Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Civil War Era

Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: The Civil War Era

As scholarship on the Civil War era expands, Hollywood, too, has cast a wider gaze at the conflict and its roots. This year, with movies like “Free State of Jones” and “Birth of a Nation,” filmmakers continue to explore the struggles beyond the battlefield but still central to the war.

Hollywood’s eagerness to portray the ragged edges of the era beyond the battlefields has cast women, deserters, slaves, veterans, and guerillas into leading roles. The BBC’s “Copper” (2012-2013) took viewers to 1864 New York City rife with ethnic and racial conflict, thick with Confederate sympathizers, and led by honest cops and capricious pols. “Cold Mountain” (2004) opened with the 1864 Battle of the Crater but focused on the Confederate home front. Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) battled nature and the predations of Confederate Home Guards to survive, while Confederate deserter W.P. Inman (Jude Law) formed unlikely alliances to stay alive. “Lincoln” (2012) charted the political landscape the president and Republicans navigated during debate on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Both “Cold Mountain” and “Lincoln” open with battle scenes to remind us of the context and consequences of their stories. Their lenses are otherwise focused on struggles far from the front lines.

Recent films also have captured the violence of slavery. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012) illustrated the violence on which slaveholders relied to support their cultural, social, and economic system. Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical account of his kidnapping into slavery “12 Years a Slave” won wide acclaim with critics (3 Oscars) and audiences alike. Solomon’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) rescue is hopeful yet hollow since audiences know that Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) will continue to suffer under slaveholder Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Tarantino may give us a world where the slaveholders receive their just deserts and Django (Jamie Foxx) and his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) ride away free, but their triumphant departure takes place in actual darkness. Tarantino implies what McQueen makes explicit and what a former slave articulated in Ken Burns’ “Civil War:” For the slave, it is all night–all night forever.”

Jamie Foxx as the title character in “Django Unchained” (2012).

This year, the jagged edges of the war again took center stage. In “The Hateful Eight” (2015), Tarantino toyed with the racial, legal, and political legacies of the war in 1870s Wyoming before abandoning nuance and complexity to bathe audiences in a sea of blood and bile. This spring, PBS’s “Mercy Street” conveyed life and death, work and love in an Alexandria, Virginia hotel-turned-Union-hospital (check out reviews on Muster by Elizabeth Motich!).

On June 24th, the long Civil War era will return to the big screen with “Free State of Jones,” starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, and Brendan Gleeson. The story of Confederate deserter and Unionist guerilla Newton Knight’s (McConaughey) battle against the Confederate army and for an egalitarian society carved out of central Mississippi has received substantial attention since the early 20th century. Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2001), served as a historical consultant on the film. In her book, Bynum illustrates how Knight and his family’s struggle against the Confederate army continued into Reconstruction and beyond. Both the book (and reportedly the film) culminate in 1948 when the state of Mississippi tried Davis Knight, a descendant of Knight and his second wife Rachel (herself a former slave; played by Mbatha-Raw) for violating state laws against interracial marriage. The question before the court was whether Davis Knight, who passed for white and had married a white woman, was to be considered black because of his lineage. Bynum explores the saga of Newton, Rachel, and Davis with aplomb, deftly navigating myth, legend, and bias in the post-war Mississippi political climate. In a new afterword to her The Free State of Jones, Bynum expresses optimism that the film will convey the reality for many unionists and all former slaves in the United States: the war did end slavery, but it left intact the social and cultural barriers to equality which served as foundations for a renewed system of race-based political exclusion.

Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey lead “Free State of Jones,” in theaters June 24.

Based on the history and Bynum’s optimism, historians might find much to like in “Free State of Jones.” Race, gender, and class dimensions form its core, surrounded by considerations of loyalty and nationalism. Above all, it is a story as much about power, paramilitary violence, and Reconstruction as it is about Blue and Gray.

Like “Free State of Jones,” director Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” promises to expand the Civil War era in the popular imagination. In his directorial debut, Parker recounts the story of enslaved preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion. With its title alone, “Birth of a Nation” refocuses American attention on the legacies of slavery and origins of the Civil War while further discrediting the moonlight and magnolias of the Lost Cause. Set for a wide release this October, the film will contribute to ongoing contemporary conversations about power, violence, and race.

Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” will be released this fall.

In Hollywood, “based on a true story” usually means “we’ve taken extensive artistic license to sell the movie rather than to tell an accurate story.” As a result, many historians may be pessimistic about the potential of these films. Hopeful anticipation is joined by anxious questions about what simplifications the filmmakers make to reach a popular audience. Will the movies and shows of 2016 lead viewers to think about slavery, Reconstruction, and the legacy of the Civil War in new ways? Time and ticket sales will tell. We might not be party to the filmmaking, but we always can engage the audience before and after the movie.


Tom Foley

Tom Foley is a graduate student at Georgetown University. He can be reached at

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