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Antebellum America

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Chasing Darkness.

“How dark it would have been—imagine leaning out your door and, on the darkest nights, not being able to see more than a few feet in any direction. Historian Peter Baldwin describes as ‘downright perilous’ the streets in early American cities, with few paved and then those only with cobblestones…What lights did exist were intended only as beacons or guides rather than to illuminate the night. The New York street lanterns burning whale oil were, in 1761, merely ‘yellow specks engulfed by darkness,’ and, even more than 100 years later, its gas lamps were still ‘faint as a row of invalid glow-worms.'”

In Slate, Paul Bogart describes (and laments) the end of night all across the world. “With at least 30 percent of all vertebrates and more than 60 percent of all invertebrates worldwide nocturnal, and with many of the rest crepuscular, [the] implications are enormous.”

Smorgasbord of Vengeance.

Lots of scores to settle and cold dishes served in the trailer bin of late…

Antebellum musician Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds himself way down on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line in our first look at Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, also with Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard.

Some strange musical cues here, including the themes from Pearl Harbor and The Wolfman (the latter used to better effect in the original, still-creepy Tinker Tailor teaser). In any case, I liked Hunger and Shame less than most, but I’d be up to give this a go.

Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em: Josh Brolin discovers to his dismay that he can check in but never leave in the red-band trailer for Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, also with Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Lance Reddick, and James Ransone. I’m still trying to un-watch the original — some things involving octopi and tongues I wish I never saw in that there film.

One good remake deserves another: Deserve’s still got nothing to do with it as Ken Watanabe fills Clint Eastwood’s shoes for Sang-il Lee’s Yurusarezaru mono, the Japanese remake of Unforgiven, also with Akira Emoto, Koichi Sato, and Yuya Yagira. From The Seven Samurai to The Magnificent Seven, there’s a long and fertile history for this sort of cultural exchange, so I’d watch it.

What I likely won’t be watching is Sergei Bodrov’s fantasy epic Seventh Son, based on a series I haven’t heard of called The Wardstone Chronicles, even if it does have Jeff and Maude Lebowski operating on opposite sides of the ball. (Between this and R.I.P.D., Bridges seems to be in full “paying for an extension to my house” mode these days.)

I thought at first this might be based on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, but then I remembered they already made a lousy adaptation of that a few years ago. In any case, also along for the ride: Ben Barnes, Kit Harington, Alicia Vikander, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Scott Lee, and Antje Traue.

When bad things happen to his brother (Casey Affleck), Christian Bale goes vigilante to take down the local ne’er-do-well (Woody Harrelson) in the first trailer for Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, also with Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forrest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard. (TL;DR: Bale meets Death Wish meets Winter’s Bone.) Alrighty then.

When bad things happen to his brother (Matt Barnes), Ryan Gosling goes vigilante to take down the local ne’er-do-well (Vithaya Pansringarm) in the newest trailer for Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives.

Along with presumably another hyper-catchy soundtrack like Refn and Gosling’s Drive, this also has the added benefit of Kristin Scott Thomas apparently doing her “Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast/Ralph Fiennes in In Bruges” turn. As with Oldboy, I expect this to be hyper-violent, tho’.

And finally Wong Kar-Wai, Yuen Woo Ping, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi band together to tell the story of Ip Man (again) in the newest trailer for The Grandmaster. This still looks to me like an unnecessary remake of the third Matrix movie, but you can’t fault the pedigree involved.

Update: One more down the pike today: Benedict Cumberbatch channels Julian Assange, and has some Social Network-style angst with his partner Daniel Bruhl, in the first trailer for Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, with Anthony Mackie, David Thewlis, Alicia Vikander, Peter Capaldi, Carice van Houten, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci and Laura Linney. Linney’s smarmy “truth, justice, and the American way” line is wince-inducing, but otherwise this could be promising.

Update 2: Blanchett, meet Blanche DuBois? After Madoff-y husband Alec Baldwin becomes only the second person in America to be prosecuted for misdealings during the financial crisis, Cate Blanchett learns how the other half lives in the first trailer for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, with Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay(?), Michael Stuhlbarg, and (hopefully) the Woodster’s new best friend, Louis C.K.

Stampp of Excellence.

“‘He was really a pioneer, demolishing the magnolia and mint juleps view of slavery,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. ‘And the Reconstruction book was in the same revisionist mode, sweeping away myths. Among serious history scholars, nobody is going to go back before Stampp.’Kenneth Stampp, 1912-2009. (By way of Ted.)

His Soul’s Marching On?

“‘It’s a great, great project,’ Brolin told us. ‘The script was already out there; I read the script, I loved it. It would be a very tough character for me to play. We’re going to do some tests once I’m done with this, but it’s a great script and story. Somebody who I know, because of Howard Zinn’s thing, and I know the character really well.’” After Jonah Hex and the next Woody Allen film, will Josh Brolin be frontlining a new John Brown biopic? That’s the word I’m hearing from my abolition-minded colleagues at Coming Soon.Net. Let’s just say the authorities at Harpers Ferry had best be wary.

Wright? What about this Douglass fellow?!

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Breaking news! As an eagle-eyed commenter at TPM discovered, it appears one Frederick Douglass, an orator of some repute in the African-American community, and one whom Senator Clinton has called “one of my heroes” and “a great American,” actually despises our great nation, and has given public remarks filled with hate-mongering toward patriotic Americans.

I for one was planning to vote for Senator Clinton, but now I am very concerned. She should reject and denounce this fellow Douglass immediately, although it may be too late. After reading this, I totally feel Clinton is not proud of America and I fear where she would lead this country.

Update: All kidding aside, Sen. Obama gave some eloquent remarks on the politics of division in Indiana today, citing RFK’s elegy for MLK in Indianapolis. “I just want to say to everybody here that as somebody who was born into a diverse family, as somebody who has little pieces of America all in me, I will not allow us to lose this moment, where we cannot forget about our past and not ignore the very real forces of racial inequality and gender inequality and the other things that divide us. We have to come together. That’s what this campaign is about. That’s why you are here. That’s why we’re going to win this election. That’s how we’re going to change the country.

“Empty Suit”…with a Stovepipe Hat.

The whole thing, really, is a fairy tale.

I mean, give me a break: The guy gives a good speech. Yes. Give him that. But are we electing a toastmaster or a president of the United States? Let’s look at his record to see what qualifies him for the highest office in the land:

Eight years in the Illinois legislature? He was a party loyalist and a temporizer who too often put politics ahead of principle and was cautious rather than bold when it came to controversial issues.

Two years in Washington? Yes, he pontificated about how he opposed the war, but at crunch time he voted to fund it. And his legislative record on Capitol Hill is thin.

Other accomplishments? The enthusiasm for his candidacy was sparked by one big successful speech and is carried along by his gift for uplifting rhetoric.

Consider, in contrast, the senator from New York who is his top rival for the nomination: A history in public life going back 30 years. Solid reform credentials. Clearly far more ready for the Oval Office than the younger, audacious Mr. Slim Silver-tongue from Illinois.

Take that, Lincolnbots. The Chicago Tribune‘s Eric Zorn makes the “experience” case for William H. Seward of New York.

Obama’s no Abe Lincoln. But, as I observed last February…Abe Lincoln was no Abe Lincoln at this stage of the game either. I point this out simply as a reminder that Lincoln and history went on to make fools of those whose obsession with his shortcomings and failures blinded them to the singular promise of his gifts. Not often, but fairy tales do come true.

The Atlantic Sesquicentennial.

“In The Atlantic’s very first issue, in 1857, the magazine’s founders — an illustrious group that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell — declared that they would dedicate their new publication to monitoring the development, and advancing the cause, of what they called ‘the American idea.’ And for the last century and a half, the magazine has been preoccupied with the fundamental subjects of the American experience: war and peace, science and religion, the conundrum of race, the role of women, the plight of the cities, the struggle to preserve the environment, the strengths and failings of our politics, and especially, America’s proper place in the world.” To commemorate the magazine’s 150th anniversary, The Atlantic Monthly publishes The American Idea, an anthology of articles which includes republished writings by TR, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, John Muir, Helen Keller, and Vannevar Bush. (Alas, only ten of the included articles are online.)

Crisis of the New Order.

“Observers describe Bush as ‘messianic’ in his conviction that he is fulfilling the divine purpose. But, as Lincoln observed in his second inaugural address, ‘The Almighty has His own purposes.’ Invoking also Lincoln’s remarks on the Mexican War, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. laments the rise of preemption, senses dark forebodings in Dubya’s saber-rattling with Iran, and concludes that “there is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war.


“If you are going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.” This savvy George Bernard Shaw quote introduces Kevin Willmott’s razor-sharp documentary-satire C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which opened at the IFC Center tonight (followed by a Q&A), and, by that measure, Willmott’s film is a rousing success. At times both blisteringly funny and quietly devastating, C.S.A is a take-no-prisoners alternate history of our Confederacy — Yep, the South won — done in the style of Ken Burns’ The Civil War (or Andy Bobrow’s Old Negro Space Program), right down to bizarro versions of Shelby Foote and Barbara Fields. Punctuated throughout by offbeat television commercials that are eerily similar to today’s TV, C.S.A. is one of the best (and most ruthless and unflinching) satires I’ve seen in some time. And it illuminates a central fact often obscured in so many Brother-against-Brother tributes to America’s bloodiest conflict (as well as drek like Gods and Generals): The Civil War was begun and fought over slavery. In the words of C.S.A. Vice-President Alexander Stephens — in his inaugural address, no less — the Confederacy was founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery –subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.

To kick off its conceit, C.S.A requires that you make two leaps of logic from the history of the Civil War: First, that, after the Emancipation Proclamation is issued, C.S.A. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin managed to convince England and France to join the war on the side of the Confederacy. (This was less likely, I think, than the film makes it out to be. Popular support in England — who had abolished slavery in 1833 — was pretty clearly on the side of the Union, particularly after Lincoln’s Proclamation, and “King Cotton diplomacy” just wasn’t going to work when England and France could import cotton instead from India, Egypt, and other waystations in their respective empires. And, even if the European powers had recognized the CSA, which they might’ve done had the South won more battles, they weren’t about to send troops across the Atlantic to fight on the side of slavery without severe popular repercussions.) Second, and more unlikely, is that, after capturing Washington DC, the South managed to subdue and annex the entire North, leveling Boston and Philadelphia (a la Sherman’s March) in the process. Even despite the Union’s hold on the Mississippi in the Western theater, the South might well have won the war, if Northern public opinion had collapsed in 1863 and 1864 (As it was, timely Union victories — and particularly the fall of Atlanta — buoyed Lincoln’s reelection.) But, had that happened, IMHO, there would likely be two nations uneasily living side by side for decades to come, as you find in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain series.

Ok, all that history geekery notwithstanding (which is somewhat unfair to the movie — it’s an alternate history satire, after all, which also explains the more recognizable battle flag replacing the official Stars and Bars on the moon and elsewhere), once you make the conceptual leap that the Confederacy managed to win the war and annex the Union, the rest of C.S.A is remarkably well-thought-out, and at times even scarily plausible. Like Jeff Davis, Lincoln is captured trying to escape in costume (on the Underground Railroad) and sent to Fort Monroe — Here, it’s dramatized in the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, The Hunt for Dishonest Abe. While the South contemplates various “Reconstruction” plans to reintroduce slavery to the North (and Nathan Bedford Forrest reenacts Fort Pillow over and over again), William Lloyd Garrison leads an abolitionist/transcendentalist contingent to Canada. Rather than the Chinese Exclusion Act, the C.S.A. passes a “Yellow Peril Mandate” providing for the enslaving of Chinese laborers. And, as in our world, the nation comes together again to fight a (here much broader) Spanish-American War.

As we get to the 20th century, C.S.A. continues to adroitly riff on American history. Audiences swarm to the Civil War musical, A Northern Wind. (“You tried to take my blacks, But I still want you back.“) In WWII, the C.S.A. plays nice with Germany while despising Japan. (Thanks to the service of Judah Benjamin, Jews can still live in the Confederacy, provided they stay on their “reservation” in Long Island.) Eventually, an armed, highly defended border — the “Cotton Curtain” — descends between Canada and the C.S.A., and ’50’s Confederates scour the nation for the “Abs” (abolitionists) in their midst. Later still, slave riots break out in Newark, Watts, and elsewhere in the turbulent ’60s, as many white Confederates reconsider slavery (due to global sanctions, give or take South Africa) and women begin to demand the vote.

Equally as nimble as the mirror-image counterhistory of the CSA are the many commercial breaks throughout the fake documentary, with ads that are both jaw-droppingly brazen and laugh-out-loud funny. (You can get a sense of this from the trailer — Think Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, itself an excellent satire, to the nth degree.) They range from fake ads for unfortunately real products (Darky Toothpaste, Coon Chicken Inn) to all-too-possible modern innovations — The Slave Shopping Network, a LoJack “Shackle”, a Claritin-ish drug to treat drapetomania (the runaway disease “discovered” by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851), a COPS-style show called RUNAWAYS, etc. etc. As you can see, this is withering stuff, and some might find it in horrible taste. But, there’s method to CSA’s madness. As I noted before, we tend to do a pitiful job of facing up to slavery, America’s Original Sin, and for ninety hilarious, cringeworthy minutes, CSA forces us to look the peculiar institution square in the eye. If we’re serious about our proclaimed role as a Beacon of Freedom to the world, that’s something we need to start doing a lot more often. (But, don’t worry — C.S.A. sweetens this tonic with quite a few laughs.) At any rate, if it’s anywhere near you, definitely go check it out.

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