Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Movie Review: North and South

I love miniseries. You have the time to tell an indepth story, but since they have a set number of episodes don't have as much of the sprawl as other types of serial media. To put this in perspective Lord of the Rings is structured more like a big budgeted miniseries than a traditional Hollywood movie, especially if you're watching the extended editions. Each intermissioned part plays out like a 90 minute episode.

But that's not what I'm writing about. North and South:Book One. Okay a brief description about my mindset going into this thing. A few years ago I took a history of Civil War class. I don't know how the hell he did it, but my prof was able to get the room an hour early before each class and let everybody kill time by watching Civil War movies. I was lazy so I never went, but I tended to make it to class a few minutes early each time and for a good month North and South was playing.

So in my head it was a little hyped. Hey my professor who has probably written a book on this stuff likes it has to be good. No, no its not. It tries and comes close. But it misses the mark.

There are really two reasons.

The first

Okay to be fair I've never watched Gone With The Wind there is way too much baggage with that movie for me to ever really enjoy it.  It's not Gone With The Wind. It's what it represents. Decades of how stories set in that time period have been told. I.E. romance.

And you know what it pisses me right the hell off. The period between 1840-1880 is interesting because it's mostly that period time the country changes from how it looked during the revolution to how looked pretty much until WWII depending on where you lived. A lot happened. And every time it starts to dangle an interesting morsel in front of the audience the focus shifts into somebody doing something arbitrarily evil even by the standards of the time or some long winded speech about love, or friendship. It could have been Gettysburg before Gettysburg but settles for Days of Our Life.

It burns me because I have yet to see the movie that adequately portrays the complex why of the Civil War, and this comes so close. 

To explain why let me use another flawed miniseries as an example.

In Hatfields & McCoys our two leads are very much products of their time doing things that to the audience seem insane, but by the logic of their time regardless of the consequences they are doing the right thing. In other words good historical fiction is always going to have values dissonance. And god does the moral code of antebellum America have some values dissonance.  This is why most movies set in this time, including this one miss the mark.

 They either

  • Intentionally or unintentionally vindicate that moral code ie. Birth of a Nation
  • Try to downplay or ignore the more uncomfortable elements of that moral code ie  The Patriot.
  • Create morally binary characters, that diminish how ingrained in society these moral codes were in a very heavy handed attempt to show why these attitudes were wrong.
Since this miniseries mostly falls in to the last category let me expond that.  See as a modern audience we know the results of the culture of the antebellum South. Hopefully my readership knows why slavery and racism are wrong. If not GET OUT NOW. I've argued with too many racists on the internet.

Anyway, slavery was cornerstone of  southern politics culture and economics. They weren't lying when they were saying they were defending their way of life. Slavery was the South. Even if you didn't have slaves you admired and aspired to be one of the guys who did because the paragon of that society was the southern gentleman who did.

Saying this especially in regards to this is going to make me choke a little. People are not the worst thing they do. Meaning I can find the concept of slavery entirely repugnant and I do, yet find some admirable qualities in individual slave owners. I kind of have to if I want to continue liking the first President George W.  and Tommy J. People are complex.

And that's the problem Orrey our Southern protagonist is a "progressive slaver owner". Because writing him otherwise would turn off the audience. Same goes with his love interest. No he should have been written as a racist misogynist, because well that what he probably would have been.

See the show comes so close because there is a cultural rift between the North and South characters.  but the show is incredibly hesitant to show exactly how slavery permeated the antebellum South. Our two main male leads come very close to calling off their brolationship because the Northern one can't stomach slavery. It's there. You see it. But other than. "Slavery is bad" it's not really talked about much. You just see a few black folk off to the side. And for an issue that broke the country well that's not good enough.

Why was the South so economically dependent on slave labor? Why did the South defend so adamantly? Why did the North, which was still very racist, attack the institution? How did slaves feel about slavery?  How did slavery affect other aspects of southern society? How did poorer planters and foreigners feel about slavery? Why does the South desolve it's relationship with The Union?

The series comes so close to answering these very important questions but the series isn't about these questions.  It's about bodice ripping.

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