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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, March 28, 2011

How the Massas Miseducated the Masses:
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
Regardless, were slavery in the U.S. presented as it really was, both in its greed, violence, and racism, as well as the condition and attitude of the enslaved who despised their oppression, our movies about the Civil War would have a decidedly different impact on our society. Perhaps it is no surprise that the screenplay for "The Undefeated" was written by James Lee Barrett, a native North Carolinian. This is not to say that the only lies about slavery have been spawned by Southerners. There are plenty of Northerners who have romanticized slavery and the Civil War sufficient to mislead the public. Still, it is no wonder that complement to the fiction of the benign slave master and the loyal slave is the portrayal of John Brown as a fanatical madman and ruthless extremist--especially with iconic, influential 1940 film, Santa Fe Trail, the screenplay of which was written by a native Virginian.

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.


Unknown said...

Louis, you are totally in my head. My best friend (a white woman who is a Sociology/African American studies major)and I were discussing this very thing 2 days ago. We were talking about the romanticizing of slavery in film, the vilification of John Brown in film and in books, the obvious ignoring of other abolitionists in history books, Robert Carter III was a "founding father", massive landowner AND he freed 500 slaves in the 1700's because he knew slavery was EVIL and the fact that he did this proves that Jefferson, Madison and the other dead white men who stole this country from the indians never truly cared about freeing slaves (even though some of them supposedly had a "moral dilemma" when it came to the slavery question) and the outright lies about the heroic south (if I see this one more time, I will gag). While discussing these matters, we came to the conclusion that this stuff just panders to 90% of white America's current views about race and their willful ignorance and myopic view of life and history. That and their unwillingness to read. There's no excuse for the ignorance of most Americans on this issue. Europeans understand this part of history FAR MORE than Americans. In my opinion, Americans should be embarrassed. It's time to shame the devil.
This was another very well written post from you. I enjoy this blog so much and I'm so glad you are keeping JB alive. He was an incredible man and along with Harriet Tubman, my historical ICON.

*sorry for any typos*

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

SSS: Thank you for the feedback and encouraging words. You did an excellent job of shaming the devil in your own right. I heartily agree with your assessment, including the part about people being unwilling to read, which is itself no small challenge in this age of "reality TV." My wife went to hear Harry Bellafonte speak at City College here in NYC a couple of weeks ago and the turnout was very disappointing. If we cannot get young people across the board interested in what happened forty-five years ago, what can we expect when it comes to 150+ years ago!

God bless the memory of Harriet Tubman.

JamesHofsiss said...

Dr. DeCaro,
With the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, I recently commented to my wife that the Civil War may be the only war in history in which the vanquished (South) was allowed to write, and rewrite, the history of it.

The South went to war to preserve slavery and the North to preserve the Union. 150 years later the conventional wisdom is that the North went to war to abolish slavery and the South to defend states rights.

Today it is almost impossible to convince anyone otherwise.