Last night I went to a movie with my mom and saw the trailer for The Conspirator. It looked pretty good. (Of course, the trailers always look pretty good, which is why I ended up shelling out money to see that Clash of the Titans remake on opening night.)
When the movie screened at the AHA meeting, the topic of slavery and popular memory of the Civil War came up, according to a piece posted earlier this month at HNN:
As one AHA member observed, is it really possible to make a film about the Civil War era and not mention the word slavery? The Southern Surratt family had been slaveholders before falling into more difficult economic times, but this fact is not alluded to in the film. Instead, Aiken observes that he is as dedicated to his cause (the Union) as Surratt is to her cause. However, the cause to which Surratt has pledged herself and her family is never identified. Thus, it is possible for viewers to provide alternative answers to this question which deny the centrality of the slavery issue to the origins of the Civil War. Those who attended a secessionist ball in Charleston, South Carolina may assert that they are commemorating a commitment to states’ rights rather than celebrating an effort to preserve the institution of slavery. And The Conspirator fails to offer any cinematic challenge to such an assumption. One may view The Conspirator free from the disturbing questions of race and slavery. Perhaps this will make the film appealing to a larger audience, but it will do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War as we observe the 150th anniversary of that conflict.
That’s not to say that the film is inaccurate. In fact, the writer goes on to admit that The Conspirator “includes more accurate historical detail than most Hollywood productions.” Yet some historians are still troubled, because it doesn’t address deeper issues revolving around the causes of the war.
So can you make a Civil War movie without dealing with slavery? I’m going to suggest that you can.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’ll be the first to state that the debate over slavery was, in every meaningful sense, what made the Civil War happen. If there had been no controversy over slavery’s extension, there would have been no war. It’s as simple as that. Anyone who asserts that slavery had nothing to do with the war simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. (To employ my own movie-related metaphor, such a person is wearing hockey pads.)
Still, I don’t think it’s necessary to address the war’s larger causes in every single attempt to tell stories about the Civil War era. This isn’t a movie about the Civil War’s causes, nor even a movie about the Surratt family’s economic background. It’s a movie about the trial of Mary Surratt. We don’t expect historians who write tactical studies of Civil War battles to address slavery’s role in the war. Nor do we expect historians who write books about the very historical themes the film tackles—namely the relationship between military arrests of civilians and constitutional issues—to do so. Why should we expect filmmakers to do it?
Apparently we expect it because films are a teachable moment. The movie, we are told, will “do little to foster popular understanding of the Civil War.” But is it really the filmmakers’ job to foster popular understanding of the war’s causes and of the debate over emancipation? I don’t think so. They’ve apparently handled the matter of the Surratt trial in a satisfactory manner, and that’s all they can reasonably be expected to do.
Furthermore, it’s worth asking whether most moviegoers are so ignorant of the importance of slavery in the coming of the Civil War that they need this film to tell them. I submit that most people who don’t affirm the critical role of slavery to the war do so not out of simple ignorance, but through a conscious and willing act of denial necessitated by needs that have little to do with a desire to understand history. I doubt that, if the film did put slavery front and center, thousands of audience members would leave the theater muttering to themselves, “Slavery caused the war? Why, I had no idea.” No, most Americans who deny that the peculiar institution brought on the conflict do so despite reams of scholarship and primary material telling them otherwise, so it’s unlikely that a movie is going to change their minds.
If historians are concerned about popular understanding of the relationship between the war and slavery—as they certainly should be—then let’s engage this topic in accessible books, exhibits, and documentaries. This is a public history issue, not a Hollywood issue.