Cold Mountain Leaves Out the Role of Blacks in the Civil War

Erik Todd Dellums, a Brown University graduate and actor and son of former Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, writing in the SF Chronicle (Jan. 4, 2004):

I am an African American, professional actor, semiotician and film lover. I am, therefore, underemployed, underappreciated and an afterthought in Hollywood. I am also a man who rarely sees an accurate depiction of black people and American history in film and on television. It's something I've grown used to, but now I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!

All people who truly care about honest representations of American history in Hollywood should boycott the heavily promoted"Cold Mountain." At a cost of $80-plus million and sporting a stellar cast and crew, this film adaptation of Charles Frazier's acclaimed best-seller opened Christmas Day and is being touted as the film to beat at the Academy Awards. It has generated glowing reviews for Disney, Miramax and all involved.

It is also a sham, a slap in the face of African Americans whose ancestors gave their lives in the Civil War, fighting for true freedom (take that, President Bush) from the most heinous form of slavery known to modern man: the American slavery system. How could a three-hour film depicting life in the heart of Virginia and North Carolina during the Civil War use only momentary shots of black people picking cotton and a few black actors portraying runaway slaves as its total picture of slavery during this period?

In an article in the Washington Post, the film-makers have said that slavery and racism were simply"too raw" an emotional issue to present in their film. In other words, who would want to see a love story with the beautiful Jude Law and Nicole Kidman set in the reality of the Southern monstrosity of slavery?

The film opens with a depiction of one of the more important battles of the Civil War, one in which the Union-trained black soldiers tunnel under Confederate lines -- a battle in which blacks suffered their highest rate of casualties of any Union division in the fight. Yet, it is almost impossible to spot any black actors fighting in this film (as three University of Virginia history professors recently noted in another Post article). It plays like"Saving Private Ryan," another Hollywood epic in which black contributions to history -- namely the Battle of Normandy -- are left out. Shame on you, Hollywood.

The Weinstein brothers (owners of Miramax, the distributors of"Cold Mountain") are smart, astute businessmen with keen cinematic sensibilities. They should know better. Could you imagine"The Pianist" or"Schindler's List" ever being made with but a few seconds of the reality of the Holocaust? Of course not. A film with such a gross misrepresentation would never make it past page one of a screenplay! And in reality, isn't the Holocaust, which occurred a mere two generations or so ago, emotionally"rawer" than slavery?

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More Comments:

tim - 1/10/2004

I teach Afro-American history, but I am not sure the critique of "Cold Mountain" as leaving out black history is well-founded. I have not seen the movie, but I don't see how this particular book could be scripted to "glorify the Southern cause," and western NC, where much of the story is set, has never been home to many African Americans, slave or free. It may be that the criticism is solid, but I am going to check out the movie for myself. My friends who have seen it describe a searing indictment of war, which seems a useful tonic to the national mood, and a story well told.

Nancy - 1/9/2004

Thank you for writing this article. I had even considered paying full price to go to this movie, but now I know I won't. I wonder if others think that the southern cause may be glorified in this movie?
Another gripe I have is that the actors are British, and the film was made in Romania. The filmmaker is British, also. Certainly our civil war is fair game, as European conflicts have been for US filmmakers. But I wonder if an American would have done better in depicting blacks-and would have realized the issue is central. And what about the book? Did it do the same thing?

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