Black History Month film screenings: American revolutionary history 1776–1876
"The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. Yet we are blind and led by the blind. We discern in it no part of our labor movement; no part of our industrial triumph; no part of our religious experience. Before the dumb eyes of ten generations of ten million children, it is made mockery of and spit upon; a degradation of the eternal mother; a sneer at human effort; with aspiration and art deliberately and elaborately distorted. And why? Because in a day when the human mind aspired to a science of human action, a history and psychology of the mighty effort of the mightiest century, we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future."
— W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935)
A series of four films on American revolutionary history 1776–1876
1873 / 1784–89 Jefferson in Paris (1995)
1839–41 Amistad (1997)
1863 Glory (1989)
1865 Lincoln (2012)
Jefferson in Paris (1995) | 1873 / 1784–89
1873: Reconstruction-era Ohio: A reporter interviews Madison Hemings, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, telling their story. 1784–89: Leading up to the French Revolution, Jefferson is the U.S. ambassador to France, whose intellectuals, such as American Revolutionary War veteran Lafayette, join the revolt of the Third Estate, hoping to follow the American example. Jefferson helps them compose the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, discussing his frustration at the American failure to abolish slavery. Jefferson begins a relationship and fathers a child with his slave Sally Hemings, sister of his deceased wife, promising to free her and her children.
Directed by James Ivory. Starring Nick Nolte, Thandie Newton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Greta Scacchi. Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Music by Richard Robbins.
“The panic of 1873 brought sudden disillusion in business enterprise, economic organization, religious belief and political standards. A flood of appeal from the white South re-enforced this reaction — appeal with no longer the arrogant bluster of slave oligarchy, but the simple moving annals of the plight of a conquered people. The resulting emotional and intellectual rebound of the nation made it nearly inconceivable in 1876 that ten years earlier most men had believed in human equality.”
— W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935)
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce."
— Thomas Jefferson, original draft of the Declaration of Independence (1776)
"I go right back to the equality clause. It is 'all men are created equal.' I think that's the key one. And that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of happiness — it's difficult to know. It's not quite — he isn't a pleasure-seeker. And yet he knows that freedom is happiness too. That liberty will enable you to pursue happiness. And how grand it is that in a capitalistic country like this, that he did not follow Locke and have life, liberty and property. And that mystery of the pursuit of happiness suits me just fine. If the equality clause will trouble us a thousand years, as [Robert] Frost said [in North of Boston, 'The Black Cottage' (1915)], if it'll trouble us, then the pursuit of happiness will mystify us forever. And I like the trouble and I like the mystery. And that suits me just fine about Jefferson."
— James Cox in Ken Burns's PBS documentary Thomas Jefferson (1997)
"Whatever else the Civil War was for
It wasn’t just to keep the States together,
Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both.
She wouldn’t have believed those ends enough
To have given outright for them all she gave.
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases — so removed
From the world’s view to-day of all those things.
That’s a hard mystery of Jefferson’s.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn’t true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it."
— Robert Frost, "The Black Cottage" (1915)
"The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. . . . And what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
— Jefferson, Paris, November 13, 1787
"The tone of your letters had for some time given me pain, on account of the extreme warmth with which they censured the proceedings of the Jacobins of France. . . . In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, and shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree. A few of their cordial friends met at their hands, the fate of enemies. But time and truth will rescue and embalm their memories, while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated. Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free, it would be better than as it now is."
— Jefferson, Secretary of State, letter to William Short, U.S. Ambassador to France, January 3, 1793
"I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter [the abolition of slavery], and which has been thro' life that of my greatest anxieties. the march of events has not been such as to render it’s completion practicable within the limits of time alloted to me; and I leave it's accomplishment as the work of another generation. and I am cheared when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will, and such mind engaged in it’s encoragement. the abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object. that which you propose is well worthy of tryal. it has succeeded with certain portions of our white brethren, under the care of a [Christian communist George] Rapp and an [Utopian Socialist Robert] Owen; and why may it not succeed with the man of colour?"
— Jefferson to Frances Wright, August 7, 1825
Amistad (1997) | 1839–41
1839-41: Two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, a slave ship on course to the east coast of the United States is overtaken by a mutiny led by one of the slaves, Cinqué. Cinqué and his crew land in Connecticut, where they face trial in a courtroom and a country full of tensions. Former President John Quincy Adams representing Cinqué before the Supreme Court argues that a coming civil war over slavery will be the "last battle of the American Revolution."
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew McConaughey. Music by John Williams.
"What of the Declaration of Independence? What are we to do with that embarrassing, annoying document? What of its conceits, 'all men created equal, inalienable rights, life, liberty,' and so on and so forth? . . . The Mende believe that if they can summon the spirit of one's ancestors, then they have never left. James Madison. Alexander Hamilton. Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson. George Washington. John Adams. We have long feared asking you for guidance. Perhaps in doing so, we have feared that our individuality, which we so, so revere, is not entirely our own. We’ve been made to understand, and embrace the understanding, that who we are, is who we were. We desperately need your strength and wisdom to triumph over our fears, our prejudices, ourselves. Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war, then let it come. And let it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution."
— Anthony Hopkins playing former President John Quincy Adams, closing argument before the U.S. Supreme Court
Glory (1989) | 1863
1863: After the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln orders the Emancipation Proclamation. Robert Gould Shaw, the son of an influential Abolitionist, is promoted to Colonel and given command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black regiment of Union soldiers, organized by Frederick Douglass.
Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Cary Elwes. Music by James Horner.
Glory is based on the letters of Robert Gould Shaw, son of New England Abolitionists, chosen to lead the first black regiment in the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. After the 1960s, revisionist historiography questioned the nature of the Civil War in the fight to overcome slavery. Post-Reconstruction anti-black racism seemed to belie the struggle for social equality and freedom exemplified by Abolitionism, but, as Robert Lowell wrote in his poem during the Civil Rights era, this history continued to demand redemption.
Robert Gould Shaw by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1903)
Why was it that the thunder voice of Fate
Should call thee, studious, from the classic groves,
Where calm-eyed Pallas with still footstep roves,
And charge thee seek the turmoil of the state?
What bade thee hear the voice and rise elate,
Leave home and kindred and thy spicy loaves,
To lead th' unlettered and despised droves
To manhood's home and thunder at the gate?
Far better the slow blaze of Learning's light,
The cool and quiet of her dearer fane,
Than this hot terror of a hopeless fight,
This cold endurance of the final pain, —
Since thou and those who with thee died for right
Have died, the Present teaches, but in vain!
For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell (1960)
Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.
("They give up everything to serve the Republic.")
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year —
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble.
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Lincoln (2012) | 1865
1865: As the Civil War rages on, the President struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own cabinet as well as in Congress over the passage of a Constitutional amendment to permanently abolish slavery.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Staring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn. Written by Tony Kushner. Music by John Williams.
THADDEUS STEVENS: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We'll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors. We'll build up a land down there of free men and free women and free children and freedom. The nation needs to know that we have such plans.
LINCOLN: That's the untempered version of reconstruction. It's not exactly what I intend, but we shall oppose one another in the course of time. Now we're working together, and I'm asking you —
THADDEUS STEVENS: For patience, I expect.
LINCOLN: When the people disagree, bringing them together requires going slow till they're ready to make up —
THADDEUS STEVENS: Ah, shit on the people and what they want and what they're ready for! I don't give a goddamn about the people and what they want! This is the face of someone who has fought long and hard for the good of the people without caring much for any of `em. And I look a lot worse without the wig. The people elected me! To represent them! To lead them! And I lead! You ought to try it!
LINCOLN: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But if I'd listened to you, I'd've declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter; then the border states would've gone over to the confederacy, the war would've been lost and the Union along with it, and instead of abolishing slavery, as we hope to do, in two weeks, we'd be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.
THADDEUS STEVENS: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them — but you know what the people are. You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery. White people cannot bear the thought of sharing this country's infinite abundance with Negroes.
LINCOLN: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it'll point you True North from where you're standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you'll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what's the use of knowing True North?