Talk of secession is all the rage in America these days. Since President Obama was reelected, just shy of a million Americans have added their names to petitions asking that their state be allowed to exit The Union. In a grand and delicious coincidence, we also happen to be commemorating the 150th anniversary of our most horrific struggle, The Civil War. It’s perfect timing for our story-teller-in-chief, Steven Spielberg, to come out with his take on our Great Emancipator, which I wanted to see but never got around to, and if I could ever bring myself to do a column that was for once either timely or relevant, you’d be reading about that right now.
Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about the image of America, the face it creates in our minds to personify the nation. Because I think the real reason a little less than half of Americans are coming unglued at the prospect of a black, liberal president is that America’s national image is undeniably in the process of changing. In short, Americans are having an identity crisis, because the image many of us hold of ourselves is well past its sell date.
It’s Hollywood’s fault, as usual. Since the beginning, they sold us a ludicrous myth about what “Real Americans” are supposed to look like and talk like and believe. So instead of struggling to define ourselves as a strange and modern people, we’ve settled for believing in our own stupid stereotypes.
Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg in Dukes of Hazard (1979)
What is the stereotypical “Real American?” Picture such a creature in your mind and see how it compares to the one in mine: White. Well-fed. Armed. Christian. I’m seeing Boss Hogg of The Dukes of Hazard in Bermuda shorts, Foghorn Leghorn in a business suit, Britney Spears in a monster truck. Are we close? If so, how terrible is that? The US has the most diverse population the world has ever known, and yet our popular image is molded on outdated caricatures that, in reality, represent a fraction of our national composition.
The fact that so many of us have internalized this southern fried image of ourselves bothers me. It bothers me because it’s false, because it other-izes too many of us, and because it signifies the ascendency of an ideal that comes from the most un-American of places: The Confederacy. Our national image, for too many of us, is modeled on long gone white Southern plantation owners, with all the baggage that implies.
You’d think that since the North won the physical war back in 1865, it would have won the cultural one, too. But it hasn’t turned out that way. The Southerner-as-Archetypal American motif bloomed in the ashes of the Civil War, partly because the North integrated sooner, partly because of the opening of the West, but mostly because of Reconstruction. When Lincoln was assassinated, it touched off a generations-long recrimination against the South that vindicated Southern resentment and stoked Northern guilt. As the North grew in population and industrial power, it essentially forgot the war, while Southerners never did. (Still haven’t, last I checked.)
Ever see that Mel Gibson movie The Patriot (2000)? Yeah, I know—different war, just bear with me. It got all kinds of flak over its ultraviolent war scenes, its bizarre notion of patriotism, and its shamefully revisionist take on slavery.
But as I watched an old VHS copy of it recently, I noticed a more overarching problem in its nonchalant elevation of the Southern ideal. To my eyes, The Patriot looks eerily like another Hollywood epic, one that did more to rehabilitate the South’s image than any anything—D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation was the first blockbuster, virtually inventing the cinematic language that Hollywood still speaks. A stunning and visionary creation, it electrified audiences upon release in 1915, grossing an unheard of $5 million and proving to a skeptical world that the new medium of film was capable of igniting passions like no other art form ever could.
The problem was (and is) that Griffith’s take on the Civil War and Reconstruction constitutes one of the most vile and offensive visions of America ever recorded. It depicts the Southern cause as a noble struggle against tyranny, and features blackfaced actors menacing white women and drunkenly plotting the ruin of the oppressed white landowners. In the end, the Ku Klux Klan rides in to save the day, and a new nation is born, though it isn’t a physical country so much as a state of mind. It’s a mental fiefdom built on medieval principles of chivalry and honor, powered by slave labor and wrapped in an Old Testament, authoritarian religion that values power and glory over compassion and goodwill.
The effect of Birth of a Nation on the American psyche is impossible to overstate. It sparked riots and was banned in several cities, but it also captured the popular imagination, actually bringing the Klan out of hibernation and rejuvenating the Confederate image. Griffith’s undeniable technical skill served to validate the film’s message, each scene a flickering lie, a love note to a history perverted. Although Griffith professed bewilderment over the trouble his masterpiece caused, he stood by its basic premise, that the Confederacy was composed of noble patriots, not the greedy, racist traitors they actually were.
Griffith’s premise has, of course been constantly and for the most part, effectively challenged in popular culture. Yet it persists in subtle and powerful ways. Our national delusion that Southerners are the most Americanest of us all has been stoked by Hollywood for 100 years, in a straight line drawn from Griffith to Gibson.
In The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich, Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a wealthy farmer and former Indian fighter who avenges his sons’ murder at the hands of the Redcoats by staging a bloody guerilla campaign. Aside from the revenge angle, The Patriot is in many ways a remake of a later D.W. Griffith epic, America, which borrowed much of its story from The Birth of a Nation. The telling difference is that instead of setting the action in Yankee New England as Griffith did, The Patriot is set in South Carolina. And instead of being a mere farmer, Gibson’s character is a plantation owner who, against all historical logic, owns no slaves.
What makes this so jaw-droppingly improbable is the fact that South Carolina was the most pro-slavery state in America. It was the first to join the Confederacy, and it was where the first shot of the Civil War was fired. While the white landowners of South Carolina were fighting for their independence from the British, their black slaves were desperately trying to defect behind British lines where they could gain their freedom.
But whether nefariously or as a ham-handed plot device, The Patriot twists the situation into one where Martin’s black workers (who describe themselves as “free men,” yet are clearly subservient to him) have to run and hide from the British because they don’t want to be taken off the plantation (!). Got that, kids? The Revolutionary War happened because those evil abolitionist Brits tried to pry good plantation jobs out of the hands of free Southern blacks.
Even Mel Gibson, who defended everything else about The Patriot, called its whitewash of slavery “a copout”. But what’s perhaps even worse is that the rest of the movie contains bits and snatches of fairly accurate history, and these work to cloak the film’s twisted assertion in a veneer of credibility.
This is exactly where D.W. Griffith went wrong, by using his technical mastery to project a beautiful and stirring image that was rotten at its core. In his cruelly revisionist The Birth of a Nation, the KKK rides in to rescue the South, reestablishing white rule and chasing every last carpetbagger back north of the Mason-Dixon.
The end of the movie presents Griffith’s vision of just what kind of nation has been born: We see a cotillion amidst the Spanish Moss of a beautiful old estate. White people waltz in the courtyard, admiring each other over pitchers of lemonade brought by smiling black mammies, while other slaves happily tend to their end-of day chores. The Patriot has a remarkably similar scene, set in a swamp colony where Martin’s former (ahem) employees have established themselves after escaping British freedom. There’s still white people waltzing and black people filling pitchers of lemonade for them, but these are free men. See the difference?
Yeah, me neither. It’s the same whitewashed history that leads to the same idealization of that same Southern landowner who’s come to personify us as a nation. In a way, the image of the South that Emmerich puts forth in The Patriot is even more insidious than Griffith’s, because if one believed it were accurate, one would wonder why in the world we fought the Civil War at all. By opening up this cinematic/historical alternate universe, The Patriot wipes away every bit of ugliness that we brought onto ourselves by dealing in slaves in the first place. It portrays the American Revolution as a time when blacks and whites fought together against tyranny, and leaves viewers with a gauzy impression that blacks were free once it was over.
If one can swallow that for a moment, the whole modern secessionist worldview comes into focus. They either don’t know or don’t want to believe the truth about who we are as a nation, where we’ve come from, and where we have to go in order to fulfill our revolutionary promise. They don’t want to acknowledge the injustices of the past or honor the work so many have done to correct it. They want to be at that cotillion for the rest of their lives, and damn it, they want to be the ones waltzing. Who cares where the pitchers of lemonade come from or who has to clean up the mess, as long as it isn’t them.
This brings us back around to the reality that America’s national ideal is changing. The talking heads are all over it: witness Bill O’Reilly as he breathlessly frets about an emerging new white minority, or that fat druggy Rush Limbaugh with his “You can’t beat Santa Claus” shtick. What they and their followers can’t see is that their image of America is based on a tower of dramatic falsehoods.
But it’s a tower that’s falling, and fast. I don’t know what this century’s typical American will end up looking like. I only know it doesn’t look like last century’s model. And I, for one, am glad of that.
Boss Obama! Image (partial) by © Christopher Koppes of Cauldron Graphix