The Sentimentalizing of Slavery in Film
One of the reasons that "mainstream culture" in the U.S. seems indifferent to our nation's ruthless history of chattel slavery is that people have been miseducated for generations, especially in the age of cinema and television. For years, Hollywood either ignored or sentimentalized black chattel slavery. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of the history of cinema knows that the majority of Civil War films have either portrayed slaveholding society as essentially noble, or made the pro-slavery South appear as victims of Northern villains. In fact, most films in this genre portray the Southern slave master as heroic, and when enslaved blacks are portrayed, they are either made to appear benign or loyal to the master. Those of us who saw the "Roots" series on television when it was first aired know how dramatic it was, in part, because we had never seen a film portrayal of slavery from the black perspective. Yet "Roots" stands in stark contrast to a vast amount of propagandistic films that tell the story of slavery and the Civil War from a stylized, sentimentalized viewpoint that is either pro-Confederate or reductionist, making the Civil War into a white-on-white conflict with no political implications regarding racism and white supremacy.
"The Undefeated" is a 1969 western featuring John Wayne as Union officer Col. John Henry Thomas, and Rock Hudson as Col. James Langdon, a Confederate officer and slave holder who would rather burn down his plantation mansion than to sell his land to northern carpetbaggers. Within the first half hour of the movie, however, it is quite clear what version of the history of slavery and the Civil War is assumed by the writer and, consequently, what propaganda is being fed to the viewer.
At the beginning of the film, Wayne's character defeats some rebel soldiers only to learn after the fact that Lee had surrendered to Grant three days before. When he speaks to the leading Confederate officer (played by film great Royal Dano), he is told that the Confederates--noble southern patriots that they are--already knew about the surrender but were still intent on fighting. After all, they were fighting for their land. The story thus puts the viewer in a position to admire such nobility and courage, when in reality the Confederacy extravagantly wasted the lives of many men in satisfaction of the powerful elite slave holders and their politicians designs to expand slave territory westward.
Worse, "The Undefeated" has Langdon (Hudson) leaving with his family and other rebels as their former slaves stand loyally assembled to see them off. In a gesture of magnanimity, Langdon turns to a gray-headed old man in the group and gives him a gold pocket watch of great sentimental value. As this scene unfolds, the music is tender and moving, and thus we are assured that in the long run, the slave master was kind and thoughtful after all. How nice that, after stealing the man's labor over many years, he was kind enough to give him a gold watch!
(I apologize for the poor quality of this clip, but it was made hurriedly with no opportunity to reshoot)
Of course, the James Langdons of history, whether or not they were "kind" masters, were men whose wealth was premised upon the stolen labor of African people forcefully enslaved and suppressed by the omnipresent threat of terrorism. Slave masters were the original authors of the benign, loyal black slave mythology. It was completely inconvenient to their interests to acknowledge that enslaved black people actually despised their condition and would typically take any opportunity to run away that presented itself. Indeed, the fact that Southern militia were born out of slave patrols, further suggests that Southern slave holding society lived in constant fear of insurrections, uprisings, and other violent resistance from oppressed blacks--and these took place far more than is typically represented in standard history books. John Brown was not speculating when he entered the South; he knew that it would not be difficult to tap into a deep source of resistance in the black enslaved communities Southwide. This is why it was also essential for the myth of John Brown's failure to attract "the slaves" to be standardized as history.
One should keep this in mind, particularly in the manner in which the story of the Harper's Ferry raid has often been told, whether in television documentaries and films or by scholarly lectures and publications. The myth that enslaved blacks were indifferent to John Brown's efforts in Virginia was itself a masterpiece of southern propaganda, from both the slave masters of Jefferson County as well as the pro-slavery, pro-Union journalistic artist, David Strother Hunter (Porte Crayon), who used his position to present Brown's efforts as a quixotic adventure. Beware of any historian or documentary maker who continues to advance the notion of black indifference to Brown's efforts. Those who put forth this myth are either too accepting of the status quo "scholarly" view, or they are invested in diminishing Brown's impact and importance.
|The Frankenstein of the South:|
Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail
I've heard a few (white) people recently complain about how "history has been changed," because they are accustomed to the kind of propaganda and fluff upon which they were nurtured, especially in regard to the experience of non-whites in this nation. The reality is, much of what the nation as a whole has been taught for generations about slavery and the anti-slavery movement was biased, skewed, and misrepresentative of the realities of white supremacy in general and chattel slavery as the "peculiar institution." Perhaps things are changing. But even though there is a greater willingness to acknowledge that John Brown "was on the right side of history," we should still watch the extent to which he is treated with measured cynicism and likewise to what extent and in what manner chattel slavery and white supremacy are portrayed, especially in popular film.