DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: “Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are)” forces us to take a probing look at our Civil War history

Last Updated: September 23, 2021By Tags: , ,

The brutal truth about these “United” States of America is that the country was founded on oppression and division, all of which that culminated in an sometimes-false rewriting of history.

Case in point: the Civil War was fought over the right to own slaves; this fact is undebatable.

Rachel Boynton’s documentary, “Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are) is a relevant film about how the history of The Civil War is perceived and taught and how racist thinking handed down from generations has left a stain on our past.

As the opening narration explains, “This is a film about storytelling. About how we tell the story of our country’s past.”

When it comes to The Civil War, never has the writing of history been so mishandled. White fear caused the war, and those race-based phobias still prevail today.

Boynton examines several people on both sides (there is only the side of right or a wrong) of the debate on what the Civil War was actually about and just what the presence of the Confederate flag represents.

We hear from students, teachers, politicians, and regular folk from both Southern and Northern states, giving the film an even balance. It would be too easy to concentrate on the people living in Southern states who believe that the Confederate flag represents only the struggle of their ancestors.

Commendably, Boynton does not belittle them or their ideas. She gives them a platform to speak honestly and engages them in conversation rather than attack them. The director does very well in keeping an even slant to her film, even as some of these people spout views that are tantamount to denying the Holocaust.

We hear from a few Civil War re-enactors who defend their flag and are angered to see the Confederate statutes fall. If we look closely at Civil War re-enactments and the people who participate in them, the question becomes “Why does this twisted tradition happen once a year and who would want to be on the Confederate side?—and more importantly, why?”

Too many of the misguided Southerners interviewed chalk up their defense of the Confederacy and its flag to southern pride and southern history and traditions. That is their argument, one borne of an ideology of racism. It shows that these people care not for how this symbol of hate affects their communities and the people of color who live in them.

The response to that is perfectly stated in the words of one interviewee. A black man in New Orleans, Louisiana is tired of seeing the statues erected to promote the men who fought for white rule. When asked his opinion regarding such an argument, he responds with gumption, “Fuck Southern Pride. The source of all the tension comes from the erasing of African American history over hundreds of years.”

This is a valid point, but the film is also nuanced in pointing out that the crusade for white supremacy is not limited to the South. It existed (and very much exists today) in all states, as the wave of hate and bigotry has swept through this nation since the beginning.

One heartbreaking segment of the documentary is filmed in a Boston Junior high-school at which a student professes his thoughts that speaking about racism only causes problems and makes African Americans feel like victims. This young man also believes that slavery was not the cause of the war.

What this shows is an epidemic of misinformation that has infected our children and is keeping racial divisions plausible. Even America’s kids have fallen prey to right-wing talking points.

The film shows how too many Americans live in denial regarding the veracity about the Civil War and therefore resist any honest engagement regarding that time, nor do they wish to learn more about it.

Perhaps Boynton’s argument is too easily made, but this is the film’s point. We cannot shrug off racism nor dismiss it. As the years go on, it gets bigger and bigger and is snowballing into an infection that is impossible to cure. The message of Boynton’s documentary is strong, we must teach the past and learn from it or we are bound to repeat it. Since 2016, America has already gone backwards faster. What is past is really prologue.

Filmmaker Rachel Boynton

This is certainly an important film. Just when we might think it too easy a subject, the reality of it all kicks in. Could the film dig deeper? It does not need to. The argument over right and wrong is strong enough and the filmmaker allows her documentary enough voices to be heard. Boynton gives us words from black scholars to white racists. From the old and the young. The focus on the school children is essential, their annoyed reactions to the people who long for Jim Crow. They don’t understand and push back against anyone thinking the Civil War was not about slavery.

“Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are)” tells us many things we already know but Boynton’s work is in no way redundant, and the director is unobtrusive in letting her subjects get their views heard.

The principal takeaway is how to properly educate and vet our teachers to suitably help our children absorb our history, as it happened.

The children are the future. If they are taught truth, then that is what will be passed on to future generations. If they are taught fallacies then revisionism will stand in lieu of an accurate retelling of the facts.

The truth regarding our country’s past must spread, and must live on in our collective memory and (at this point) the children are our only hope for ensuring this happens.

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