The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film


Grappling with America’s checkered racial past continues to be a wrenching experience for citizens of all colors. While few would argue that a balanced and scholarly view of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in books has replaced older, more racially biased outlooks, most (including this reviewer) would be caught off-guard at the way the American motion picture industry portrayed slavery and slaveholders. From the racist Birth of a Nation in 1915 to the historic Gone with the Wind in 1939 and in countless other films since, the story of America’s racist past is depicted more as a testimony to the mythical positive attributes of slavery than to the historically accurate record of its excesses. The black American is depicted as an evil and sinister menace or a childlike and simple creature interested only in singing and dancing. The television series Roots and movies like Glory represent some of the few successful attempts to correct this twisting of the historical record and present viewers with a picture of the past that presents both races as real people rather than celluloid fantasies from a segregationist’s fantasy world.

Chadwick, a lecturer at Rutgers University and New Jersey City University and an editor at the New York Daily News, presents his treatment of the slavery era on film in a clear and straightforward manner free of jargon and academic asides. While many may not at first glance want to pursue the subject in such depth, a quick glance at the chapter on Gone with the Wind may tempt the reader to plunge in for the whole ride.


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