Overview for films in Reconstruction
(Digital History ID 2955)
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation (1915) left a lasting imprint on Americans’ conception of Reconstruction. From this movie, audiences learned that Reconstruction was an utter disaster, a period when opportunistic Northern carpetbaggers, treacherous Southern scalawags, and ignorant former slaves pillaged the prostrate South. Viewed by more than 200 million people between its release and 1946, the film depicted the Ku Klux Klan as latter-day knights who restored order in the South by placing power in the hands of the region’s rightful rulers. Even more distressing, the film depicted former male slaves as beasts lusting after white women. The movie’s impact was summed up by President Woodrow Wilson, who called it “history written with lightning.”
The 1939 film Gone with the Wind reinforced a negative view of Reconstruction. Although producer David O. Selznick deleted the most offensive scenes from Margaret Mitchell’s novel—scenes that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed ex-slaves as perpetrators of mindless violence–the film nevertheless buttressed an older mythology of Southern history, which held that slaves were content, that masters were kind and paternalistic, and that white Southerners were victimized following the Civil War.
Sectional reconciliation was a dominant theme in many Hollywood’s film dealing with Reconstruction. Many motion pictures include North-South romances which ultimately resulted in marriage—symbolically reuniting a riven nation. Others feature brothers or a father and son who fight on opposite sides of the Civil War, but who are reconciled after the war, signifying sectional reconciliation. These films ignored the inconvenient fact that the Confederate states had fought against the federal government in order to preserve the institution of slavery or that many former Confederates violently resisted the efforts of ex-slaves to achieve economic independence and political rights following the Civil War.
Hollywood helped, if only unwittingly, to disseminate certain myths that clouded public understanding about Reconstruction. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind diminished slavery’s role as a cause of the Civil War, depicted the efforts to bring civil rights to ex-slaves as a disastrous mistake, and suggested that sectional reconciliation depended on the restoration of white supremacy. These films helped obscure and rationalize the process through which Southern blacks were subordinated, through lynchings, disfranchisement, and segregation.
Based on Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film explores the psychic consequences of slavery, haunting the lives of former slaves in the post-emancipation era.