Documentary Review ‘Civil War’

Ben Miles
Documentarian Rachel Boynton has crafted an informational film titled “Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are).” A starting point for this probing documentary (now airing on cable television’s MSNBC) is that the American Civil War still lingers and haunts our country. 
Was this four year tumult about slavery and emancipation? Or, was it about states’ rights and northern state invasions? Ms. Boynton examines mindsets from both the North and the South, from Massachusetts to Mississippi and many places between the two. She explores events from the divisive Civil War itself to the period of Reconstruction to the era of Jim Crow laws, to the Civil Rights Movement to the upheaval of recent years by the Unite the Right rally of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. 
We are made privy to classroom lessons on the subject and issues rattling the rooms of schools in both the North and the South. Ms Boynton herself, who is not seen but heard, asks penetrating and challenging questions of various people, including teachers, descendants of families of the confederacy, a state lawmaker from the so-called Magnolia State, Mississippi — who claims no responsibility for the checkered past of the Confederate States and their legacy of human bondage but insists that the Confederate crossbars remain emblazoned on his state’s flag — as well as many students who struggle with the history and issues of the Civil War and its implications on our present day social relationships. 
The film is a complex analysis of these issues of American history and current affairs. Still, the divides remain by comparing the social studies curriculum from Massachusetts, where the Civil War is clearly viewed as being instigated by slavery and in Tennessee, where the Civil War is presented as a struggle for states’ rights and against northern aggression. Even in this day and age we are confronted with whether critical race theory is being taught K-12 public schools; it is not. Ironically, most detractors of this theory are at a loss to explain what it is. 
Sadly, the profundity of Ms. Boynton’s film (produced by Brad Pitt and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others) is undermined by the profusion of advertisements that turn an hour and forty-minute documentary into a two hour and fifteen-minute marathon. Nevertheless, “Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are)” is a lesson to be absorbed and explored by all Americans but skip the ads if you can. TiVo anyone? 


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