It’s All Relative: History and the Movies

I have been fascinated, somewhat frustrated, and occasionally amused by the continuing chatter over various movies that are reportedly based upon historical events.

First off, don’t tell me it’s “just a movie.” People understand that movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind had a rather significant impact on the historical consciousness of Americans.

Second, people tend to criticize movies they don’t like by complaining about issues of historical accuracy … and I don’t just mean the small things. When someone likes a movie, they might concede a few errors, but they cast them aside. Want proof of this? Both Gods and Generals and Glory have their share of errors. So does Lincoln. If you didn’t like one of those movies, you tell everyone that it’s riddled with errors and tells the wrong story. But if you like the movie, you tend to shrug off the matter of errors or tell us why a movie can’t meet the standards of accuracy that we expect from scholarship. After all, you say, the movie tells us essential truths … which means you liked it and it told what you believe to be the truth.

Continue reading

Speaking of Counterfactuals …

Over at civilwarhistory2 (open archives), the always charming Helga Ross asks:

What if our favorite professor had been born a plantation slaveowner in South
Carolina or Mississippi leading up to the 1860’s…..?

It’s easy to say what one would do and value today, 150 years removed. But,
who’s to say it would be true, at the time; and not in hindsight?

Honored as I am to be this group’s “favorite professor,” the question seems problematic. Continue reading

More on Interpretative Choices

Two of the bloggers I mention in passing in my last post have weighed in: Jimmy Price will stay with his support of Hari Jones‘s response to Kate Masur’s observations, while remaining silent on Jones’s tone; nevertheless, he adds that the time frame of the movie lends itself to arguments about the choices made by moviemakers, giving Masur and Jones an opening to argue. Al Mackey agrees that the tone of Jones’s response detracts from the message, although he remains supportive of the message as well. I thank them both for their responses.

I decided to go back to Kate Masur’s original statement to see what the fuss was all about. Continue reading

Interpretive Choices Revisited

This week I participated in a symposium devoted to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln held at Florida Atlantic University. Steve Engle organized and ran the event with his usual aplomb and skill, and the speakers — Mark Neely, Vernon Burton, Matt Gallman, Richard Carwardine, and Kate Masur — were excellent.

Conferences such as this one allow one to renew old friendships (Vernon and I have known each other since 1987), chat with people about various issues, and meet new people, notably Kate Masur (we may have been introduced before, but this was the first time we had the time to sit down and talk about a number of subjects at length). Moreover, I learned a great deal from Kate’s paper, which explored the political activism of the African Americans who worked at the Lincoln White House. She told the audience the story of William Slade, who fulfilled many roles at the White House — and even more as an African American political activist in Washington.

Slade is portrayed in the movie Lincoln largely in his role in the Lincoln household. Yet, Kate argued, it was highly unlikely that the president was unaware of his political activity, or that his fellow activists rejected colonization, supported black enlistment, and pressed for black suffrage.

Kate’s paper and our discussion reminded me of a previous exchange touching on this point. Masur earlier had mentioned the absence of Frederick Douglass from the movie, noting that Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner had made certain interpretive choices open to discussion.  Taking exception, Hari Jones argued that “Masur’s interpretive choice would have added affirmative action fiction to Spielberg’s Lincoln.” I disagree. You can argue about whether Frederick Douglass would have been the right choice, but Jones is off the mark when he declares: “Professor Masur’s recommendation that Frederick Douglass be portrayed in the movie is an interpretive choice that would have made the movie less factual. The focus of the movie was on the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass did not have a role in getting the amendment passed in January 1865. His monthly had even ceased publication by then. The professor’s review was essentially an admonishment to Hollywood to do what Glory did and make history fiction in order to get the token Negro in the inner circle of the film’s main character.”

Not only is this needlessly provocative language that sounds a little too much like taunting to me, but, as I understand it, events during the movie move forward all the way to Lincoln’s assassination, including a reading of the Second Inaugural Address: the passage of the amendment is a focus, but not the only one. Jones admitted that at times he found himself nodding off a bit when he watched the movie. Perhaps he slept longer than he wanted to admit, or perhaps he quickly forgot the time span covered in the movie. No, that doesn’t seem to be the case: he reminds us when the movie doesn’t fall in line with his preferences that “The movie covers a time span from the fall of 1864 to April 1865.” In short, given that time span, one could have chosen to cover the interaction between Lincoln and Douglass if one chose to do so … which is an interpretative choice.  So let’s set aside the language of “tokenism”: after all, how would the movie have improved had it discussed the commissioning of African American officers, which, as I recall, has nothing to do with the story line of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives?

You can’t have it both ways, after all, especially when it comes to privileging one’s own interpretative choices.

But Jones can’t stop there. He also declares that “Masur’s interpretive choice would have placed Douglass in the movie because she does not know who else to put in the frame.” That’s ludicrous. I venture she would have put William Slade there, and offered viewers a fuller understanding of his activities on behalf of black freedom and equality while he worked at the White House. Perhaps it is Jones who does not know who else to put in the frame:  I don’t see Slade’s name mentioned in Jones’s essay.

I think that my fellow bloggers, including one who thought that Jones “nailed it,” may want to consider using the other end of the hammer to yank out that nail. After all, as even that blogger knows, at times Jones goes a bit too far in taking his swings. Rather, how might one have told the story Spielberg told while heeding Masur’s observations?

Academic Historians and Blogging Redux

Conversations with several colleagues in the past few weeks lead me to ask a few simple questions.

Should academic historians blog? If so, what should they blog about? How should they construct their blog’s interaction with a wider audience (allow all comments, moderate comments, exclude comments, etc.)? How should they define and address that audience? Would you prefer a blog where you would read what historians had to say (and say to each other) about various topics, or do you want to be a part of that conversation?

And that’s just for starters. Feel free to add your own questions as well as your answers.

For some of my previous thoughts, look here.


Who Would You Rather Have on Your Side?

In an ongoing effort to shamelessly steal amusing ideas from other people (in this case Keith Harris at Cosmic America), I ask you … who would you rather have on your side?

Now, Keith gave a choice obvious to many people: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.  I think it’s time to test the boundaries here.  So I give you the following choices:

1. George H. Thomas or James Longstreet

2. Frederick Douglass or Martin Delany

3. JEB Stuart or Phil Sheridan

4. William T. Sherman or Nathan Bedford Forrest

5. Clara Barton or Anna Dickinson

Have fun.


Keep Those Comments Coming!

As you might expect, I get a lot of comments. Most respond to a blog entry or someone else’s comments. Sometimes it’s not clear what the writer has in mind. And then, as you might suspect, there are lengthy missives from certain parties, filled with scorn for me (and many of you), bursting with indignation, and dripping with self-rectitude.

Now, if I simply wanted to attract more readers to the blog, I’d approve each and every one of these comments, if for no other reason tan to see the commenters in question double and triple their visits here to see what’s happening. We’d all have a good laugh at their expense, but we’d be giving these folks the attention they crave and are unable to secure in any other way. Over time, indeed, these rants have become so predictable (and some of them seem to have been lengthy labors of love) that the folks who compose them don’t seem to understand that I glance at them, see that it’s the same old same old, and consign them to the oblivion they so richly deserve. It isn’t even worth reading these rants, because this is how they sound to me:

Nor is there any reason to respond to these histrionics, because that would look something like this:

So why waste my time? It’s enough to know that they are wasting theirs.

So keep those comments coming!