Documentarian Rachel Boynton’s Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are) is the latest well-meaning attempt to get to the bottom of our great national disagreement over the meaning of the events of 1861–65. Watching it, I realized how completely done I am with the last decade of polite liberal discourse about the Civil War, Reconstruction, and slavery. I say this as a frequent participant: I am just not sure what all this talking has done.
“This is a film about storytelling,” the movie, which is now streaming on Peacock, begins—an observation that lost its punch long ago. OK! Put aside the fact that all history is, to varying degrees, “about storytelling”—how could it not be?—and grant the idea that the history of the Civil War has some particular claim to narrative indeterminacy. Now what the hell do we do when some people in our country want to tell a self-pitying, wrongheaded “story,” one that shows the deep lack of empathy in their hearts? One that displays the same racist lack of fellow feeling that their ancestors once used to justify separating parents from children? That’s what I want to know.
Maybe it’s because the utter imbalance between the two “sides” is so obvious to everyone now, after the past decade or so of heightened public conversation about Black history, that this documentary feels so unsatisfying. For a “film about storytelling,” this movie has curiously little narrative drive. Instead, there are a lot of characters who appear for short amounts of time to deliver declarations about the history in question. Heartbreakingly earnest Black students! Recalcitrant white Sons of Confederate Veterans! Charismatic Black historians of slavery! (Kellie Carter Jackson is particularly magnetic.) White farmers who, bafflingly, blame the “federal government” for the recent loss of their land! Black protesters! Boomer Massachusetts liberals at an all-white evening discussion group about the history of Reconstruction! Mississippi legislators defending their “heritage” flag! Yale historian David Blight, giving one of his typically wonderful lectures! The gang is, literally, all here.
That’s fine. But some of these people are right, and some of them are just wrong. To her credit, Boynton gets some of the white interviewees to say things that had me infuriated. “There’s a lot of talk about reparations for slaves,” the farmer says. “When Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves, my great-great-grandfather, he didn’t get paid for them!” But I don’t need to know that “story” exists. I’ve seen this kind of weak-headed apologia over and over on the internet. When the documentary lands on a group of Black Lives Matter activists who sing at a white counterprotester, “Get the fuck out of New Orleans/ Get the fuck out of New Orleans”—or a Black protester who, when asked by Boynton about “Southern pride,” quickly says, “Fuck the South. Fuck Southern pride”—I cheered. The time for hearing them out is long over and done.
Besides the moments where Black students talk about elders in their family who don’t want to discuss slavery—an interesting counterpoint to the official white liberal line that we “must” talk about those times, in order to exorcise the poison—the brief glimpses of history classrooms were where I wanted more of this documentary, not less. History classes are the only places in the country where diverse collections of people talk about race day after day, in a systematic way: not while segregated into interest groups, as with the Sons of Confederate Veterans or any number of liberal anti-racist book clubs; not as momentary attempt at “enrichment,” as you might do with a day at a historical site or museum. History classrooms are, as one teacher in the film says in describing a difficult discussion with a student, “where the juice is.” The recent run of anti-“CRT” laws passed by GOP-led state legislatures further proves that this is true. Why are they so scared, one might ask? They know.
One particular episode—an eighth grade class at Boston Latin School, a public magnet school in Massachusetts that has a diverse student population—had a flow to it that the rest of the film sorely lacked. The instructor, an older white woman, apparently a teaching veteran, with the command of the classroom that this status brings with it, is working on a lesson about the lead-up to the Civil War with a crowded classroom. One student in the class, a young man with a ghost of a mustache, keeps speaking up. First, on the causes of the war: “I notice there seems to be a common idea that the Civil War was totally about slavery. I’m gonna disagree with that,” he says. “The South did want to leave the Union because of slavery, but the issue of the Civil War was keeping the South in the Union. So slavery wasn’t the total issue.”
Later, as they talk about Reconstruction and Jim Crow, he gets more and more frustrated, twisting in his chair as the kids sitting around him laugh embarrassedly: Here he goes again. “I just think talking about this is really not helpful,” he says. “What it does is it puts people in an unproductive mindset, it makes white people feel guilty, and it makes Black people feel like victims.” Quickly, a Black classmate jumps in: “If you’re treated differently because of something you can’t change, why wouldn’t you be a victim? You don’t have to talk about something for it to be a certain way.”
Behind the scenes, talking to this contrarian student and his teacher, Boynton draws out how the teacher is trying so hard not to “squash this child,” as she puts it. “He’s bringing some sincere and rigorous—the word he used was ‘logic’—to this problem” of Black people’s status in American society, she says. “But he doesn’t have an answer when I say, ‘What’s the reason, if it’s not systemic racism?’ ”
This rich episode takes up only a small fraction of the screen time of the documentary. What happened to this student, after the filmmaker was gone? Did the teacher, and his fellow students, ever convince him to look again at his beliefs? Or did he dig in? Let any future filmmakers looking to explore the American conversation about the Civil War take note: The big-picture ground has been covered. A teaching workforce that’s almost 80 percent white is working through this history with diverse groups of students every day. In every classroom, every year, there’s a story. Get thee to the schools, and bring your cameras with you.