- Movie Rating -

The Civil War (or Who Do We Think We Are) (2021)

| September 22, 2021

It is difficult for me to look at Rachel Boynton’s documentary Civil War (or Who Do We Think We Are) without reeling back a few weeks to another portrait of the debate over Confederate monuments: C.J. Hunt’s The Neutral Ground.  Both films are focused on illustrating the varying perspectives that have kept the punctuation of emancipation from a period to a never-ending string of ellipses, but I think Hunt’s film had a little more focus.

Boynton’s very well-intentioned film is also maddeningly uneven, drawing a very wonky narrative as she interviews teachers, students, a few politicians, and fewer Civil War buffs.  But mostly she talks with African-Americans who are confused and frustrated by the history that has been dispersed over the past 156 years.  What we learn is what we have already learned if we’ve taken even a quick look at the debates that have been waging in recent months: America’s collective vantage point of The Civil War, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the cause of the war, and the long-standing sickness of white supremacy are really a matter of perspective.  How a white southerner sees the conflict might by radically different than the way that an African-American person might see it.  

The story remains the same: the Civil War has been distorted, and the proceeding history was written by the winners, but what of the losers?  In the south the debates are fueled by the idea that the south distorted their own history to refocus “The Lost Cause” into something less painful and more heroic (hence the statues).  That explains why organizations like The Daughters of the Confederacy instituted curriculums that disallowed the teaching that the war was fought to preserve the institution of slavery.  This was better illustrated in Hunt’s film, which went much deeper into the South’s epilogue of the war and illustrated how and why the South, particularly the thousands of grieving mothers and widows, needed to rewrite the history.  There was an oratory, and a focus on why the south bred such a narrative beyond the blind reasoning of white supremacy.

Here we get a lot of interviews that often repeat the same information but shorten the point.  Boynton spends a great deal of time talking to students – children mostly – about how they view, or are allowed to view, the history of American as it pertains to this particular conflict.  This is the most important story here.  How are modern children learning this history?  I liked one very bright young girl who illustrated that “I’d rather you not tell half my story; I’d rather you tell my whole story.”

Those voices are maybe more important than any other because they illustrate how the story of The Civil War is being taught; and I was engaged with the stories of many African-Americans who are frustrated that southern history is being slanted to be heroic toward a system that not only enslaved their ancestors but set up a system of revere that honored the man who fought to preserve it (hence the removal of the statues).  But I wish the movie would stand on an even keel with those white southerners who fight so fiercely to keep the statues up and the history as it is.  Their story seems to be missing here.  There is an interview with William Shirley, a Mississippi state Representative who defends the history and the Rebel flag (which is included in the state flag) as preserving his heritage.  But the interview cuts short of really digging into why it is important to him.  Boynton don’t really delve too deeply into why modern southerners need to defend the history or why they seem so indifferent to the vantage point of modern African-Americans.  It’s a frustrating omission.

That’s a problem all through this movie.  I appreciated what it was trying to do, and I appreciated the structure that she was trying to build, but there was so much more than needed to be included, so many more voices that needed to be heard.  The movie slants very hard on one side of the debate and leave the other side a little unfocused.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary