against white masters. 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 sells today. sex sold in the late 60s and early 70s. this will generally involve interracial romances and explicit rape scenes. slaves strikes a chord with disallusioned 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, "good-bye uncle tom"
11:57 am
the charlee films. and another released in 1975. the film stars the very venerable and apparently very broke james mason as -- there are various explanations for why mason would agree to be in mandingo. tax problems seem to be the most prevalent answer. but regardless he plays a psychopath plantation owner, and he's opposite kid norton who plays a slave named mead. it's unbridled -- one of the strangest endings in hollywood history. this picture with the pop comes from the end of mandingo. i'm not going to explain it. you have to watch it for
11:58 am
yourself to even begin to understand what's going on in this image. roger ebert calls it manure and racist trash. but black exploitation, despite not winning over film critics will serve to a counterweight to films of the past. because we now have two opposite polls in the way we pick slavery on film, this is going to help force 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 1990 s. so in 1995 mira max releases "the journey of august king".
11:59 am
if you've never seen it, you're not in a minority. it was a smaller studio than it is today. and the movie is the first to address appalachian slavery on film, but it lacks any of the grit or the sex or the violence of blacksploation. payoff because of that, it was difficult to get it in front of black audiences. i use to joke that in showing of "journey of august king", over the years he's probably screened it for more people than mira max did. they should figure out a way to pay john a 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 "omistad". this is a courtroom drama. it features morgan freeman,
12:00 pm
anthony mason, and it breaks new ground by showing the horrid conditions of the middle passage and the roles played by africans themselves in the slave trade. i wish i was tech any logically capable of showing you the sequence from the middle passage. it's heart breaking and 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 and a if that comes up. but after the popularity of amistad and this sort of unappreciated release of "the
12:01 pm
journey of august king". it will reappear in 2012 in the form of two films with very large budgets and very unconventional plots. i am talking about "abraham lincoln vampire hunter "and "jango unchained". the first is lincoln as a cross between two characters. he wages a supernatural war against the confederacy of slave devouring -- lots of people get chopped with axes. this was considered a relatively successful film. "jango unchained" represents a clear nod to the films of the 70s and follows a former slave
12:02 pm
turned gun slinger as he exacts revenge on a plantation own who are bought his wife. audiences love "jango" more than "abe lincoln vampire killer" but the sense is they enjoyed it more for the body counts than the nuanced 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 realistic look at slavery through 12 years a slave. this is based on sol man norfolk's autobiography. this 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 the
12:03 pm
co-modification of human chattle. three years after "12 years a slave". matthew mcconaughey returns with a rifle, not with law books. i'm talking about "the free state of jones". it was based on pioneering archive work done by the civil war historian vickie binam. a county attempted to secede after 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 anti-slavery film with a much smaller budget and far less studio fanfare. this one was written and directed by nate parker who is
12:04 pm
in the very center of your screen here. 2016 was sort of the year of the wide angle shot with everyone lined up holding guns and knives. the movie chronicles the 1831 slave revolt in georgia. it's not a wholly 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 first talked about, obviously, centuries before this film was released. and we finally see in why successful slave rebellions were virtually impossible to pull off
12:05 pm
in the antebellum south. those who you have taught a course know the first question halfway through the lecture is why didn't they revolt? this film cinematically gives you a pretty good mental image of why that was such a difficult thing to do. so a century after dw griffith's film about exconfederates and klansmen, this new birth of a nation wins double high honors at the film festival and it evaporates overnight. there are boycotts within the african american community and from within prominent academic circles. we can talk a little bit more about why in the q and a if people would like to. okay. i have done my best impersonation of robert osbourne. we are nearly up to 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.
12:06 pm
we see a clear turning point of slavery films after the landmark civil rights victories of the 50s and early 60s. normal is going to pivot from pro slavery to anti-slavery and then a little bit later in the 1960s, norma 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 to be uncle ream us or pris si or ma'ammy or big sam. by the time we get into the heyday of 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
12:07 pm
with loosening of censorship. most of the time this has to do with black sloitation and pushing the envelope. as violence and actual content is more prevalent, outright resistance 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 the later films such as "the birth of a nation" we'll 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 hollywood studio. and we finally start documenting the reasons slaves like nath turner might have had to rebel in real life. that said, the majority of hollywood studios have shied away from depicting violence
12:08 pm
against the institution of slavery itself. and by that i mean they don't like to show black on white violence. minus some sort of final straw or a trigger to the epic violence that takes place in movies like "jango". in that movie it's the theft of his life. in another, it's the rape of nat turner's wife that prompt the revenge. it is not the default of enslavement. hollywood today oftentimes feels like enslavement is not enough. there had to be a personal last straw for the main characters. at the same time, we can see studios grappling with how to deal with black on white violence. the rise of these more
12:09 pm
thoughtful films is going to spark a debate and one that is still ongoing over how to properly weigh the agency of enslaved people's versus their so-called white saviors on screen. as this slide will illustrate pretty clearly, virtually all of the anti-slavery 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 aide or benefaction of a white person to help them escape from slavery. they're not capable of doing it on their own. others are more or less guilty as charged. in these movies lincoln and king schultz who is middle bottom on this slide, they kill lots of bad guys, and then they basically give their lives for the cause of black freedom.
12:10 pm
and as unpopular as it is to let matthew mchahn hay especially off the hook for white saviorism on screen, what we see in the free state of jones as well as "12 years a slave" is as overacted as the roles might be, they are generally affirmed by the historical record. "amistad" is probably the most problematic of all. the legacy is somewhere between. on one hand the characters by anthony hopkins reflect the reflections of real abolitionists in a courtroom, but they do a poor job on the other hand of contextualizing the characters within the broader debate over slavery that was happening in america in 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
12:11 pm
who were still okay with other people owning slaves as long as they didn't really have to see it. from watching "amistad" you would get the sense that everyone is like john quincy adams and finds the institution abhorrent. perhaps the most telling observation we can pull from the century worth of movie making is that of all the anti-slavery films that we saw produced between 1995 and 2016 only two of them "vampire hunter" and "free state of jones" have a plot 245 that singles out the confederacy as an attempt to preserve the institution of slavery. to be clear, i don't mean to say that we should hold films that depict the 1830s to 50s accountable for addressing something like the confederacy that does not yet exist. it would make no sense to be
12:12 pm
lamenting cessation, but what i am saying is that we must remember that hollywood is a business. a business intent on making money. and one very adept at reading the proverbial room and catering to the wants and needs of the paying audience. so based on the last three decades of film making, it's clear to us that hollywood believes americans are willing to concede the evils of slavery and we've become increasingly willing to pay to see a slew of anti-slavery films. many of which have made lots of money and won awards 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 turn out many screen plays of that vent.
12:13 pm
so the idea that i will leave you with before we transition to q and a is that in this specific case, 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 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. i will turn it over for q and q. >> thank you for the fascinating talk. it's impressive that you're able to be cover so much ground over that feeling rushed. i feel like you gave us a wonderful overview of the century of cinema. >> we already have a good plank of questions.
12:14 pm
we may not get to them all, but we'll get to as many as we can. and some of the questions i've noted so far are asking about films and television shows that you didn't mention. i think we can forgive you for not mentioning everything, especially television shows which i think wasn't officially part of the agreement. several people are asking about "roots". 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 how does "roots" fit into this timeline you've given us? >> sure. that's a fair question. if you had given me another hour, the film nerd in me, we could have worked in tv too. i think the participant number, we would have seen it plummet. that's a totally valid question. and the thing that i would point to most is really the way we
12:15 pm
consume different forms of media -- i don't know that it's fair to just say hollywood films are the most powerful content, at least in the prei could watch anything that i ever wanted to on my phone without cable or direct tv and 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, and what do you think of, sadly, it's "tomahawk ". i think part of the reason i tend to prioritize these major studio releases is because i think i they end up reaching more people. i think they tend to have more staying power than information. that's not to say that television can't be powerful.
12:16 pm
i would say "roots or" or even the way the "ken burns" documentary deals with slavery sways many americans. but i think there is just something about the experience of seeing things on the big screen that imprint them on our minds and sort of tell us if we're going to take history from the civil screen and those are going to become almost the clip art of the memories that we have but didn't experience, it's going to come from the movies. i also 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 concerned with selling advertising, and because it's not a show that has to go on for several seasons, once the
12:17 pm
advertising is sold, you've made the money, it's nice to see you had a lot of viewers, but that's not going to sway potentially the 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. i feel like in some ways, they're a better reflection partially of what society is thinking. but also what hollywood thinks society wants to see. that might have made it worse. but i will stop there. >> now, i think that was a really good response to the question. another mini cluster of questions concern productions like "uncle tom's cabin" in the 19th century, it was a popular theatrical production. we have a couple questions. one is how did those early
12:18 pm
theatrical representations of slavery in the post civil war period go into effect cinematic 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" in the play in "the king and i" in the 1950s? >> now we're way into militant film nerd territory. i like this. so in terms of this transition from really if we go back to a literary tradition of anti-slavery narratives and then "uncle tom's cabin" because it's hard for people to imagine what a literary sensation "uncle tom's cabin" was, it only loses to the bible.
12:19 pm
you might have hated the book, but you bought it if you lived in louisiana and mississippi so you could excoriate it. the weird thing is as powerful as "uncle tom's cabin" was, lincoln, if we believe the story, he pens part of the war on her. you're the little lady that made this big war. the book was powerful as abolitionist propaganda, but the theatrical versions as widespread as they are, and there are different levels. this could be performed at the local level, you could have a fancy national level traveling company, but i feel like they don't necessarily achieve the potency 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". it's almost like we skip a
12:20 pm
medium in terms of the power. because it's much easier for someone to see a film in the 20s than it probably was for them to go see a high quality production of "uncle tom" on the stage. now, there are obviously other issues here of black face and sort of this earlier jim crow tradition of how black characters are pror dayed. you can only imagine how bad some of the local performances of "uncle tom's cabin" probably are in the late 19th century, but as we move into film, unfortunately, it doesn't get 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. there are snip pets left you can find on dark corners of the internet, but people really thought with poll ard's version, it's one of the best stories
12:21 pm
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 characters except for uncle tom are white actors in black face, but james lowe plays uncle tom. you had a built-in gimmick/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 that because people knew the story so well, there was partially, it could never be as good as the book, and for a huge chunk of the country who disliked "uncle tom's cabin" and old enough to have experienced the war, they weren't going to buy tickets to see it. they hated it. right? it almost had too much baggage. later -- in the 50s, they add sound and i think even one version they colorized the 1927 version. i they that was released in a limited basis on theaters.
12:22 pm
raymond massie who played john brown does the narrating there. that was more popular, but we had sort of crossed that civil rights threshold that sort of put the film in a new context. i could keep going on about this forever, but i'm going to stop and let you ask another question. >> thank you. a different kind of question now. one you may have had before. if you could produce or direct or write a movie on this subject, the enslavement of african americans, what kind of project would you embark upon? and then the wording of the next part, i think you might appreciate. is there an incident or 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 hollywood executive who may be listening in the audience? >> i also want to say to whoever asked about "the king and i" i
12:23 pm
did not mean to leave you out of the last question. email me and we can talk more about that. i don't think that's an accident that slips in there. there is definitely some id logical signaling going on there. i am torn on this. i feel like what we see the least of are realistic stories told about slavery from the black perspective. i felt like the most recent growth of the nation had a chance to change the way -- regular people thought about slavery, because it is just -- if you've seen it, it is -- there are scenes that i can't watch again. one of them i will describe it involves a chisel and a funnel, and it's just excruciating. i feel like in some ways that's the kind of film that we need to just shock people out of the traditional idea of slavery, but part of me just finds it unbelievable that we don't have
12:24 pm
a really good john brown movie, and i know this sort of -- again, diverts right back to the white savior umbrella, but of course, brown ends up saving people by failing. that would be my angle on it. to sneak out from under the white savior umbrella, but i've long thought how is woody harrellson not john brown? he's got kind of that wild look in his eye. i'm sure he could do a whacky accent for us. he's no stranger to killing things in zombieland. that would be an interesting vehicle, and i think it's telling of the way people don't want to touch certain parts of slavery as it connects to the war. because how -- how do you not make a movie about john brown? i mean, 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
12:25 pm
invades federal arsenals. don't invade federal anythings. that's not good. you'll get in big trouble. different context than "harper's ferry". i'll stop there before i get in trouble. >> a couple of people are asking about a movie you haven't mentioned. "guards and generals". 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 that that continue to sort of perpetuate traditional views of enslaved people as absent from the story or loyal to their slave owners? >> the civil war historian in me will watch "gettysburg" when it's on. "gods and generals" is another
12:26 pm
story. i'm assuming i could say this on c-span3. "gods and generals" is a horrible movie all the way around. and then when you throw in the depictions of slavery, it's really bad. there's the one scene in particular that goes out of the way to detach lee and jackson specifically where they explain to a slave you know, we're really doing this for principle. we would free you. this has nothing to do with slaves and if we win, we're probably going to free you anyway. it is just totally detached. 'reverting back to the lost cause fantasies that by and large, you don't see on this side of the -- when we slit our century in half, for the most part you leave that behind after the 1950 s. you still get sort of -- i'm not saying lost cause goes away. that's very much a lie.
12:27 pm
in civil war movies specifically, with just the overt marks robert was a great guy and loved his slaves and was going to let them go. it's bogus. it's hard to believe it ended up in a movie. i don't know how to condemn it more. it's so bad. 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 people didn't really hear all the bad dialogue over the laughs. >> a few people just in response to what you were saying, two questions ago about maybe john brown movie, a couple of people chimed in with references to the good lord -- have you been able to see it yet? if so, what's your take on it? >> this is the militant film
12:28 pm
nerd failing. i will throw my two kids who are four and two under the bus. i have not been able to watch yet, but if woody harrellson couldn't be john brown, ethan hawke would have been in the running. i feel like he would make a good john brown, and that is on my list. this gets into a little bit if i could take this on a one minute tangent. mysterying mediums that we see -- shifting mediums that we see. in the old days, you had -- today we basically watch both on the computer, and neither exist 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
12:29 pm
fraction of the people who might have seen die hard 4 in theaters whenever that came out, it's escaping me now, who ended up watching the shows but as art. they're esteemed. so i wonder if there's 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's sort of a thing that i'll dump on everyone else and let them solve. i saw one person votes for will m defo. i don't know if i see him as john brown -- i don't know if he can ever be anyone other than elias, but he's a great actor. >> thank you. a question about audiences and
12:30 pm
specifically african american movie audiences. have american audiences changed in their racial makeup over the decades? and maybe if so, what kind of effect has that had on the content? >> i think they 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 -- i won't say everybody. i dream about seeing movies in 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 seated 80 people. today you go to the amc or cinema, you go to one of the giant corporate theaters, and in the process of swallowing up these sort of private independently owned theaters or
12:31 pm
even drive-ins as well, pair that with the gradual desegregation of american society, and you're just given access to watch films to more people than ever before. part of the reason i think films are so powerful as opposed to literature or -- i'm not telling you to watch television instead of read books. 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 the nation or a season of "gone with the wind". if you can sit a couple hours with your popcorn and cherry coke, you're going to get the whole story laid out for you. you don't even have 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
12:32 pm
audiences, it's double edged. over the most recent decade since desegregation, african american audiences have had more access to theaters, but as american at large has had more access to theaters and america is still very predominantly white, hollywood studios are going to play to their largest consumer base. even though african american patrons can go to the movies more, they might not have all that much more say in 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 when music and film, these used to be separate businesses. but now you see common and lebron james and jay-z. you see people producing films who 20 jee years ago, this wouldn't have happened. i think it will open up a little bit. but at the end of the day, despite what hollywood wants to
12:33 pm
tell us at the oscars or in press releases, at the end of the day, if it doesn't sell tickets, they're not going to make it. it's going to be a reflection of all of us that would open the door for those perspectives to show up on screen more. >> yeah. and i really appreciated the theme in your talk as well about the importance of hollywood as a business which, you know, knows the customers and does its best to satisfy their existing needs and desires. one of the questions, though, asks even as movies reflect contemporary norms and 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 we tried to explain it in the book,
12:34 pm
i see movies and culture working on a loop. culture influences. culture is basically the way we want to see ourselves or 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. the artifacts of how we think 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-fulfilling because we think well, they put it on film -- 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 wayne. we get this sort of infinite loop that just grows and grows, but there's room for divergence to throw another film reference
12:35 pm
in there. there are always movements thinking outside the mainstream box. new wave cinema, gonzo films, independent films, and now this is where the 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 than will pick up the entire summer block buster 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 blacksploitation films and how shocking it was to roger ebert, i don't know what he would say if he saw "jango
12:36 pm
unchained". by the 20 teens, that was normal. what was once outside the box had been sort of corporate. that's the other process that unfields 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 j and we forced them into the mainstream, so i'm not sure what's left that you could really shock people with 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 40 s 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
12:37 pm
slavery happen, someone flinching 12 years a slave, for example, is not something you would want to show to a kid. >> 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 laboring genre as creepy as that is, you had corresponding literature and curriculum, especially in the deep south. the udc as we know from david blyte or others, it's heavily policing the way american school children digest slavery and the war today. we don't see as much of the pop culture proslavery element as far as i know, at least, there are no mainstream cartoons that are kind of telling kids slavery is okay. but you read about some of the
12:38 pm
textbook battles, and entire state curriculums that say slaves were migrant laborers, 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 "birth of a nation" might be undoing what is in textbooks where 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 "
12:39 pm
"harriet". several people are curious about your take on it. one is isn't this the movie on slavery we've been waiting for for 100 years? >> it is, and it's not. i promise because we're not at a conference, i don't do it's not my century. i won't use the chronological cutoff to get away from it. at first look, yes, "harriet" attaches the survival of slavery to the war. we have an african american character who dominates a finite share of agency willing to wield violence, but not in an over the top way. my question with "harriet" is the reach of the film. and this is part of where these new mediums and this blurring of technology and how we can track the impact of films comes into play. actually, i wrote this down
12:40 pm
because i knew somebody was going to ask this. the film had a very small budget for what was a high profile picture. it was made for a little more than $11 million, and then it grossed about $43 million at the theaters, and i don't think -- that was 2019. that was not a covid sort of cutting off viewership. that was basically the run. it made money. it did well. but it didn't make anywhere near the money that a film like jango or even -- 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 it to see, but i wonder if the reception of it hints at my final point from the lecture, will we see more films like "harriet" if think didn't make enough money or a big enough footprint. the reason i mention the different mediums is it's hard to track how many people later
12:41 pm
saw it on hulu or firestick or other ways to avoid leaving your stick but you can watch things that used to be in theaters in. so it's possible that tens of millions more people saw "harriet" than 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 we finally showed this and did it. and then 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 in the united states right now, i would imagine that is going to help studios to explore this more seriously. >> yeah. i would agree with that. it's going to be very interesting to see what comes down over the next few years.
12:42 pm
a question several people have asked in different ways regards other countries and cinematic representations of slavery. you know, and again, i think the scope of your talk and expertise is already massive. just including the u.s., but any thoughts on how other countries and their movie industries 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'll put parameters on that and say the cases i'm directly aware of are well behind. the russians, especially, loved gone with the wind. it had its own sort of industry in 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
12:43 pm
corrective. the clips of "song of the south" that i used to show my students before it became a 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 its very best to make you think "song of the south" never existed, other countries don't care. you can still buy it on dvd or i guess vhs depending on -- surely somebody still has a vcr. so generally speaking, because they're outside the context of our chronology of our lost 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
12:44 pm
blacksploitation. i know we said in the 90s we said that when president obama was elected, people have said that in the last few months, it's hard to tell if we're having little any eras or it's one elongated one that started maybe in the 90s. but it will 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 aher caw in a for a century? it's not just americans that like the moonlight and magnolia. the soviets liked ret butler. everybody liked ret butler. that's a difficult thing to displace. >> more specific question now, one attendee says thank you for defending the free state of jones. it says at the time it came out,
12:45 pm
i spent a lot of time trying to convince people it's not a white savior movie. i think it's more complicated than that. can you discuss that further? >> absolutely. and i will full disclosure, i know vickie fairly well. she's among one of the best historians that the field has to offer. and the movie is largely based on uncovering the story of 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's often being had among white academics, there is an aversion to ever going in the -- to allowing it to be a positive thing. newt knight does lead an interracial rebellion in mississippi.
12:46 pm
a canadian carpenter really does help solomon northrop achieve freedom. those are integral parts of the story. but when we say oh, you know, that's matthew mcconaughey being the white savior again. he's a repeat offender, we should say, but -- so it's a hard debate to have. if you want to argue that middle sort of nuanced point, you're the one that has to kind of take on the oh, well, he's the one saying slaves couldn't free 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. if it was really that easy, you know, we wouldn't be watching birth of the a nation about the nat turner revolt and how it's cracked down on and everybody gets killed. it's a really complicated thing.
12:47 pm
i felt like "free state of jones" in as much as it showed the war and reconstruction era was great. i think they got cute trying to jump back and forth in time to later cover the cases in the 20th century, and i think in some ways it was almost like the last "lord of the rings" ending eight times. "free state of jones" had multiple endings. it made it hard for people to track the true meaning of the film. to pivot a little bit, recall watching "the birth of the nation" and i was actually the only movie goer -- the only white movie goer in the theater, and numerous people around me were crying through the film. and it was an interesting position to be in, because i imagined for the most part for most of the century the script
12:48 pm
was flipped and the black movie goer who would have been watching that film or maybe "free state of jones" would have been the one or two in a theater packed full of white patrons. i felt like we were making progress on the front and at least willing to throw the stories out there. now, whether twitter or other corners of the internet like them, you know, 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 rambling response to "free state of jones". if you haven't seen it, it is 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 over 200 people sitting in the offices and living rooms participaing in the event
12:49 pm
tonight, and i want to thank each of you for taking the time to join us this evening. we really appreciate your 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. most of all, i want to thank our speaker tonight, for sharing his expertise. i hope you won't mind me saying that you're right about you being a movie nerd. you've put that on full display with your wide-ranging knowledge and understanding of american movies about slavery and so much else besides. 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
12:50 pm
the website. thank you very much. weeknights this month, we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight, what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight, pandemics and disease. in 1918, a flu virus infected one-third of the world's population. nancy bristow from the university at puget sound talks about the correlations between that earlier pandemic and today's global crisis, tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern. enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3. film make and her author jon wilkman discusses his book "screening reality: how documentary filmmakers reimagined america" which explores the history of nonfiction films and television. from thomas edison's films to reality t

40 Views

info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on