tv The Civil War Slavery Depictions in Cinema CSPAN April 6, 2021 4:46pm-6:02pm EDT
screen writer, the art director, the director, the cameraman, the actor,the sound man, the music director, the film editor, and all the other people that work in the motion picture industry, making it possible for you to say, let's go to the movies. american history tv on c-span 3. funding for american history tv comes from these companies who support c-span3 as a public service. >> hampton sydney college professor matthew hullbert looks about how early films like "gone with the wind" and diagnoses django." he talked 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. today's speaker, dr. matthew christopher hulbert qualifies and is an assistant professor, not too far out of his university of georgia phd program. even though he's an up-and-coming scholar, he has already published four books. he has 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 online event, i brought one of those books called "writing history with lightning," and it's a 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.
so dr. hulbert will speak for 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. you won't$" be able to type this 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 any time. one of the nice things about an online talk rather than an in-person one, when a question occurs to you, you type it into the box. you don't have to interrupt the speaker and then those 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 for me. let's give a virtual round of applause to dr. hulbert.
and pass things over to him. thank you. >> thank you, dr. quigley, and thank you for inviting me to talk about films this evening. anyone who 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 down to a cluster of films, or even a particular theme. but in a student eval i was once called, as a compliment, i might add, a militant film nerd. and a narrative film nerd, i
cannot narrow the list of movies, and they just keep getting bigger and bigger. dr. quigley was kind enough to let me go at a century's worth. i know zoom fatigue is a real thing, so i will do my best to 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 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. 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'll start with "the birth of a nation," and conclude in 2016 with nate
parker's equally controversial film of the same title. unfortunately you are stuck with me this evening. 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 really changed and how much really hasn't changed in the we depict the peculiar institutions of movie making. i'm going to do something dangerous here. 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 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 the films themselves into proand anti-slavery camps. with that system of categorization in mind, it will not come as a surprise that, the pro-slavery films, which are heavily influenced by the dunning interpretation of reconstruction and the lost cause broadly writ, these are the films that dominate the pre civil 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
characterize pro-slavery films into the 1950s. the influence of the film in in its day is difficult to 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 before and after the civil war to compare southern society and to under score for the jim crow audience that slavery had been a positive good for both 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 they believe it promotes and incites violence, it glor fies violence and lynching as the proper way to re-establish race relations.
for those of you who have not seen "birth of a nation," i will give you a pro tip. because the fill m was silent and because recording equipment in the earlier 20th century capture images than what we see today, if you play the film in fast forward you'll actually watch it in something like people moving real time. don't be put off by the fact it's three hours plus in 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 henry fonda and films like "gone with the wind" pictured here starring vivian lee and clark gable. these are the direct inheriters of those tropes that the birth of a nation sets down.
they very much take their narrative cues from griffith. both of these movies 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 to meddle in society after the civil war. the 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 movie goers, especially those from the north or midwest who are not as exposed to sort of the cultural artifacts of slavery on a daily
basis, this is going to help movie goers fall in love with these larger than life characters who really cannot be separated from their moonlight and magnolia lifestyles. if you want to go down this pop culture rabbit hole, go on e bay and look at some of the "gone with the wind" stuff that was produced during the film or subsequent international releases. there are plates, there are silverware, there's action figures, posters, dolls. there's anything you can possibly image and they really just reflect the reach of these films and thisé.cíecific view o southern society that they're laying down as a blueprint that many movie goers 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. it revolt scene and it almost goes out of its way to present a different caricature of southern society as it is pillared by slavery and it goes against the tide that griffith put in motion and it will suffer for it in terms of takes at the box office and film returns. so far we have mostly been talking about films that would be screened by adults. some of you might remember being 7 or 8 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, this film is going to trickle down to the youth market. so in 1935, fox releases a pair of shirley temple films, both of which co-star bill robinson who you might know better as mr. bo jangle and is a pioneer, especially tap dancing on stage. and these films give viewers a look at master slave, generally we don't stop for a slow descending tap dance scene down the stairs but that's what shirley temple is selling us slavery looks like on a daily basis.
a decade later, the film on the right sets the hook for the entire generation. by that disney basically 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 stories created by an atlanta newspaper editor and they start remus pictured here, a lovable, loyal former slave and in the course of telling storers to the former owner's grandson, the little boy in the awful velvet suit here, he tells the child how great life had been before the civil war, before emancipation, back when he was a slave, when everything was taken care of for
him and life was slower and easier and much more enjoyable. despite it essentially being exiled today, surprise you can't watch "song of the south" on disney plus, this grosses an impressive $37 million 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. if you've ever hummed zip pitidada to yourself, or you have that feeling, you got that from "song of the south". now as audiences of different ages swooned over rhett butler not giving adamn or uncle remus singing and dancing, hollywood is attempting to turn out anti-slavery pictures. but they really don't seem to have much hope of competing with
the likes of griffith or victor fleming or walt disney in segregated american theatres. even harry pollard's adaptation of "uncle tom's cabin" which is also silent but followed silent versions of the film in 1910, 1914, and 1918, this shows us that "uncle tom's cabin" is the most powerful anti-slavery vehicle we have to put on screen so we're going to do it over and over until one of them sticks. this is supposed to be the one. it's 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 bit more i hope in the q&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 at the box office, they're almost going to go out of their way to make a mockery of abolitionism and they'll often do that in the forth of a wild-eyed john brown. so 1940s, "santa fe trail" both of these screen stills come from 'santa fe's trail" it stars raymond massey as a brown righteous to the point of self-destruction and he will reprize that same role in 19 you 55 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 one year after the brown decision comes down from the supreme court. and they're going to typecast northern abolitionists as troublemakers and intruders who essentially failed to understand the positives that the racial hierarchy that southern society has for african-americans themselves. brown is very much pictured as a guy in these movies who does more harm to african-americans -- to enslaved african-americans than 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 anti-slavery pictures. two years after "seven angry men," warner brothers is going to adapt the novel "band of
angels" for release and they go back in the casting department . so clark gable, who's still a name at this point is going to headline the film and it has a heavy weight director in raul walsh but it's going to fare badly with ticker buyers and tanks at the box office. the plot is around gable's character, who's a slave owner but one who is open to the dark side of slavery. he's not sort of the unmoving defensively who can't see that slaves are actually people and he basically enters into a romance with a southern bell, who part way through the picture learns that she is, in fact, mulatto and 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 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 saw it as a cheap ploy to sell tickets. this was sort of shock value before we would think of shock value the way we do today. they assume people were going to go see this so they could 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, 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 main stream civil rights movement and then the black power and the armed self-defense movement, we will get a new genere of films featuring slavery and they will fall under the umbrella of black exploitation. these films are an outgrowth of a broader genere of exploitation. so if you've seen the original chap from 1971 or super fly from 1972 or foxy brown from 1974, you have a good idea of the style of these pictures. and that style bleeds over into 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 hiring black actors and black athletes in lead roles and then allowing anti-hero protagonists to wield over the top violence against white masters. starting with "slaves" the film poster 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, too. this will involve interracial romances and explicit rain scenes. so "slaves" which stars oc davis and deon warwick strikes a cord with disillusioned black audiences who weren't getting what they wanted to see of their own culture from hollywood and we'll see a wave of films featuring these graphic revenge plots laced with sex, good-bye uncle tom, the charlie films and
most famously, richard fletcher's mandigo released in 1975, it starts a broke james mason -- very explanations for why he would agree to be in mandingo, tax problems seem to be the most prevalent answer. regardless why he takes the role, he plays a psycho pathic plantation owner. the movie features unbridled racism, mandingo fighting, rape, sex, and one of the strangest endings in hollywood history. this picture with the pot comes from the end of mandingo but i'm
not going to explain it. you have to watch it for yourself to understand what's going on. the film critic, roger ebert calls it manure and racist trash. but the black exploitation era is going to serve as a necessary counter weight to the films of the pass, jezebel and gone with the wind and the birth of a nation. and because we have these two opposite polls in the way we depict slavery on film, this is going to force americans somewhere back to the middle. we 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 not seen it, you are
not in the minority. miramax was a smaller studio than it is today but it was the first to address ap lashann slavery on film but it lacks the sex or violence of black exploitation. and because of that it was difficult to get it in front of audiences. i used to joke with my doctor doctoral adviser, that in showing "journey of august king" to his southern history class over the years he has probably 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 when we get into the reconsideration phase with slavery on film. that comes with steven spielberg's "amistad" featuring
morgan freeman, matthew mccocon mcconaughey. it breaks knew ground. i wish i was capable of showing you that sequence from the middle passage. it's disturbing and heartbreaking 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 prom ligation of a slave trade during the q&a if that comes up. but after the popularity of "amistad" and the unappreciated release of "the journey of august king" southern slavery is
going to disappear from hollywood studios for more than a decade. when it reappears in 2012 it comes in the form of films with large budgets and unconventional plot, "abraham lincoln vampire hunter" and "jango unchanged". the first, president lincoln wages a super natural war against the confederacy of slave devouring vampires. there's a metaphor there, it gets lost. jango unchained which came out that year represents a clear nod to the films of the '70s and it follows a former slave turned
gunslinger as he exacts revenge on the sadistic plantation owner who bought his wife. audiences love django more than abe lincoln vampire killer but it's they loved it more for the body count. thankfully if that's what you're looking for you did not have to wait long, the next year film viewers get a look at slavery through "12 years a slave" this is based on an autobiography, of course p. and this film 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. we see the degradation of human auctions, families torn apart, sexual assaults, vindictive masters and the comodification of human chattel.
three years after "12 years a slave," matthew mcconaughey returns to the scene as another anti-slavery protagonist. this time he does his work with a rifle not law books. i'm, of course, talking about "the free state of jones" which was based on pioneering archival work done by a civil war historian. it chronicles an uprising in jones county, mississippi, the town that tried to concede from the confederacy. after decent performances, the film received mixed reviews and it was quickly eclipsed by another anti-slavery film with a smaller budget and far less studio fanfare. this was written and directed by
nate parker in the center of your screen here. 2016 was sort of the year of the wide angle shot with everyone lined upholding guns and knives. the movie chronicles the 1831 gnat turner slave revolt in virginia. 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 the first picture that highlights the dehumanizing aspects of white southerns in their addiction to slavery. you see the effects that jefferson had talked about for centuries before the film was released. and we see, in gory, slow motion detail, why successful slave rebellions were virtually impossible to pull off in the south. those of you who have taught a
slavery course know the first question out of students' mouths halfway through that lecture is why department they revolt. this film 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, this new birth of a nation wins double high honors at kahn film festival and sees the appeal evaporate overnight. there are boycotts from within the african-american community and prominent academic circles. we can talk 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 to the present in our movie right. 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 in the collective tone and theme 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, normal will pivot from 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 pantomime lost cause tropes. by the time we get to the hay day of the counter culture, sort of the vietnam and post-vietnam era this is when it's acceptable to depict the horrors of slavery
in graphic detail, a lot has to do with loosening censorship but most of the time it has to do with black exploitation and pushing the envelope. as violence and sexual content become more prevalent in anti-slavery movies, outright resistance to the institution as a plot element is going to grow. at first this will seem like violence forsake of violence. by the time we get into the 1990s and then later films such as "the birth of a nation" we'll 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 nate turner may have had to rebel in real life. that said, the majority of hollywood studios shied away
from depicting violence against the institution of slavery itself. by that i mean they don't like to show black on white violence, minus some sort of final straw or trigger to the epic violence that takes place in movies like django. in django it's the theft of his wife. in birth of a nation it's the rape of his wife that prompt these epic quest of revenge. so hollywood even today oftentimes feels like enslavement itself is not bad enough to warrant the sort of violent push back we see in the films there had to be a personal breaking point for the main characters. at the same time we see studios grappling with how to deal with black on white violence, the
rise of the films is going to spark a debate, one that's still ongoing, how to weigh the agency of enslaved peoples versus their so-called white saviors on screen. as this slide will illustrate pretty clearly, virtually all of the anti-slavery films fit in some way of the white savior movie which means the main character needs the aid or benefaction of a white person to help them escape from slavery. they're not capable of doing it on their own. abe lincoln, django they are more or less guilty as charged. and king schultz, middle bottom of the slide, they kill lots of bad guys and then basically give their lives for the cause of
black freedom. as unpopular as it is to let matthew mcconaughey off the hook, what we see in "the free state of jones" as well as "12 years a slave" is that as overactive as the roles might be they are generally affirmed by the historical record. "amistad" is probably the most problematic of all. its legacy falls in between. on one hand the characters played by anthony hopkins and matthew mcconaughey reflect the real actions of abolitionists in a courtroom but do a poor job of contextualizing those characters in the broader debate happening in the 1930s. especially in the north and new england among everyday people who didn't think it was right to
import more slaves but were still okay with other people owning slaves as long as they didn't have to see it. from watching "amistad" you get the sense everyone is like john quincy adams and finds the institution abhorrent. perhaps the most telling observation of all that we can pull from the century worth of movie making is that of all the anti-slavery films we saw produced between 1995 and 2016, only two of them, vampire hunter and free state of jones, actually have a blot that singles out the confederacy as an attempt to preserve the institution of slavery. now, to be clear, i don't mean to say that we should hold films that depict the 1830s or '40s or 1850s even accountable for addressing something like the confederacy that does not yet exist. it would make no sense to be
lamenting secession. 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 room and catering to the wants and needs of its 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 have become increasingly willing to pay to see a slew of anti-slavery films. many of which have won major awards and 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 screen plays of that. so the idea i will leave you
with before we transition to q&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 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 the dr. quigley, i think, for q&a. >> thank you so much for a fascinaing talk. it's impressive you're able to cover so much ground without feeling rushed. i feel you gave us an overview of the century of cinema here. we have already got a good bank of questions, but i encourage people to continue sending them in.
we may not get to them all but we'll get to as many as we can. some of the questions i noticed 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 part of the agreement. but 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 cinematic time line that you've given us. >> sure. that's a fair question. if you had given me another hour, the militant film nerd in me, we could have worked in tv too. i think the participant number we would have seen it plummet but that's a valid question. the thing that i would point to most is really the way we
consume different forms of media, it -- i don't know it's fair to just say hollywood films are the most powerful content. at least in the pre-i could watch anything i ever wanted to on my phone without cable or direct tv or having to go to the theatre 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. imagine when i say to my students, imagine the revolution what pops into your head? a lot of them think of mel gibson and a tom hawk. part of the reason i tend to prioritize the studio releases, they reach more people, 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 and a half later 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 we have but didn't experience, it's going to come from the movies. i 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 going to be concerned with selling advertising. and because it's not a show that has to go on for several seasons, once the advertising is
sold, you made the money, it's nice to say 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. so i feel in some ways they're a better reflection partially of what society is thinking but with also what hollywood thinks society wants to see. that might have made -- that might have made it worse, but i will stop there. >> i think that was really good response to the question. 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 popular theatrical production so we have a couple questions. one is how do those early
theatrical representations of slavery in the post civil war period go on to affect 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" as a play in the king and i in the 1950s? >> now we're way into militant film nerd territory, i like this. in terms of this transition from really i think if we go back even a step further, sort of 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 lost to the bible. if you owned two books odds are good you owned the bible and you owned "uncle tom's cabin".
you might have hated "uncle tom's cabin" but you bought it. 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, you're the little lady that made the war, the book was powerful as abolitionist propaganda, but the theet at tri cal versions as widespread as they are, and there's different levels this could be at the local level you could have a regional traveling company, 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 -- anybody can -- almost anybody can get a book, but you have got to live near a theatre 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 much easier
for someone to see a film in the '20s than it was for them to see a high price production on the stage. there are other issues here of blackface and sort of this earlier jim crow tradition of how black characters are portrayed. and it's -- 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 exist anymore, there are sort of snippets left you can find on dark corners of the internet. people really thought with pollard's version it's one of
the best stories written, we have all the money in the world for the first time in the world we're going to have a black man play uncle tom. all the other characters are white actors in blackface. so you had this built in gimmick/first time thing and it just didn't play with audiences. 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 for a huge chunk of the country who disliked "uncle tom's cabin" and still old enough to have experienced the war, they weren't going to buy tickets to see that because they hated it. it almost had too much baggage. in the '50s they add sound and i think one version they colorize, the 1927 version, i think that was released in a limited basis on theatres, raymond massey does
the narration 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 can keep going on about this forever but i'm going to stop. i'll 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 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 may be listening in the audience. >> i want to say to whoever asked about "the king and i," i
did not mean to leave you out of the last question. email me and we can talk about that. i don't think that's an accident that slips in there. some some idealogical signaling going on there. i am torn on this because 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 "birth of a nation" had a chance to change the ray regular people thought about slavery. if you have 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 which i sayle -- involves a chisel and funnel. it's excruciating. i feel that's the kind of film we need to shock people out of the traditional idea they have of slavery. but part of me finds it unbelievable that we don't have
a really good john brown movie. and i know this sort of, again, diverts back to the white savior umbrella. but brown saves people by failing. that would be my angle on it to sort of sneak out from under the white savior umbrella. i've long thought how is woody harrelson not john brown? he has 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 "zombie land". i think it's telling in the way people don't want to touch certain parts of slavery as it then connects to the war. because how do you not make a movie about john brown? 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 federal arsenals.
don't invade federal anythings, that's not good. you get in trouble rightfully so. different context at harper's ferry. i'll stop there before i get into more trouble. >> a couple of people are asking about a movie you haven't mentioned "gods 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 "gods and generals" that continue to perpetuate traditional views of enslaved people as absent to the story or loyal to their slave owners? >> i'll preface this by saying gettysburg is a -- the civil war historian in me will watch it whenever it comes on. gods and generals is another story. i'm assuming i can say this on
cspan3. "gods and generals" is a horrible movie all the way around. and you throw in its depictions of slavery it's cringe worthy. it's really bad. there's the one scene in particular that goes out of its 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. if we win we're probably going to 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 -- 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 pictures. in civil war movies
specifically. but just the overt, you know, marsh robert was a great guy and loved his slaves and he was going to let them go. it's so bogus it's painful. it's hard to believe it ended up in a movie, frankly. i don't know 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 laughs. >> 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 god 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 i will throw my two kids, who are 4 and 2, under the bus. i have not yet been able to watch. but if woody harrelson couldn't be john brown, ethan hawke would have been in the running right. you have the gen x off beat thousand yard stare. 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 this on 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 watch 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 theatres whenever it came out, it's escaping me now, who ended up watching the shows but as art. so i wonder if there's sort of this effect written 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. that's sort of a thing that i'll just dump on everyone else and let them solve. i saw one person votes for willem dafoe. i don't know if i see him as -- i don't know if he can ever be anyone other than elias running halfway through "platoon" through the jungle being chased. but he's a great actor. >> thank you. question about audiences and
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 of these movies about slavery? >> i think they absolutely have. and i think part of this has to do with the theatre business itself. and when you saw larger corporate chains basically swallow up -- you know, everybody dreams about -- i dream about seeing movies in the old school theatre that only had one stage, it had one screen, it had a balcony, it was almost an art work unto itself but probably only seated 80 people. today you go to the cinemax or amc, one of these giant theatres and in the process of swallowing up the privately independently
owned theatres or even drive-ins, pair that with the gradual desegregation of american society. you're just giving access to watch films to more people than ever before and part of the reason i think films are so powerful, as opposed to -- i'm not telling you to watch movies instead of read books. you should especially buy 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 bing 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 you get the whole story laid out for you, you don't have to think about it. most movies tell you what to think on the way out the door and people seem to like that. in terms of african-american audiences, it's double edged.
over the most recent decade since desegregation, african-american audiences have had more access to theatres, but as america at large has had more access to theatres and america is still predominantly white, hollywood studios are going to play to their consumer base even though african-americans can go to the movies more, they might not have that much more say in what ends up on the screen, although i think that is changing. i think in the last decade or so, especially as we see a blending of media between music and film, these used to be separate businesses. but now you see common and lebron james, you see people producing films who 20 years ago this would not have happened. so i think that will start to ep 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 if it doesn't sell tickets, they're not going to make it. so it's really 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 its customers 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 we tried to explain it in the book, i see movies and culture working
on a loop. culture influences -- 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, 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 smartly puts them on film and the more we see them on film it becomes self-fulfilling because we think they put that on film because that's what we're like. americans are like john wayne because hollywood said so. hollywood said so because americans in the '60s wanted to project like they were john wayne. so we project a loop that grows and grows but there's room for divergence to throw another film reference in there.
there are always movements thinking outside the main stream box. new wave cinema, 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 than will 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 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, think about the exploitation films and how shocking that was to poor roger ebert. i don't know what he would have said if you had showed him django unchained in 1975, he probably would have thought the
same thing. but by the 20-teens that was normal. what was once totally outside the box had been sort of corporateized. so that's the other process that unfolds in tandem and makes it hard to break the standards we cling to and over time we absorb the ones we didn't like, didn't consider being main stream and we force them into the main stream. 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 '40s to bring slavery to the youth market. is there anything like that going on at the moment? is it possible given recent like
'12 years a slave" is not something you would want to show to a kid? >> i think there is but i think the logistics are slightly different. in the '20s or '30s or '40s where you had a children's pro-slavery genere, as creepy as that is to say out loud, you had responding school curriculum, especially in the south, as we know, the uds 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 main stream cartoons 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 migrant laborers. or they were like imported laborers. or that really try to 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 of "birth of a nation" may be undoing what you see in a schoolbook in texas, oklahoma, other starts where this is unfolding. >> another question along the lines of what about this movie you didn't mention, one i think you expected, which is the recent movie "harriet". several people are curious about
your take on "harriet," one way to pose the question might be isn't this the movie about slavery that we've been waiting for for 100 years? >> it is and it's not. i promise, because we're not ats the movie about 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 -- it's not my century, i won't use the chronological cut off to take away from this. at first, look yes, harriet attaches the issue of slavery of the survival of slavery to the war. we have an african american character who dominates a finite sheriff agency in that film and is willing to wield violence, but not in an over the top sort of django or the exploitation 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 impacted films comes into play. i actually wrote this down because i knew somebody was going to ask this. the film had a small budget for would ended up being a very high profile picture. it was made for a lid in more than 11 million dollars and then it grows about 43 million dollars at the theaters and i don't think that was not a covid sort of cutting off interview ship so that was basically it's front. it made money, it's it's well but it didn't make anywhere near the money that a film like2 django or even vampire country even made quite a bit more. so my questions for that or yes, it's projected the things that more serious sort of observers of flavor worry on the silver screen one of the sea, but i wonder of the reception of it, and to my final point from the lecture, will we see more films like harriet?
yw money or they didn't make an a 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 fire stick, all these different ways that you can basically avoid a leaving your 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 -- more people thought look, we finally showed this. we finally did it and then, you, know it's -- 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 crowd studios to exploring 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. i question several people have asked in different ways regards other countries and cinematic representations of slavery. and again, the scope of your top and expertise is already massive, just including the u.s. but any thoughts on how other countries in that movie industry have handled this objective slavery? >> for the most part, they are lagging well behind what you would see in the united states. >> well, i'll put parameters on that and say the cases that i'm directly aware of are well behind. the russians especially love gone with the wind. it had its own sort of industry and russia, but russia does not go through a civil rights
movement in the decade following the release of gone with the wind. so they don't necessarily get the large scale corrective. the clips of some of the south that are used to show my students before it came 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 it at its very best to make you think some of the south never existed. other countries, they don't care. you can still buy it on dvd where he gets vhs, depending on where -- surely somebody still has of sea are. so generally speaking, because they are outside the context of our chronology, our lost cause, our jim crow era, our where
civil rights movement, our sort of racial reckoning that we get in the sixties in the seventies that leads the blacks boy taken and then what we hope is sort of this new era of dealing with things. racial and i know we said that in the nineties, and 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 really having lots of little new year as we're fits kind of an elongated one that started maybe in the nineties. but it'll be interesting to see, i think the telling thing would be two other nations pick up harriet? do they pick up the films that go against but they had readily accepted as sort of being americana? for a century, because it's not just americans that like the moon right and magnolia. the soviets like brett butler. everybody like bright butler, right? that's a difficult thing to displace. >> yeah, thank you. more specific question now,
when intensity says thank you for defending the free state of jones. 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. can you discuss that further? >> absolutely. and i will full disclosure, i know -- she is among the best historians that our field has to offer and the movie is largely based on a lot of the work she did uncovering stories of the free state of drones. i think part of the problem with this sort of white savior is because is the white savior debate, and it is often being had amongst white academics, there is an aversion to ever going -- to allowing it to be a positive
thing. good night that is leave an interracial rebellion against the confederacy in jones county, mississippi. a canadian carpenter really does help solomon achieve his freedom. those are integral parts of the story. the stories will not have played out the same way without those characters but when we say, that's matthew mcconaughey being the way they really did, cleared of that is true tracker because of other stories on. 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 nuance point, you are the one that has the 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 like to hear, but in many ways, that is sort of 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 revolt and about how it just crack down on it 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 in the reconstruction era was great, i think they got a little bit cute trying to jump back and forth in time to later cover messaging nation cases in the 20th century, and i think in some ways, it was almost like the last a lot of the rings ending eight times. free state of drones 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 birth of the nation, the need parker version, and i was actually 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 imagine for the most part, for most of the century, this quid was flipped and the black movie goer who would've been watching that film, or who might have been watching creative jones would've been the 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 were at least willing to throw the stories out there. however twitter and other corners of the internet like them, you know, it's harder to say, but it's also hard to tell at this point is how they're going to be catering to that or again, others going to cater to obesity? absolutely, that was a very rambling response to free state of drones. if you haven't seen it, it is absolutely worth watching. >> thank you and i'm afraid to say, i really enjoyed our conversation, we're 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, 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 attendance and the great questions you asked and by the way, i apologize, we were not able to get to all the q%=9m1:uz received dozens of really good questions. we were able to get i think to a majority of them is why i'm glad about that, but apologies if we didn't quite get your question. but most of, all i want to thank our speaker tonight first sharing his expertise. i hope you won't mind me saying that you are right about you being movie nerd, you put on full display tonight with your incredibly 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 website. thank you very much. watch tonight beginning at 8 pm eastern. and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span 3,. >> filmmakers and former white house officials describe the work on productions depicting white house and the presidency. the discussion hosted by the whitou