Hollywood’s Confederate Obsession
Posted by The Elm
February 4, 2011
By Mario Carter
One of the more frustrating aspects (at least to me) of American history has been our society’s tendency to sentimentalize the Confederacy in all of its false notions of grandeur and heroism. While we generally take a negative view of those who invest their energy and resources in educating 4th graders in Virginia on the exploits of the mythical “black Confederate” soldiers, we still idolize the “land of cotton,” to a certain degree.
In a nation which was founded with the specific goal of casting off its metaphorical chains of British tyranny, there are still military bases, schools, fraternities, bridges, roads and monuments that bear the names of those who fought to keep the sons and daughters of Africa in actual chains. Inside the lecture halls and classrooms of America’s premiere learning institutions, there remain appallingly dishonest educators who exploit the ignorance of their impressionable students by “teaching” them that the Civil War or as they might say, “The War of Northern Aggression,” was brought upon not by a rogue government entrenched in the vestiges of white supremacy, raising arms to ensure the survival of the economic engine that was slavery, but because the federal government imposed unfair tariffs on the South. (Because it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that a war which led to the deaths of nearly two percent of the population was caused by tariffs.) But no single entity has done more to lend mainstream credibility to the “lost cause” than Hollywood.
Setting aside the fact that the film and television industry has always been built upon a financial pillar of the minstrelization of blacks, Hollywood has been able to do something that some obscure “lost cause” academics could never do—and that is to sanitize the realities of the Confederacy.
This effort to whitewash the atrocities of Dixie by way of entertainment began in 1915 with the release of “Birth of A Nation.” It was noteworthy not just for its then revolutionary use of cinematography, but for its loving homage to white supremacy. The film depicts the Reconstruction-era South as a place where the inmates run the asylum as blacks in all of their childish savagery, aided in part by traitorous Northern whites strive for the goal of making life as abominable for every faultless innocent white Southerner. Not surprisingly, this film grossed millions of dollars, which set the chain of Confederate propaganda in full motion.
In more recent years, successors have continued the tradition of portraying the Confederacy under a veneer of heroism but have taken a lighter approach. For instance, “Gone With The Wind” proved to be similar to “Birth of A Nation” because once again the white Southerner aristocrats were portrayed to be the real victims of the Civil War and, as usual, the Union soldiers were depicted as ruthless barbarians.
However, “Gone With the Wind “differed from “Birth of A Nation” in one major aspect. The former merely portrayed blacks as ignorant but good-natured while “Birth of A Nation” showed them to be not only ignorant but irredeemably evil. This is significant for those who divine from the “Gospel of the Lost Cause” because regardless of the buffoonery exhibited by the black characters, they are still viewed in a somewhat admirable manner. This makes it more palatable and the absurd historical inaccuracies are masked with a romantic story which makes the film one of the popular-selling movies, still today.
A more contemporary example of this would be the former sitcom and movie, “Dukes Of Hazzard”, which achieved a high level of popularity due to its car, the General Lee, which has a Confederate flag painted on it. The General Lee, with its infamous stars and bars, stood as a symbol for the rebellion represented by the show’s three main characters: Bo, Luke and Daisy, who rebelled against the villainous Boss Hogg.
Again what this show was able to do was successfully repress the natural inclination to be offended by what the car represented, which if not displayed on the show would almost certainly be seen as the personal car of the Grand Dragon of the KKK himself. It did not matter that General Lee actually was a supporter of slavery. It did not matter that the Confederate flag emblazoned across the top of the car that represented a nation that frequently re-enslaved freed blacks and sold them back into slavery. It certainly did not matter that the Confederate flag had lie dormant after the Civil War but only experienced a rebirth in response to the Civil Rights Movement. What mattered was that the General Lee looked cool as it sailed across the air in a still shot. (The show also wisely provided a shield against accusations of racism by hiring black actors to play friends of the Dukes because everyone knows that you can’t be racist if you associate yourself with at least one person who meets the non-white, non-Christian standard.)
And now adding to this wonderfully esteemed collection of propaganda is AMC’s new show, “Hell On Wheels”, a drama that tells the heroic story of a former Confederate soldier who seeks to exact revenge against the Union soldiers who murdered his wife. (This is essentially an updated version of The Outlaw Josey Wales, which follows in the same vein of the valiant Confederate standing up to the nefarious Yankees.)
Unfortunately, this perpetual undertaking to cast all things Confederate in a positive light is something that will continue to be borne. What can be done is for intellectually honest people to make an effort in shattering the myths and spreading the truth on the Civil War. People should know of the bravery that Robert Smalls, a former slave demonstrated when he acting as a captain for a Confederate ship. He successfully guided the ship back to a Union naval base. They should know about Oliver Howard, (founder of Howard University,) a white general who considered the abolition of slavery to be of equal priority to the Civil War’s initial goal of reuniting the nation. It is imperative that we not allow those who peddle disinformation, whether it be on a set or in a classroom to control the narrative.
Copyright © 2011 The Elm at Washington College