Continuing his recent renaissance as a cultural critic, Kareem explains why the otherwise entertaining Django shouldn’t be an Oscar contender. I agree with the take-films-seriously sentiment, but, at least as far as Oscar goes, that ship sailed decades ago (and he’s too charitable to the excellent-but-also-flawed Lincoln.)
Also making the round today, Christoph Waltz and the SNL gang’s Djesus Uncrossed. A funny idea almost redeemed by Waltz, but as with so much SNL fare the execution is less clever than it should be.
“‘It was probably the most shocking thing of my life…I couldn’t describe to you the emotions I have had…everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory.” Genealogists discover a hitherto unknown historical (and perhaps genetic) link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond: namely, in the dark days of slavery, Thurmond’s people owned Sharpton’s. “‘In the story of the Thurmonds and the Sharptons is the story of the shame and the glory of America,’ Sharpton said Sunday.“
“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.
In related news, a site is chosen for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (at 14th and Constitution NW, near the Washington Monument.) As I argued before, some museum along such lines on our nation’s Mall is long overdue.
“Foner‘s field of special expertise is what might be called without exaggeration the crucible of American freedom: the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves and the ambiguous, myth-shrouded period that followed known as Reconstruction. He never puts it this directly, either in this new, somewhat compressed popular history or in his 1988 magnum opus, ‘Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877,’ but he sees Reconstruction, with all its contradictions and unrealized possibilities, as the key to all of American history.” Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir takes a gander at Eric Foner’s latest book, Forever Free.
“‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said to me. ‘I’m sorry for what she’s done.” As pointed out in lecture this afternoon, today’s NY Times includes an editorial on the corporate divulging of ties to Antebellum slavery, spurred by this recent letter of apology at JP Morgan-Chase: “We all know slavery existed in our country, but it is quite different to see how our history and the institution of slavery were intertwined. Slavery was tragically ingrained in American society, but that is no excuse. We apologize to the American public, and particularly to African-Americans, for the role that Citizens Bank and Canal Bank played during that period.” Interesting…research projects into corporate complicity such as this one will hopefully add further impetus for the creation of a National Slavery Museum in the relatively near future — As a whole, we Americans should do a better job in recognizing and remembering our national Original Sin, and I think such a museum would be a great step in that direction. (In fact, the museum really should be on the Mall, not in Fredericksburg, VA.)
New York prepares for a mass re-burial of over 400 Colonial-era slaves in the spot where they were found 12 years ago. Perhaps this ceremony will help to encourage more formal and historic recognition of the city’s relationship to slavery. (As the article notes, Gotham once held more slaves than any other city but Charleston.) And as New York, so too the nation — While the Holocaust Museum serves as an important and necessary reminder of how nations ostensibly grounded in Enlightenment ideals can go terribly, terribly wrong, it’s a bit glaring that we have such a fine museum in Washington dedicated to Germany’s most grievous sin, without any comparable historic institution focusing on our own. A National Museum of Slavery is well past due, and, Civil War importance aside, it should really be on the National Mall, not in Fredericksburg.
Historical Context, Part I: Or lack thereof. Gods and Generals has a lot of faults but this has to be the most grievous. I can’t believe it’s the twenty-first century and they’re still making major studio movies about the Civil War like this. You have to get three hours or so into this film (and trust me – a lot of the people in the theater never made it) before you hear anything suggesting that slavery might have something to do with this irreconcilable conflict. Until then, it’s basically all told from the Confederate point of view, with several variations of “No, sirrah, we will not let these vahl, dastahdly Yankees take from us our country” offered up every ten minutes.
Now a film from Johnny Reb’s POV might not necessarily have been the atrocity this film turned out to be if some outside context was added to offset the Confederate perspective. But you don’t get it here. Not only is Stonewall Jackson (the main character) portrayed as a godfearing man who tells his trusty, faithful black cook (more on this soon) that he hopes slavery will end someday, but you have various other Southerners proclaiming that slavery will soon die a natural death, as if the country had split in two only because a bullying North wanted to hasten the end of a dying institution. Obviously, this is not so. Eleven states did not secede from the Union because they thought slavery should die of its own accord. They seceded because slavery was thriving in the Cotton Kingdom as both an economic system and a means of racial control. As Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, noted in March of 1861 (before the war broke out), “Our new government [the C.S.A.] is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Which brings us to race in Gods and Generals. Simply put, this film is shocking in its unnuanced depiction of African-Americans in the South – it’s amazing to me that this film ever got made in its present form. For one, the South seems almost universally white in almost all of the long-angle crowd shots (To be fair, this is Virginia, not South Carolina, and the ratio of blacks to whites would be considerably less than in the Lower South. But not this low.) Then you have the two African-American speaking parts – one a cook, the other a maid, both presumably slaves although I don’t remember it being mentioned. Both characters stick by their Southern masters through-and-through, congratulating them for their military successes and, in the latter case, defending her masters’ house from the rampaging Yankee hordes. You never get the sense that these or any other “loyal servants” might be hoping that the North wins the war, or that it was slave defection en masse that helped to bring an end to the Confederate war effort. As one reviewer noted, the portrayal of black Americans in this film makes Gone with the Wind seem like Do the Right Thing. To sum up, this version of events is SHAMEFUL.
Historical Context, Part II: Even putting these issues of ideological and racial context aside (and let me be clear – I for one don’t think you really can), Gods and Generals is a failure even on its own historical terms. What with the attention devoted in this film to three major battles – First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, it’s clear the movie is attempting to be a military-history-specific entrant in the standard, Ken Burns interpretation of the Civil War: Brother against Brother, Honor and Loyalty on both sides, blah blah blah. As a big fan of Bruce Catton’s military histories, this might have been enough for me if done well. But, for all the attention paid to brigade movements at certain engagements, or the smashing of Hooker’s flank at Chancellorsville, the macro-military history in this film is completely off. The movie jumps from the Union rout at the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) to Ambrose Burnside’s grievous screw-up at Fredericksburg. Which means that, even leaving aside the Western theater, the entire Peninsula campaign, the Battle of Seven Days, and most notably Antietam are NOT EVEN MENTIONED. It’s as if General George McClellan had never led the Union Army. I understand that you can only fit in so much in a four hour film (more on this soon), but at least make mention of the fact that a year and much war has taken place between two of the major setpieces. Why even bother with all the often seemingly-random descriptive subtitles of various brigades (more on these soon too) if you’re not going to bother mentioning the big picture? Even with regard to military history, this film takes place in a vacuum. In one of the few scenes on the Union side, the brothers Chamberlain mull over Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Fair enough, but never once does anybody say something along the lines of, “My goodness, we are kicking serious ass in the Western theater.” One would get the sense that Lee vs. the Army of the Potomac is the only game going, when it is in fact only the major piece in a much larger military story.
Gods and Generals as a Film: Even and despite all these glaring historical inaccuracies, the film still could have succeeded as a film. Take Gangs of New York, for example, which has all kinds of historical problems but still ended up being a reasonably entertaining film. But this film is just tedious and boring. I don’t really have any problems with the length in the abstract. A movie that will do justice to the first two years of the Civil War would need to be something like four hours long. It’s the choices made. On one hand, Abraham Lincoln is not in this picture(!) On the other, we get ten minutes of Confederate soldiers singing Christmas carols, twenty minutes of Stonewall Jackson conducting a near-inappropriate relationship with a five-year-old girl, TWENTY-FIVE minutes of Stonewall Jackson on his death bed (I can’t have been the only person thinking it might be nigh time to bring out a pillow and facilitate Stonewall’s passage to the Lord.) Even the battlefield scenes, which you could argue is the one thing that this film is decently good at, are too long. At Fredericksburg, the Union and Confederate Irish brigades go at it tearfully for so long that even I – an Irish-American interested in the Civil War – thought it was ponderous and overwrought. Deadly dull stuff here.
And then there’s the acting. First off, Robert Duvall as General Lee, while barely in the film, is quite good. Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson, given what he had to work with, is also decent. Jeff Daniels, C. Thomas Howell, and Matt Letscher – as Joshua Chamberlain, Tom Chamberlain, and Adelbert Ames respectively – all give convincing performances as fighting Maine men. Mira Sorvino was beautiful and erudite in her one ten minute appearance as Mrs. Chamberlain, even if she was inexplicably using a British accent straight out of a Merchant-Ivory film. And that’s about it. Otherwise, there are some seriously bad performances in this film, the worst possibly being Jeremy London of Mallrats as one of Stonewall’s staff. Some scenes, like the Virginia House of Burgesses moment at the start of the film, come off like third-rate Williamsburg. At other times, I felt like I was watching “The History of the Merton-Flemmer Building” in Being John Malkovich. Flat-out egregious, although to be fair this film relies on so many ridiculous stock-character tropes that some of the bad performances couldn’t be helped. I’ve already mentioned Stonewall’s loyal cook and the sickly five-year-old girl. Mention should also be made of the grizzled Irish veteran, who strangely decides to pal around with the officers all the time. Bad writing, bad acting, the whole nine – this film fails on every level, up to and including…
The Special Effects: Ok, I know one doesn’t go to a Civil War film for the FX. That being said, this film has absolutely, positively the worst special effects I’ve ever seen in a film costing more than $2 million. I don’t know who they paid to make them and for how much, but I could have done it for half and delivered a better product using Adobe Photoshop. Even at the very beginning of the film, before I realized what a stinker I was in for, I was wondering, “Hmm, that’s funny. Why do Washington and Harper’s Ferry look like Naboo?” Every establishing matte shot in the movie looks like it was colored in by a over-caffeinated eight-year-old. One scene early on has a computerized rippling flag which may be the single worst special effect in CGI history. And then there’s the far-angle battlefield scenes, which are honestly so bad I can’t believe they used them so much. Not only did the Union lines always look drawn in, but I swear the same three wounded soldiers keep straggling back. In every shot. Just laughable. Finally, the movie relies quite often on subtitles to explain who and what we’re looking at (and at least three times they described individuals or brigades that had no bearing on the rest of the story – probably a mistake on the editing floor, I guess.) Whomever made these ubiquitous subtitles, I don’t think they realized that their computer has more than one font. What they ended up using was this ugly typewriter font that looked not only awfully cheap and tagged-on but anachronistic. I’m telling you, pay me half of whatever you paid for this garbage and I could have given you some nice subtitles in Bookman Old Style or something. As it is, the fx and subtitles only further detract from a terrible film.
Wasn’t there anything good? Well, not really, no. I did appreciate WETA and MASSIVE’s fx work and PJ’s battlefield directing on LOTR: The Two Towers so much more after seeing Gods and Generals. And I guess there might be a few scenes throughout where you get the sense that this could just maybe have been a better movie. Jeff Daniels’ “Hail Caesar” pre-fight speech was well-delivered, and the standard behind-the-lines North-South goods exchange, when a Union soldier offers to trade General Burnside for a lame horse, was probably the only moment when I was laughing with the movie and not at it. But that’s about it.No, this movie is terrible. I gave it 1 star for some of the (non-fx) battlefield work, and half a star so nobody would misread (1/10) as (10/10). To sum up, Gods and Generals is awful. You have been warned.