Film Review: Fury


 By: Albert W. Vogt III

If you have read a few of my previous reviews here on History Roll, you might remember that many of them covered World War II movies. It is a setting that Hollywood never seems to tire of, and for obvious reasons. When it comes to history, so many of us look to the past for simpler times as an escape from either general or specific despairs of our constantly modern lives. Oftentimes moviemakers are the purveyors of these nostalgia filled puff pieces, and the last world war makes for vivid and easily plumbed source material for said projects. With battle lines clearly drawn between fascists and self-proclaimed defenders of democracy, it becomes a fruit too tempting not to pluck in an industry forever picking from the lowest branch possible. It gets somewhat complicated when the Soviets get involved. As such, our cinematic ruminations (Saving Private Ryan (1998) included) of the Second World War typically amount to a bellicose episode of Scooby Doo where we can differentiate who the heroic good guys and big bad guys are without too much cerebration. Hollywood does, after all, market to the lowest common denominator.

In such a simplistic view of warfare as we usually get when it comes to World War II, we can sometimes forget how truly horrendous and sad is armed conflict. During the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said “War is hell,” as his army burned its way through the state of Georgia. Of course, “burned” is too small a war to describe what his campaign did to that part of the country. People were killed, homes were reduced to rubble, rail lines torn up, and livelihoods were confiscated. In short, society was shattered. All of this is a long way of saying that where Fury shines is in reminding the audience of the horrors of war, and this reviewer applauds it for doing so with World War II. Specifically the film focuses on the closing stages of the struggle in Europe. As Sherman showed the South in the nineteenth century, those final months, weeks, and days of a war can be some of the most brutal, and Fury certainly drives this point home.

One might say, though, that Fury goes too far with the brutality and jeopardizes the integrity of the film’s plot. Its climatic moment comes when Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (Brad Pitt) tank platoon is sent to defend a crossroads. We are told that if the Germans manage to get by this point on the map it will cause havoc for the American army’s supply chain. When Collier’s tank is the only one to make it to its defensive position, and gets stuck there when a mine blows up under one of its treads, they are left woefully undermanned to defend against the German regiment that serendipitously stumbles upon their position. They make a heroic stand . . . only to fall and let them by, which begs the question: what was the point of their sacrifice? Further, we never see what happens behind the lines when those Germans catch the rear of the American army.

The makers of Fury undoubtedly chose April, 1945, in order to add dramatic effect to their movie. Would these men survive those last desperate moments with the end so tantalizingly close? But then they sabotaged their climax by not delivering on the implied consequences of the “heroes” actions. However, one can also point out that not all moments in World War II were noteworthy for their heroism. These men had a job to do and they did it to the best of their ability. Many of us do this on a daily basis without bullets flying at us. Nonetheless, a movie does much better when we can have people to cheer for and get behind. All of Collier’s crew (save for one) are deeply flawed individuals and the director has no qualms about displaying their character defects throughout. The movie thus leaves the viewer, despite the amazing action, special effects, and grittiness, a bit empty and horrified.

Beyond the gruesome hollowness, keener historical observers will note a few inaccuracies along the way. Grenades do not explode when they should, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) was not killed by fanatical SS troops, and there was little chance Collier’s platoon would have gone to that crossroads without infantry support. While annoying, none of these things are Fury’s main point, which was to underscore war’s terrible nature. Yet even in the midst of such horrifying chaos there can be heroes. While the comradeship is paramount among the crew, their laying down of their lives for each other becomes meaningless within the context of the film. There is honor in such sacrifices, but story-wise it is a bad move. This is something the film forgets and why it ultimately does not satisfy.

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Review: Privileges and Immunities of American Citizenship

Lash, Kurt T.  The Fourteenth Amendment and the Privileges and Immunities of American Citizenship.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 308pp.

By: Jeremiah Bauer

The last three years have proved fruitful for scholarship on the legal history of Reconstruction.  First, Pamela Brandwein’s Rethinking the Judicial Settlement of Reconstruction (2011) revealed unpursued avenues for federal enforcement of African American rights and re-periodized the federal government’s “retreat” from Reconstruction.[1]  Brandwein’s reconstruction of Reconstruction, however, did not attempt to untie the Gordian knot that is the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment.  In The Fourteenth Amendment and the Privileges and Immunities of American Citizenship (2014), Kurt Lash successfully loosens (or tightens—depending on one’s perspective) the knot.[2]  Through textual interpretations of “privileges or immunities,” Lash exposes the Thirty-Ninth Congress’s paradoxically conservative and radical intent when framing the Fourteenth Amendment.   Moreover, Lash argues the Supreme Court could have used the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States “to articulate a historically plausible and judicially manageable interpretation” of rights to incorporate the Bill of Rights.[3]

A textual reading of antebellum legal sources buttresses Lash’s thesis.  Through careful analysis, Lash asserts post-bellum scholars, lawyers, and judges have misinterpreted the meaning of “privileges or immunities.”  Rather than locating the meaning of “privileges or immunities “ in Corfield v. Coryell (1823)[4] or the Comity Clause of Article IV, Section 2,[5] the true meaning United States citizenship rights derives from “the language of the Louisiana Cession Act of 1803 and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and echoed in the Alaskan Cession Act of 1867.”  “These Acts,” Lash contends, “declared the rights, privileges, and immunities ‘of citizens of the United States,’ a category of ‘privileges or immunities’ altogether different from the rights of state citizenship protected under [Article IV].”[6]

This careful, alternative reading of “privileges or immunities” complicates scholars’ traditional understanding(s) of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Like Michael Les Benedict, Earl Maltz, Herman Belz, and Phillip S. Paludan, Lash firmly plants his flag in the Thirty-Ninth Congress’s preservation of federalism camp.[7]  However, like Robert Kaczorowski and Michael Kent Curtis, Lash contends the legislators wrought radical changes (or should have) by applying Bill of Rights prohibitions against the federal government to the states as well.[8]  This paradox results from, according to Lash, an attempt to preserve federalism by utilizing an antebellum understanding of the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.  The framers’ dependence on, and understanding of, the rights inherent with national citizenship enabled them to incorporate Bill of Rights protections against the states without radically altering the Constitution.  Whether one buys Lash’s argument that national citizenship guaranteed Bill of Rights protections against the federal government and the states, it certainly complicates the existing Fourteenth Amendment narrative.  For Lash, the Fourteenth Amendment had more to do with reuniting the Union and maintaining compliance with an increasingly obstinate Andrew Johnson than a dramatic revolution in constitutionalism.

Lash’s textual approach and recreation of the Thirty-Ninth Congress’s legislative world also offers new insights on the debates in Congress.  Lash ably integrated the historical-political context of the election of 1866, of increasing southern violence, and of Andrew Johnson’s constitutional conservatism to demonstrate John Bingham—indeed Congress’s—evolution in understanding what privileges and immunities were.  For example, Lash notes when Bingham introduced his first version of the Fourteenth Amendment, Bingham and fellow congressmen relied on Corfield as the most relevant understanding of privileges and immunities.  However, as the debates progressed, better legal minds steered the legislators away from Corfield and toward a more precise understanding of the different rights granted by Section IV and by national citizenship.  It is hard to recognize Congress’s evolution during these few months without providing the contextual layers offered by Lash.  This methodology also evinces  the Fourteenth Amendment’s relationship—or lack there of—with the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  “As much as scholars often claim that Section One was intended to constitutionalize the Civil Rights Act, Bingham’s particular efforts had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Act,” writes Lash.  “His two drafts of the Fourteenth Amendment were introduced wholly apart from the Civil Rights Act and for wholly different purposes.”[9]

Despite the careful research and conclusions drawn by Lash, the book merits two small criticisms (or at least one criticism and one question).  First, Lash repeatedly refers to Lyman Trumbull—the Illinois Senator and head of the Judiciary Committee who authored the Civil Rights Act of 1866—as a radical.[10]  I disagree with this description of Trumbull.  I would classify Trumbull as a moderate.  The most comprehensive study of Congressional voting and ideology during the Civil War identifies Trumbull as a “Consistent Conservative.”[11]  Second, if Lash’s antebellum understanding of national citizenship existed, did national citizenship and the corresponding privileges and immunities disappear when a territory became a state?  Were there debates about this beyond territorial acquisition?  Is there evidence that territorial courts respected Bill of Rights protections?  (Okay, that’s three questions).  More evidence would have made Lash’s assertion about the antebellum understanding of privileges and immunities more convincing.  But these are minor gripes about an otherwise compelling book.  It does not definitively settle the debate over the nascent Fourteenth Amendment’s meaning, but it should initiate a new generation of scholarly debates over the meaning of Reconstruction and the Republicans’ willingness to protect newly freed slaves.

 

[1] Pamela Brandwein, Rethinking the Judicial Settlement of Reconstruction.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.  See book information at: http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/politics-international-relations/american-government-politics-and-policy/rethinking-judicial-settlement-reconstruction

 

[2] See book information at: http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/law/us-law/fourteenth-amendment-and-privileges-and-immunities-american-citizenship

 

[3] Lash, x.

 

[4] Corfield v. Coryell,  6 F. Cas. 546(C.C.E.D. Pa 1823) (No. 3,320) or http://books.google.com/books?id=CFwPAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA453&dq=Corfield+v.+Coryell+4+Wash&lr=&cd=16#v=onepage&q=Corfield%20v.%20Coryell%204%20Wash&f=false

 

[5] “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution/the-articles/article-iv-the-states as opposed to Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment which states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”  See http://constitutioncenter.org/constitution/the-amendments/amendment-14-citizenship-rights

 

[6] Lash, xi.

 

[7] See: Michael Les Benedict, “Preserving the Constitution: The Conservative Basis of Radical Reconstruction,” in Preserving the Constitution: Essays in Politics and The Constitution in the Reconstruction Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006); Earl M. Maltz, Civil Rights, the Constitution, and Congress, 1863-1869 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990); Herman Belz, Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978); Phillip S. Paludan, A Covenant with Death: The Constitution, Law, and Equality in the Civil War Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975).

 

[8] See: Robert J. Kaczorowski, The Politics of Judicial Interpretation: The Federal Courts, Department of Justice, and Civil Rights, 1866-1876 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005 (Oceana, 1985)); Michael Kent Curtis, No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1986).

[9] Lash, 171.

 

[10] See pgs. 7-8, 114, 284.

 

[11] On Trumbull’s conservatism, see Michael les Benedict, A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction, 1863-1869 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), 26-28.  In fact, Benedict lists Trumbull as a core member of the conservative faction.

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Highlighting the History Harvest, an Open Digital Archive

The History Roll would like to take this opportunity to apologize to our readers for our fewer-than-usual updates so far in 2014. Our assistant editor has been busily teaching in American Samoa, and I have been spending much of my time project managing the University of Nebraska-Lincoln History Harvest project. We are in the process of lining up an exciting group of writers and topics for the summer and fall.

For now, I’d like to call your attention to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln History Harvest Project. The History Harvest is a digital archive of historical artifacts gathered from communities across the United States. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of History partners with institutions and individuals within highlighted communities to collect, preserve, and share their rich histories. Advanced undergraduates lead the History Harvest project and curate and digitize these artifacts and stories. I invite you to peruse this digital archive, and check back as this semester’s University of Nebraska-Lincoln students finish curating items from the spring ’14 event:  THE HISTORY HARVEST

-J.K Friefeld

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A New Take on an Old Theme: The Monuments Men

Before this review of George Clooney’s (Frank Stokes) latest foray into directing, The Monuments Men (2014), a disclaimer: do not be misled by the title. While credit is due to Clooney and company for presenting a familiar war to audiences, cinematically speaking, this is the only praise they should be given. The cast of characters collected are not your typical action film role call, Matt Damon (James Granger) excepted. It is somewhat refreshing to see the likes of Bill Murray (Richard Campbell), John Goodman (Walter Garfield), and Bob Balaban (Preston Savitz), not to mention the up-and-coming Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries) of Downton Abbey fame, in a World War II film. Nonetheless, the novelty of such dramatis personae fades after this first half hour when it slowly sinks in that it is essentially Ocean’s Eleven in 1943-1945, complete with fun vignettes on the recruitment of each man.

Unfortunately, these vignettes are the entire film, making it episodic nearly to the point of being incomprehensible. Certainly the sense is conveyed that their mission is important, needing to save priceless and historic pieces of art from both Nazis and the destruction wrought by both sides of the conflict. Further, there is none of the triumphalism once underscoring many World War II films, which amounted to the United States saving the entire world from global fascism. The main problem the filmmakers never solved, however, was the scope of the undertaking. Indeed, as in the movie, the real life Monuments Men were a collection of scholars and soldiers from many of the Allied Countries fighting in Europe. They were, in fact, a much larger group than Stokes (a fictional character, like the rest) and his recruits, some 350 strong in fact. The right move was to pair down the number of characters, but the plot unfortunately rambled in several directions at once as the men tracked down stolen art.

Despite the problems with the plot, there is historical value to The Monuments Men. Obviously, it adds yet another layer to the myriad of reasons for despising Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Further, the uniforms, equipment, and other accoutrement were well presented. Still, there are other moments that are historically puzzling. While riding in a Higgins boat to Normandy (and why this was deemed necessary is a mystery), Stokes claims the war is basically over. Bear in mind this is still the summer of 1944 with Germany in control of the lion’s share of Europe. Time gets stretched as the historian viewing the film mentally checks off the list of events that occurred before Germany ultimately surrendered on May 7, 1945. These, and other problems, make this one to avoid. The actual story of the Monuments Men deserves examination for they did keep alive a large portion of Western Culture. As such, read the book, which is probably always best.

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2013 in Review

When Peter E. Thoma and I posted our first month’s content on the HistoryRoll in June 2010, I don’t think either Peter or I believed we’d still be posting by December of 2013. I was on the verge of beginning my first semester in a PhD. program and Pete an education program. I, ever the optimist, thought we had a good one year in us. Pete, the cynical balance to my rosie-eyed outlook probably saw it all falling apart in two months. However, as we move into the midway part of our fourth year, the History Roll has had its best year yet.

This past year saw multiple contributions from Ben Thompson, Dr. Albert Vogt III, and Rebecca S. Wingo (as well as Pete and I, of course). As we continue to solicit new contributors and gently remind (harass?) our featured writers to submit new content, we want to thank those of you who read and comment on our posts.

 

Happy New Year,

Jacob K. Friefeld

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From the Creepy to the Sadistic: Saint Nick’s Slaves and Enforcers

By: Ben Thompson

Santa Claus is one of the most recognizable characters on earth.  An amalgamation of Saint Nicholas (a third-century Greek bishop who once punched a heretic in the face and is now the patron saint of prostitutes, thieves, murderers, sailors, and children) and the Viking God Odin (a blood-stained, one-eyed warrior who flies around on an 8-legged horse surrounded by Valkyries and learned the secret of writing by impaling himself to the World Tree with his own spear and hanging there for nine days), Jolly Old Saint Nick is beloved by children across the world, mostly because he’s been buying them off for centuries with presents and candy.  And when we’re completely honest with ourselves, we all know that the secret to any child’s heart is through buying them every stupid thing they’ve ever wanted and letting them stuff their faces with candy until they go into anaphylactic shock and pass out with a Hot Tamale lodged in their windpipe.

 But Santa Claus doesn’t always work alone.  Sometimes he needs to call in the big guns.  The enforcers.  The hired help.  The eye candy.  And he’s got quite an arsenal of weird sidekicks at his disposal, ready to send any one of them forth to do his bidding like he’s flinging out Pokeballs packed with sadistic murderers, cold-blooded snow queens, and terrifying demons.

These are some of Saint Nicholas’s most infamous sidekicks.

Farmhand Rupert (Germany)

This dude is the sort of badass, no-nonsense sidekick you’d expect a good German Santa to roll around with.  A tough old man with a long scraggly beard, a heavy burlap sack, and a big wooden kid-smacking staff, Farmhand Rupert rides around on a white horse on a one-man crusade to put the Christ back in Christmas by asking kids if they know how to pray.  If the kid says yeah, God is totally cool, Rupert gives him a bunch of gingerbread and candy and a high five.  If the kid says no, Rupert bludgeons that heathen nonbelieving waste of human skin senseless with a burlap sack full of ashes until his arm gets tired.  Rupert travels the land with Santa on Christmas Eve night, smacking kids with his never-quite-explained bag of burned ash and leaving presents for the parents of all the bad little boys and girls.  His gift is always the same – a big stick that you give to your parents so they can beat your ass with it.  Merry Christmas.

farmhand rupert

Farmhand Rupert

Krampus  (Austria)

You’re lucky to get away with just a righteous asskicking in Austria, where Jolly Old Saint Nick is accompanied not by a grumpy old curmudgeon, but by a terrifying, leather-skinned demon with an obscenely-long Gene Simmons tongue who eats children and looks like something out of one of the Diablo games.  The son of the Viking goddess Hel (who lives in a knee-deep river of blood in a nightmare underworld realm where giant snakes spit venom in your face all day long), Krampus is the living image of Satan – a cloven-hoofed, hair-covered freak with horns or antlers and gigantic slathering fangs.  Wrapped in creepy rattling chains, Krampus spends Krampusnacht (the evening of December 5th) drunkenly terrorizing the streets surrounded by an army of demonic babes.  He dishes out coal to all the boys and girls, puts some of them into burlap sacks and throws them into freezing cold rivers, and brings the rest back to his lair to murder and eat them.  Why this guy gets to ride shotgun in Santa’s sleigh is something of a mystery.

Krampus

Krampus

Snegurochka  (Russia)

At first glance it’s slightly less mysterious as to why Russian Santa wants to be seen in public with Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden – a beautiful young blonde typically dressed in as skimpy a costume as you can get away with in the middle of the Siberian winter.   But don’t be fooled – she’s an ice queen with a freezerburned heart incapable of feeling love.  The story goes that some sad lonely family made a lifelike-looking girl out of snow, and that so much love went into the creation of this snow woman that she actually Pinocchio’ed out and became a real girl.  Beautiful, friendly, and charming, Snegurochka seems nice enough, but behind her beauty queen smile her utter lifelessness and inability to feel affection for humanity leaves her sullen, sad, and lonely.  She’s immortal, which is a curse, and she constantly wishes she could give up eternal life for the ability to feel anything ever.  In some versions of the story she’s wandering in the woods and finds a handsome young huntsman who warms her cold dead heart, and the moment she falls in love, she turns back into ice and melts.  And nothing gets kids in the mood to party like the story of a pretty girl having her entire existence ripped apart the moment she stops being utterly miserable.

Snegurochka

Snegurochka

The North Pole Elves (North America)

I was tempted to go with Ernest P. Worrell or the Santa Buddies here, but there’s just something about a marginally-terrifying race of enslaved Dwarves being forced into Oompa-Loompa style servitude at a sweatshop in the single most inhospitable location on Earth that really doesn’t make a whole hell of a lot of sense when you sit down and think about it.  In case you’ve never watched a movie on television in the month of December, Santa Claus makes his toys for all the lovely boys and girls by exerting his iron-fisted dominance over a civilization of a possibly-genetically-engineered race of little people, forcing them to live in the North Pole and crank out toys for a bunch of spoiled American kids.  They don’t seem to mind this, and always seem to look happy when he bolts off on his Christmas Eve World Tour and leaves them to their wretched fate on a miserable hunk of glacier ice in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Elf...creepy, creepy elf.

Elf…creepy, creepy elf.

Black Peter (Holland)

In Holland, Santa Claus is accompanied by a Dutch guy in blackface pretending to be a wacky 16th-century Moorish jester.  Zwarte Piet, Santa’s personal North African manservant, enjoys dancing, doing flips, making kids laugh, and throwing out handfuls of obscure candies with unpronounceable names like he’s running a one-man racially-insensitive Mardi Gras party float.  In recent years a bunch of fun-killing uptight Dutch people have protested the idea of Kris Kringle chilling with a white guy wearing black face paint and a huge fake afro, but considering some of the other Dr. Who companion options available to European Santas those ungrateful Hollanders should be happy with what they got because Zwarte Piet may reinforce a negative stereotype or seven at least he doesn’t want to beat your six year old daughter repeatedly about the face and neck with a sharpened stick.

Black Peter

Black Peter

Čert (Czech Republic)

The Czech version of Krampus, Cert (pronounced “chort”) is another horrible demon who gets to hang out with Rudolph and Santa Claus.  A Slavic demon with black, fiery skin who is typically depicted as being surrounded by flames, Cert is the son of the Black God Chernobog, who is basically what the Ancient Slavs used as a placeholder for Lucifer before Christianity came around.  On Christmas Eve children are encouraged to throw away the milk and cookies and put out a couple glasses of booze just in case Cert comes around – if he’s wasted he’s way less likely to snatch children out of their beds and DRAG THEM DOWN TO HELL.  It adds a whole new level of excitement to Christmas morning with all the little Czech children wake up and see the presents and realize they aren’t suffering forever being flayed alive in the Demon-infested fires of eternal damnation.

Cert sock puppet

Cert sock puppet

Hans Trapp, the Whipping Father (France)

Based on an old story surrounding the life of Saint Nicholas, Hans Trapp is a creepy-as-hell Freddy Krueger-style psychopath who enjoys torturing children.  The story goes that there was a creepy old butcher who killed a bunch of kids, chopped them into pieces, threw them in a barrel of brine, and prepared to sell their meat in his store and tell everyone it was ham.  Saint Nicholas came by, figured out what was going on, and brought the kids back to life with the Power of God, and Hans Trapp was so freaked out that he immediately repented.  Saint Nicholas imprisoned Trapp, wrapping him in chains, and now he is doomed to wander the land atoning for his crimes by kicking the asses of little children.  While Saint Nick gives out candy and presents to the good kids, Trapp beats the bad ones with a whip, cuts out their tongues if they lie to him, or throws them into a big wicker basket he carries on his back.  His face is ashy from coming down the chimney of bad kids, and some people think that the dude on the cover of Zeppelin IV is based on him.  Which is actually kind of cool.

Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp

 

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Homesteading Social Networks

By: Rebecca S. Wingo

“This project is based on research completed over the summer of 2013 under the supervision of Dr. Rick Edwards, Director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Efforts were also coordinated with the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities under the supervision of Kay Walter.

Visualizations were made with Gephi and rendered through sigma.js. All data is available for further research and development without cost. Please contact the author for more information”

Project: Homestead Nebraska

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Film Review: Twelve Years Well Done

By: Albert Vogt III

            In 12 Years a Slave, audiences experience an honest treatment of slavery.  It comes a year after Django Unchained, another film focusing on one the most unpleasant aspects of this country’s history.  Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 action fueled fiction, director Steve McQueen’s recent film slows down the sequence of events.  Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) provides the entrée into the world of those held in bondage in Antebellum America, one just as gory as Tarantino’s over-the-top blood spurts.  What McQueen infuses his own work with, though, is a sense of the arbitrariness of slave society, where the inertia of plantation life was punctuated by outbursts of cruelty.  For example, when Tibeats (Paul Dano) hangs Northup from a tree at a height where the latter’s toes could just barely touch the ground and keep him alive, the movie comes to a near halt and we are forced to witness, as other whites look on lazily, the struggle for air.  In Django Unchained, Northup would have wriggled free from his bounds, found a gun, and massacred the entire white population of Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) plantation.

Where Django Unchained, as well as Inglourious Basterds (2009), sought to correct historical wrongs, 12 Years a Slave cleaves to the historical record, in this case Solomon Northup’s memoir.  In slowing the pace of plantation life down to that of the slave, McQueen transports the viewer into the times in which they are set rather than making us observe a bloody spectacle as with Tarantino.  However, one fact not mentioned about Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, the work forming the basis of the film, was how it was penned by an amanuensis rather than the primary character.  For all the heart wrenching detail put into the movie, the extended moments of physical, mental, and emotional torture endured by all, it bears remembering that the story was dictated.  It was because of that knowledge I became interested in Bass (Brad Pitt), the character who ultimately helps Northup gain his rightful freedom.

When Bass first appears, he stands up to Epps, decrying slavery and claiming there will be an unpleasant day of reckoning for those who keep others in bondage.  Think of the moment: it is a plantation in Antebellum Louisiana, a time and place where the peculiar institution is a matter of unquestioning fact, and an itinerant Canadian carpenter dares speak out against the very symbol of the South in the form of Master Epps.  I was skeptical.  As it turns out, and this appears true for many moments in the film, Bass was actually all the cinema claims.  Evidently, Bass, though McQueen chose to ignore the Canuck’s profligacy, developed a reputation for being an outspoken critic of slavery.  Additionally, much of the conversation between Bass and Northup is taken straight from the pages of Twelve Years a Slave.

The presence of a character like Bass highlights the diversity of the Antebellum South as a whole, and makes 12 Years a Slave a richer historical experience than Django Unchained, despite the latter’s entertainment value.  There were/are whites conflicted about slavery, though one should not forget Master Ford’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) sympathy for Northup is undermined by his complicity in the institution.  There were/are slaves who lived through their bondage in peace, though one should remember they were still unfree.  Bearing these factors in mind, as McQueen no doubt did, his adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave for the big screen will conjure a greater sensitivity towards this painful side of our history.  It is on these grounds that I give this movie my highest recommendation.

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Khaaaaaan! Academy: Falling Flat on History

By: Jacob K. Friefeld and Peter Thoma

Open Access educational opportunities continue growing. The availability of Open Courseware that one can use to expose him or herself to university materials of varying quality, the growth of wikieducator as a community that collaboratively plans and develops free and open education resources, and the launch of the Digital Public Library of America have all illustrated ways in which digital media are transforming the ways in which we teach and learn. This month, the HistoryRoll is exploring Khan Academy, another open access educational organization. Particularly, we will evaluate the quality of Khan’s history educational materials.

First, despite our focus on history, it is worth noting that Khan Academy offers an impressive number of videos dealing with math and science, which students of all ages will likely find helpful. Likewise, the Academy makes 544 art history videos available to its students covering a broad introduction through ancient cultures into post-colonialism. While a bit Eurocentric, one can forgive Khan because of the detailed treatment most of its art history subjects receive (and because this Eurocentric shortcoming is minor compared to the gross European-centered telling of world history).

Despite Khan Academy’s success in providing materials in math, science and art history, it fails to serve as a serious aid to those studying history. While they are currently growing a “Humanities” section, as it stands now, there are glaring faults. First, there is an imbalance of material. The heavy emphasis of art history is due to the background of those working at Khan Academy, two art historians serve as the co-deans for history. Second, the format is not conducive to historical study. The informal voiceover of a map and pictures provide a pitiful attempt to showcase historic events and lives. There is no sense of what happened in the lives of the general populous. It is akin to a second-rate Eurocentric textbook. In the “1900 – present: The recent past” section, we were dismayed to see videos only looking at World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Our disappointment heightened upon discovering that nearly all of them focus on Europe or the United States. The few outliers (Allende and Pinochet in Chile, Korean War overview, and the section relating to the Middle East) sounded promising; however, the majority of attention focuses on  American or European activities in these respective areas. The Overview of Chinese history 1911 – 1949  video is a whopping eleven minutes long. Similarly, in the brief survey of American history from Jamestown to the Civil War, the Khan Academy instructor only mentions Native Americans twice, once pointing out that the French and Natives (unspecific tribe) fought the British during the Seven Years War, and that the British had armed Natives before the War of 1812 allowing these Natives to “cause trouble for American settlers.”

The absence of an interactive component presents another major problem.  Khan Academy is a digital, web-based open access educational resource; why not use some of digital media’s strengths? For example, the Academy does not need to develop all of its own history material. Why not link to digital projects such as Virtual Jamestown or the William Cody Archive and create structured activities for students to complete as they explore the archive? Similarly, why not crowd source history educational materials from scholars? Allow scholars to help improve upon Khan Academy’s current material; the academy could even make this material subject to review by its salaried humanities faculty. The Khan Academy could encourage quality content by offering money for acceptable uploads by its scholar/teacher users. It is madness to create an open source digital site and silo it off from the rest of the digital world.

As of now, this “Humanities” section is only an add-on to a math and science academy. It provides no more than a Wikipedia page on the material (and often times less). Providing information and lessons on math and science does not require knowing the context of culture, society, or time. Shoehorning history into an art history section on a math and science site with a smattering of lectures of mediocre textbook readings is not a recipe for success.

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Review: For Bread with Butter: The Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940.

This is part two of a three review survey of immigration history written from the 1970s-1990s.

Ewa Morawska, For Bread with Butter: The Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

By: Jacob K. Friefeld

In For Bread with Butter: The Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940, Ewa Morawska argues that ethnic networks and identities of immigrants served as an agent for their achievement and acceptance into larger American society. Morawska’s argument is believable insofar as she sees a sometimes uneasy combination of peasant homeland and American labor social structure as a coping mechanism for newcomers thrown off-balance by their new surroundings. She sees the formation of East Central Europeans into a working class from their peasant beginnings as an important cross-generational development that eventually led to their incorporation into American society. However, Morawska does not seem to endorse a model of complete assimilation in which the dominant society forced change upon an immigrant community; instead, she asserts that the “hybrid worldviews” created by East Central European immigrants were adapted into the larger society. Her argument is plausible because she emphasizes economic sources that show how the hybrid immigrant culture interacted and was accepted into a larger community of American laborers. The picture she paints strengthens the idea of immigrant absorption into, rather than domination by, the host culture. This deeply economic, labor based argument depends on census data and labor reports, and her reliance on such sources leaves one wondering whether material conditions were truly the driving force behind social incorporation or if there were stronger cultural processes at work driving the development of social reorganization. Such deep cultural questions would be difficult for Morawska to approach since she insists on broadly sweeping over East Central Europeans as a single group. If she separated individual groups and looked at each culture contained within East Central Europe, she would find a cultural analysis easier to undertake.

 

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