A New American Civil War . . .

CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
. . . documentary needs to be produced according to Keri Leigh Merritt at Smithsonian Magazine.
With the recent debut of Henry Louis Gates’s new multi-part documentary “Reconstruction” on PBS amidst great fanfare, I found myself reflecting upon why Americans desperately need an updated Civil War documentary as well. (You can, and should, stream the documentary for free on PBS.)

Watching “The Civil War” as a teenager several years after its initial release, I became enamored with the series — so much so that I spent my hard-earned money on the expensive companion book and the soundtrack for the haunting “Ashokan Farewell” — a song from the 1980s (not the Civil War era!) that played throughout the series. In many ways, the documentary helped spur my own interest in U.S. history.

Yet as I grew older reading broadly on both the war itself and the 19th-century South, enjoying scholars such as Bell Irvin Wiley, John Hope Franklin, and Victoria Bynum, I realized that I fell in love with the series — but not for its historical accuracy. Instead, it offered a kind of self-satisfaction for me as a white American, and, more importantly, as a white Southerner. I came to realize that by downplaying the importance — and horrors — of slavery, and instead concentrating on hard-fought battles, valiant, virile soldiers, and heart-wrenching tales of romantic love and loss, the documentary specifically targeted one audience: white people.

While there are several difficulties with “The Civil War,” the fact remains that the entire production was written, directed and produced by white men with little in the way of historical training and few connections to academic historians. While undoubtedly masters of the mediums in which they were trained, biographer Geoffrey Ward, producer Ric Burns, and Ken Burns himself surely had blind spots and lacked the diverse perspectives necessary to convey the sheer magnitude and long-lasting impact of the war.

<snip>

The sins of omission in “The Civil War” unfortunately are not without consequence. Because so many Americans have had their basic understanding of the causes of secession, the realities of racial slavery, and the atrocities of the Confederacy profoundly shaped by this documentary, current day topics, from the Confederate Monument/flag debate to the push for reparations by American Descendants of Slaves, remain bitterly divisive, even though clear historical answers obviously exist.

Merritt pays particular attention to the documentary's centering of non-historian Shelby Foote to peddle a bunch of moonlight-and-magnolias sentimentality over other, less prominently featured commenters with an actual background in history.

So, is Ken Burns' Civil War fatally flawed in terms of its historical presentation, particularly in light of subsequent scholarship and, if so, what would a replacement documentary look like?

Comments

  • I found it really heavy on military history and disappointingly light on everything else. Oh yeah, it's flawed.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    I think the idea that Burns' series was "flawed" because it focused on the way that white people experienced the war is a tad sensational. Would one say that a series that focused on the way that black people experienced the war was flawed? No single work is going to exhaust such a massive and pivotal part of the American experience. Sure, it would be fertile ground for another series to explore the war as experienced by black people. But, as a history of that time, such a series would also be incomplete by itself.
    I think the more glaring problem with Ken Burns' work is that every series he has done since follows the same formula that the civil war series used. The first time was a breath of fresh air. Now, not so much.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    I think the criticism of it is apt, but that it is still useful as entertainment and as an educational tool. I think that a new documentary series focusing on the African-American experience and expressing an African-American viewpoint would be brilliant. As a British comic character says (I paraphrase): Get in front of my eyes NOW.

    I think we were in Washington just before the new wing of the Smithsonian opened, but we did get to visit the Whitney Plantation outside New Orleans. I believe that's one of the few if not the only plantation open to the public that focuses on the experiences of the slaves. It is very much worth a visit. The thing that sticks in my mind about the visit was a young woman rushing towards an alligator that appeared in a pond in order to get a better picture. I imagine the Alligator was thinking: You, yes you. Get in my BELLY.

    More perspectives, more often leads to deeper understanding.
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    I admit I'm somewhat dismayed that the suggested "solution" to a civil war documentary that largely excludes or minimizes non-white perspectives is to make a separate (but no doubt equal) documentary about non-white people. For whatever reason an integrated perspective is considered either impossible or undesirable, and the historical implications of the suggestion seem to go unnoticed.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    Crœsos wrote: »
    I admit I'm somewhat dismayed that the suggested "solution" to a civil war documentary that largely excludes or minimizes non-white perspectives is to... etc.
    Fine. Make a fully integrated politically appropriate documentary. The same limitations will still apply. History doesn't fit in one telling. Get over it.
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    As a non-American and a citizen of a country that is barely to start an honest look at its past...
    Viewers learned basic facts about the era which were not— and devastatingly, still are not—taught in textbooks.
    I found this sentence key... We expect, well some of us, that a comprehensive-as-possible view of history is taught to us in school...it was, to me, rather destabilising to come to the conclusion I had been taught half-truths and much was omitted among the facts.

    History should always be retold, it should be living, as new facts come to light, and norms of the time which may be unacceptable today may invite a more comprehensive retelling.
  • tclune wrote: »
    ...
    I think the more glaring problem with Ken Burns' work is that every series he has done since follows the same formula that the civil war series used. The first time was a breath of fresh air. Now, not so much.

    Because I watch them on Netflix, I haven't paid attention to the release dates of the documentaries, but they don't seem quite so homogenous to me. The Civil War series and the WWII series were focused on military history and individual soldiers, and I find them rather uninformative and conventionally heroic. The West at least acknowledged the genocide of indigenous peoples and Prohibition had a lot of fascinating political and sociological stuff, particularly about women's roles and immigrant cultures.

    I found Oliver Stones "Untold History" series more revealing; perhaps he might tackle the Civil War one day. In my view the Civil War never really ended; it just morphed and is still going on. Southern strategy, anyone?




  • mousethiefmousethief Shipmate
    tclune wrote: »
    Crœsos wrote: »
    I admit I'm somewhat dismayed that the suggested "solution" to a civil war documentary that largely excludes or minimizes non-white perspectives is to... etc.
    Fine. Make a fully integrated politically appropriate documentary. The same limitations will still apply. History doesn't fit in one telling. Get over it.

    Wow. Fuck off, black people, go make your own goddamned movie.
  • OhherOhher Shipmate
    It's perhaps a pity that Howard Zinn (despite being yet another White Guy) could not have been involved in the Burns Civil War project. That said, having exposure to an early-ish edition of A People's History of the United States provided some corrective to the Burns effort, which I frankly hated. For me it was barely a step up from Gone with the Wind, which made me gag.

    There's also the longstanding problem of how politicized the teaching of US history, especially in regard to the Civil War and to the Civil Rights through the Viet Name era, is in US public schools. I thank James Loewen for his efforts in this regard, but I am constantly amazed at what students tell me about the US history they've learned. I've read essays by students arguing in all sincerity that Africans brought here in chains had much to be grateful for in being kidnapped and enslaved because they'd been rescued from primitive conditions and brought to a "more advanced" society.

    It's definitely time to put that whole Lost Cause mythology to death.
  • Simon ToadSimon Toad Shipmate
    That grateful line was used by a former Australian PM who is still an MP a few years ago, suggesting how Aboriginal Australians should feel about White settlement. He doesn't like to use words like invasion or frontier war. I could go on...



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