In “White Savior, Rape and Romance?” Mr. Blow says that the full brutality of slavery is strangely missing in a retelling of a Civil War story. Mr. Cohen, in “Britain to Leave Europe for a Lie,” says the E.U. is flawed. But the dream is noble and still worth the fight. It did not deserve to be trashed by hucksters. Here’s Mr. Blow:
The movie “Free State of Jones” certainly doesn’t lack in ambition — it sprawls so that it feels like several films stitched together — but I still found it woefully lacking.
The story itself is quite interesting. It’s about Newton Knight, a white man in Mississippi during and after the Civil War, who organizes and mounts a somewhat successful rebellion against the Confederacy. He falls in love with a mixed-race slave named Rachel, and they establish a small community of racially ambiguous relatives that a book of the same title calls “white Negroes.”
It is easy to see why this story would appeal to Hollywood executives. It has a bit of everything, with eerie echoes of modern issues.
It comes in the wake of “12 Years a Slave,” at a time when slave narratives are en vogue, only this story emphasizes white heroism and centers on the ally instead of the enslaved.
It tries desperately to cast the Civil War, and specifically dissent within the Confederacy, as more a populism-versus-elitism class struggle in which poor white men were forced to fight a rich white man’s war and protect the cotton trade, rather than equally a conflict about the moral abhorrence of black slavery.
Throughout, there is the white liberal insistence that race is merely a subordinate construction of class, with Newt himself saying at the burial of poor white characters, “somehow, some way, sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.”
And, by extension, there is the lingering suggestion of post-racialism because, as the author Victoria E. Bynum writes in the book’s preface, the relationship between Newt and Rachel “added the specter of interracial intimacy to the story.”
But, protruding from each of the film’s virtues are the jagged edges of its flaws.
First, there is the obvious “white savior” motif, which others have already noted.
In the book Bynum remarks, “At best, Newton Knight became a primeval Robin Hood, a kind of Anglo-Saxon Noble Savage.” But in the film there are also tired flashes of the Tarzan narrative: a white man who, dropped into a jungle, masters it better than the natives.
For instance when Newt is delivered to a swamp encampment of runaway slaves, the runaways are eating whatever they can, making fires in the hollows of trees and sleeping on the ground and in the open. By the time Newt leaves the swamp, he has grown and armed the encampment, built shelters, ambushed soldiers, organized feasts of roasted pig and corn and, as Rachel put it, he even “grew crops in a swamp.”
Newt conquered the swamp in a way the runaway slaves never had.
Second, there is little space in the film for righteous black rage and vengeance, but plenty for black humor and conciliation. After Moses, one of the runaways from the swamp, is lynched after registering blacks to vote, Newt gives his eulogy, remarking: “The man had so many reasons to be full of hate, and yet he never was. That, Lord, is one of your greatest miracles.” This is too often the way people want to think of black folks in the wake of trauma: as magically, transcendently merciful and spiritually restrained.
But perhaps the most disturbing feature of the film is the near erasure of slavery altogether and the downplaying of slave rape in particular to further a Shakespearean love story.
First, there are only two slaves of note in the film who are shown still in servitude, and both apparently house slaves: Rachel and a man named George.
Although Bynum points out that Newt’s part of Mississippi “was not a major slaveholding region,” the movie reduced slavery to an ancillary ephemerality and purges it of too much of its barbarism.
One of the only hints at the savagery of the institution is the rape of Rachel by her enslaver, but even that is treated so delicately as to offend — he approaches as her eyes dart. This is particularly perplexing in a film that relishes its gore. Later, when Newton notices a plate-sized stain of blood seeping through the back of her dress, she says tearfully:
“I wouldn’t let him. All the other times I just let him. What could I do?”
This genteel treatment, along with grossly inappropriate descriptors, appears in the book as well, when the author writes:
“Through encounters with women such as Rachel, Newt knew that white men regularly crossed the color line despite laws and social taboos that forbade interracial liaisons and marriages. Rachel, light-skinned and physically attractive, was the sort of slave after whom many white men lusted. The fact that she had a white-skinned child announced to interested men that she had already been ‘initiated’ into the world of interracial sexual relations.”
Encounters? Liaisons? Initiated? Sexual relations?
As long as she was a slave this was rape! Always. Period.
Also, according to the book, Newt’s grandfather bought Rachel when she was 16 and she already had “a small daughter” — which means that her rape likely started at an odiously young age.
This fascinating story was full of cinematic and educational potential, but there are so many moments in the film that strike a sour chord — particularly coming from a Hollywood that delivers a dearth of black-focused stories — that rather than contextualizing and clarifying, it performs the passive violence of distortion.
Now here’s Mr. Cohen:
I have been overcome by gloom since Britain voted to leave the European Union. It’s not just the stupidity of the decision. It’s not merely the lies of the charlatans who led the “Leave” campaign. It’s not only the absence, now so evident, of any “Nextit.” It’s not even the betrayal of British youth. It’s far more: a personal loss. Europa, however flawed, was the dream of my generation. The European Union was an entity, bloodless noun, yet it had a beating heart.
Riding a European train, gazing at the lines of swaying poplars, the villages huddled around their church spires, it was often impossible, at least for me, not to look past the tranquility to the blood-seeped soil and the tens of millions who gave their lives in Europe’s collective suicides. Well, as the Germans say, we had the blessing of late birth; and the duty inherent in that blessing was to build a united Europe.
Covering the European Parliament between 1980 and 1982, I would drive down from Brussels to Strasbourg. The Parliament was a bit of a farce. Unwieldy bundles of documents translated into Europe’s many languages were carted back and forth. Yet, in its cumbersome way, the Parliament embodied something important: the hard trade-offs of European construction, union conjured from Babel.
When I moved to Italy, with its large Communist Party and spasms of political violence, I would hear how “scaling the Alps” into the core of Europe was critical to the country’s stability. The E.U. was insurance against the worst. For Mediterranean countries like Spain and Portugal that emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s it was something close to salvation.
Memories: feckless Europe at the time of the Bosnian war and the thirst, nonetheless, of the small nations reborn in Yugoslavia’s death to join the European Union and escape the bloody Balkan gyre. Watching Germany move its capital back to Berlin from Bonn in 1999 and thinking, the German question is solved and Europe is home free! Driving, when I lived in Berlin, into Poland and pinching myself to recall the unspeakable suffering overcome by German-Polish reconciliation as Poland prepared for E.U. membership.
No miracle was ever so dull. Britain tended to see the E.U. in prosaic terms: It had not been delivered from ignominy or tyranny by European integration. Still, it gave the union heft, a free-market prod, a universal language and its second-largest economy. It was that recalcitrant member any good club needs.
Sure, the challenges mounted. The 30-year postwar economic miracle ended — and with it full employment. The Franco-German balance at the heart of the union collapsed. German dominance stirred unease. The creation of a single currency, the euro, was bungled. The admission of former Communist states spurred large migrant movements. The European welfare state was strained. Resentments multiplied.
Technology accelerated globalization, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in Asia but also offshoring millions of European jobs. Societies disaggregated. For each City honcho receiving a daily Christmas delivery from Amazon Prime there was some poor sod out there in Nowheresville working a precarious warehouse nightshift packaging stuff.
Britain, too, now has its “flyover country,” a nationalist heartland distant from the metropolis. This is how globalization divides the world.
Boris Johnson understood, in his scurrilous way, that the E.U. had become a perfect scapegoat for Western societies beset by the dilemmas of modernity. Opposed to Brexit early this year, he became its chief advocate, playing on every base instinct. Brexit was a tool, a plaything, never a principle. If he looks so glum in triumph it is because the adrenalin has run out.
There will be no extra $470 million for the National Health Service from European Union savings, after all. Immigration is not about to fall. Some of the regions that voted for Brexit are also those that get most funds from Brussels. “There is now no need for haste,” Johnson says. Oh, really? “We are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans,” he says. Oh, please!
If Johnson becomes prime minister in the fall, he will be an unelected leader, just like all those “unaccountable” high rollers in Brussels. When he tries to extricate Britain from the union, he will face a hostile Parliament. Last time I checked, Britain was a parliamentary, not direct, democracy. So perhaps there is still hope. If words mean their opposite, as they do in Johnson’s mouth, anything is possible. Europa is worth the fight.
The union, for all its failings, did not deserve to be betrayed by a huckster. It will not die because of this imbecilic vote, but something broke — a form of optimism about humankind, the promise of 1989.
My children will not inherit the Europe I hoped for. I look at my hands and see my father’s emerging, the veins now more pronounced. Life feels diminished. Some things are unavoidable. This was not.