I’ve been thinking about the gulf between the public’s response to Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarrantino’s Django Unchained and the overall commentary coming from professional historians and other public intellectuals. I’ve commented on this before, but this morning I was pleased to read Christian McWhirter’s review of both movies in The Civil War Monitor. Actually, it’s not really a review as much as it is a commentary on the value of the movies, which he believes has been overlooked by the academic community. I couldn’t agree more. Here are a few passages from McWhirter’s review that stood out for me.
Dismissing Lincoln is to effectively dismiss its vast audience, much of which is surely hungry for precisely the sort of information and interpretation we can provide.
I saw both films in packed theaters and the response to each was overwhelmingly loud and positive. This sort of reaction demonstrates that audience members were emotionally, and I suspect also intellectually, engaged. We cannot dismiss these movies because they do not adhere to the same rigorous standards we apply to historical monographs and documentaries. Instead of fearing the massive reach of bad films, we need to appreciate the potential for good films to help us educate the public and overturn resilient historical myths. Lincoln and Django Unchained will do more to change popular perceptions of American history than they will misinform or confuse. So, relax, enjoy, and ride this train as far as it will take us.
It’s safe to say that these movies will do more to influence popular perceptions of the Civil War and slavery than all the books published in the past twenty years combined. Unlike others, I fully embrace this fact. Much of the commentary about these films does little more than highlight individual historians’ current research projects and tells us very little about the films themselves. It’s not that I have a problem with pointing out shortcomings in historical content, but that they fail to acknowledge why these films are so popular with so many people from a broad range of backgrounds. Christian hits the nail on the head when he references the emotional and intellectual engagement of their audiences. We haven’t seriously explored this as of yet.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I am going to use these movies in the classroom – assuming that I can use Django at all. Beyond the classroom I do hope that public historians are also thinking about how they can take advantage of this wave of enthusiasm. It’s a unique opportunity that could not have come at a better time. We are smack in the middle of the sesquicentennial having just commemorated the 150th anniversary of emancipation. The issues and subject matter raised by these two films are incredibly controversial and fraught will all kinds of landmines. Just getting people to think about them is a challenge and, yet, that is exactly what millions of Americans are doing. What more could we ask for?
All of us in the historical community should give Spielberg and Tarrantino a big Thank You.
I think I finally understand what flag advocates are getting at when they refer to discrimination against and hatred directed at the display of the Confederate flag. Let’s see the officials at the VMFA stand up to this guy. Note, this video contains profanity.
“In this stunning and well-researched book, Kevin Levin catches the new waves of the study of memory, black soldiers, and the darker underside of the Civil War as well as anyone has. That horrible day at the Crater in Petersburg, its brutal racial facts and legacies, all tangled in the weeds of Confederate Lost Cause lore, have never been exposed like this. Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.”
– David W. Blight, author ofRace and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory
Thank you for using the White House’s online petitions platform to participate in your government.
That sentence alone defuses any credibility that these silly petitions might enjoy. There is just a little irony in Americans utilizing their Constitutional rights through a website that encourages participatory democracy and that is maintained by taxpayer dollars.
But just in case you slept through your American history and civics classes Carson follows up with a reminder that the sacrifice paid by Americans during the Civil War and beyond guarantees your right to petition your government.
Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States “in order to form a more perfect union” through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot — a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” In the years that followed, more than 600,000 Americans died in a long and bloody civil war that vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court confirmed that “[t]he Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.”
It was just a matter of time. After months of protesting outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts over the removal of Confederate flags from the grounds of the “Old Soldier’s Home”/Pelham Chapel the Virginia Flaggers have little to show for their efforts. All attempts to branch out and get involved in other causes – most notably with the opening of the MOC in Appomattox [and here] – have failed to generate support.
A few months ago I was contacted by someone at the VMFA to talk about how they might handle this protest. I didn’t have much to offer beyond suggesting that they wait it out, but I did jokingly suggest that they put together an exhibit on the Confederate flag that utilized the Flaggers as a modernist interpretation/performance. I believe this more than ever after watching the above video. You gotta love those jeans, jacket and sunglasses.
The Flaggers and associated groups will likely milk this for all it’s worth, but it is nothing more than a sign of the organization’s lack of direction and inability to garner support around the substantive issues.