Tomas Van Dan Heuvel, films columnist, talks about an unexpected film genre that is on the rise
Photography: Tomas Van Dan Heuvel
Last time I wrote about Hollywood I talked about Disney reboots. There are a lot of them, and nowadays pretty much all of the big studios, from Marvel to Universal, get their money by rerunning, sequelling and prequelling. But, next to these spin-offs, another type of blockbuster is on the rise: the historical drama.
I’ve written about this in other places before, because it never fails to fascinate me. Historical films are intriguing because they have a big influence on how we see the past, despite them being products of their own time. And it’s that final aspect that I specifically want to put in the limelight.
Well over a hundred years ago, D. W. Griffith made one of the most influential and controversial films of all time: his 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation. This was a historical film; the events shown – the American Civil War and the formation of the first Ku Klux Klan – were a story of the past even when Griffith translated them to celluloid. His film may technically have been revolutionary, but his history was awful: Griffith portrayed the KKK as a band of noble fighters for the American South. African-American slaves were shown as back-stabbing and stupid.
This awkward racism is present in a large chunk of twentieth-century western historical cinema. Gone With the Wind (“frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”) and many John Wayne-westerns may be classics, but we cannot deny that they are products of their time, and that gives them problems. But recently, I am seeing a very interesting shift to a completely other side of the spectrum. History is still produced on film, but by the kind of stories that are being told we can now see how times are changing.
I personally cannot wait to see Free State of Jones, the upcoming epic about Newton Knight. This rebel soldier defied his superiors in the American civil war and turned his back on the racist and white supremacist insurrectionists, by establishing his own multi-ethnic enclave after deserting from the Confederate army. In the trailer, a wild-eyed Matthew McConaughey preaches to a group of followers in his distinctive Southern drawl: “No man aughta tell another man what he’s gotta live for, or what he’s gotta die for.”
This kind of story would have been impossible for a mainstream film a couple of decades ago. And yet, here we are. Of course, if this becomes the prevailing narrative in our historical films, we are at risk of whitewashing the past. By making it look full of white rebels and anti-racists, whereas the reality was a lot darker, we are ignoring other voices and washing our forefather’s hands in innocence. But we’ve only just gotten started, and the start looks promising. I’m excited to see where this is going.