Recent events in Mississippi and Virginia have gotten me so upset that I decided to do a retrospective of movies in the spirit of Nina Simone’s Civil Rights ballad, which cast much needed light on Confederate Heritage Month that is now being honored in some Southern States.
It seems the Civil War continues, despite it now being 150 years on. David Blight writes about the sesquicentennial, noting how we have yet to learn our lessons from the war. David Hudson also had a nice write-up of the Civil War @ 150 in Mubi, noting Redford’s recent film, The Conspirator, and Spielberg’s interpretation of Team of Rivals.
It would seem that certain governors are picking up the Lost Cause, as epitomized in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. This was a touchstone film in many ways. Woodrow Wilson officially screened it in the White House, seeming to condone the “redemption” that had taken place throughout the South, ushering in a new era of Jim Crow laws that would deepen the racial divide in the former Confederate states.
Over the years there have been many films made in response to the revisionist history that took place after the Civil War, in which attempts at Reconstruction were repudiated and ultimately defeated by Southern states and a no longer sympathetic Congress and White House.
Unfortunately, the war films tend to dwell too much on the nobility of the soldiers, as such films are prone to do, but at least Glory had its heart in the right place by focusing on the 54th Regiment, the first all-black volunteer company led by an idealistic young Massachusetts Colonel. Andersonville dealt with the horrors of prison camps during the war, which for the most part has been an avoided subject. Ang Lee not so long ago did Ride with the Devil, which focused on the Missouri-Kansas border wars, which precipitated the Civil War. My personal favorite remains the short French film adapted from Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which was featured on a 1964 episode of the Twilight Zone.
There have been many more films that have dealt with life during the Jim Crow era. Of course, the quintessential movie from that era is To Kill a Mockingbird. But, William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust predates this story. Nothing But a Man had a big impact on me when I first saw it many years ago. I thought the short-lived television series, I’ll Fly Away, did an excellent job of capturing the complexities and contradictions of that era. But, my personal favorite remains The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a remarkable story that spans several generations.
Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story, which was adapted from a Charles Fuller play, are both excellent studies of racial tensions in the South. Then there was Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning which explored the brutal killings of two white and one black civil rights volunteers in the Deep South.
Spike Lee did a heartfelt testimonial, 4 Little Girls, to the young girls killed when a bomb exploded in 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama in 1963. Lee later took a more engaging look at what that era meant in Get on the Bus, as he follows several black men to the 1996 Million Man March. He followed this up with When the Levees Broke, which illustrated that for many blacks in New Orleans civil rights is still a dream.
Other films that come to mind are Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust which is a remarkable evocation of the Gullah traditions on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina. Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala offers a fascinating look at Indians attempting to assimilate in rural Mississippi. Ed Harris starred in Alamo Bay about a Vietnam vet returning to coast Texas only to find Vietnamese have invaded his bay. Ross McEwee takes a more amusing, but very insightful tour of the South in Sherman’s March, which led to subsequent personal documentaries. And, Sounder, which brings the Civil Rights Era into focus for children as well as adults.Read less