Blacked Out


We African Americans lead strange and conflicted lives at the movies. For this reason, the Internet was recently abuzz with calls by actor and self-described semiotician Erik Todd Dellums to boycott Cold Mountain, a Civil War film noticeably lacking in melanin content. Charles Frazier’s novel hardly avoids African Americans as concertedly as the Anthony Minghella film starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. The versions share some key erasures, though—the opening scene, a re-creation of the legendary Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia, is perhaps the most egregious. On that July 1864 morning, Union soldiers exploded the ground underneath a drowsy Confederate regiment. Novel and film fail to mention how specially trained African American troops had been poised to attack the Crater (now a historical tour site) and the Southerners it swallowed. Historians claim that the African Americans were withdrawn due to fears of Northern political fallout if they were used as cannon fodder. Whatever, dude. Methinks the sight of armed African Americans freely picking off shocked and awed white Southern troops was too avant-garde for 1864. In any event, the upshot of the switch was that untrained white Unionists didn’t flank the Crater as the brothers were trained to, but rushed in and got shot up like fish in a barrel. At which point all the bloods got thrown in as cannon fodder anyhow. The Confederates, already peeved at being sneak-attacked, lost it when they saw armed and uniformed men of African descent. One need only imagine the language they used. A military adviser on the film recalls Minghella shooting a scene in which a crazed Confederate soldier slaughters a wounded African American. The adviser believes the scene got cut because it was “too over-the-top” and “too painful.” Minghella has similarly explained away the film’s eschewing the immorality of slavery. Since that would entail having Nicole Kidman’s snow-pure love object reflect on being a slave owner, one can see why. Once again liberal guilt goes belly-up in the guts sweepstakes.

In a year filled with Oscar contenders trafficking in the consequences of unilateral American vengeance—Mystic River, 21 Grams, MonsterCold Mountain‘s denial of race, the Civil War’s raging raison d’être, cost it dearly. Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, demonstrates the ways Poe, Twain, Hemingway, and Cather deformed their art through dehumanizing the “American Africanist presence.” Morrison also explains the attraction of the Gothic romance to 19th-century American writers as a genre that provided space for utopic white freedom’s antithesis: the terror of darkness, slavery, and nature. She further details how white Americanness is defined by nonblackness, explicating why the American Africanist presence became the repressed necessary evil of American letters.

The fact of Cold Mountain‘s being both a serious, bestselling, National Book Award-winning novel and a serious, artful Hollywood film provides a rare opportunity to apply Morrison’s ideas to the racial literature of today, which certainly includes Hollywood movies.

Frazier’s novel has been rightly praised as good literature and a good read. Inman, a deserting Confederate soldier, is on an Odyssean great trek back to his home in North Carolina. He is drawn back by memories of Ada, a transcendental Southern belle, and of the land itself. Frazier’s novel is Gothic and romantic; Inman suffers mightily in several dark, picaresque episodes on his journey, sustained as much by his arcadian sentiments as by the vision of Southern womanhood Ada embodies. Frazier once wrote a dissertation on landscape in American fiction. The pleasures of the novel include his writing about flora and fauna as much as his gallery of grotesques, sadists, fallen women, sybarite preachers, and star-crossed lovers. Cold Mountain‘s a pastoral and a Gothic romance and a feminist utopian novel as well—Ada survives the war and the winter of Inman’s journey thanks to bonding with an extremely resourceful farm woman, Ruby, played like a rabid Beverly Hillbilly by Renée Zellweger.

Word on the street is that there are no African Americans in the film. Would that this were true. There are in fact several—except they are all mute. In the film, a Stepin Fetchit-like gaggle of runaway slaves emerges from a field with a basket of eggs likely stolen from some decent white person’s henhouse. Though Inman begs for an egg, the darkies refuse to share. In the summary justice of cinematic closure, the runaways are last seen marching into the woods with their stolen chicken embryos, where they are massacred by members of the evil Home Guard—comical comeuppance, one supposes, for not recognizing Inman as one of their own, a runaway, as desperate to avoid the Home Guard as they are. Now, in the novel, when Inman encounters a group of African American runaways, he is fed and sheltered and passed valuable information. Given that there were half a million African Americans in the state at the time, Frazier knew better than to have Inman’s encounter with Us, in numbers, conform to coonish stereotype.

I actually treasure two of Minghella’s previous films, The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, for their visual sophistication and for the director’s own Gothic romance with dark outsiders who sacrifice themselves on the altar of blonde ambitions: Ralph Fiennes’s Hungarian—read Gypsy—count in Patient, Matt Damon’s social-climbing sociopathic ne’er-do-well Tom in Ripley. Several African American women I know despise Patient‘s tragic love story between those Nordic ideals Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas. To them the film epitomizes the dearth of epic African American film romances. My sisters overlook the more earthly, progressive romance between Juliette Binoche’s army nurse and Naveen Andrews’s Indian demolition expert, but since movies intend to work on the body and nervous system like music, critical responses to them never have to be rational or evenhanded. We all respond to movies based on our subject positions, and our own dark pasts demand to be heard from.

Minghella has a dark, swarthy background of his own he may need to overcome before he can see black people clearly. Though the director has an English patrician air about him, he’s of Italian parents who migrated to the Isle of Wight to run an ice cream business there. As an auteur he reveals a recurring fascination with caste traitors who desire rebel status and outsiders who desire the bodies and lives of the privileged. Like many other immigrants who changed their ethnic and class status through a British education, he may be a bit in awe of upper-class Anglicans. In a recent interview, the director said he saw himself as “staining” every frame of Ripley‘s aristocratic backdrop. He used the same term to describe his direction of Kidman’s Ada, too. Does Minghella see himself as grimy when set beside Anglo-Saxons?

The call for a boycott seems to have been premature, given Cold Mountain‘s faint nods from Oscar. The nomination of gentle Jude Law’s Inman is bizarre. In the clutch, toward film’s end, he works as Ada’s butt-naked, butt-pumping lover, but as a wounded rebel, a Southerner, and a mountain man, he’s a flyweight. Inman, as written, suggests a young Robert Mitchum or the De Niro of The Mission.

Kidman could have been a perfect Ada, since, by global consensus, she’s the whitest woman in the movies. But Minghella, like many of her recent directors, won’t let her be anything but luminous, wartime hardships be damned. Frazier’s Ada turns into a mountain woman with severe ladylike trimmings; Kidman’s Ada could never break a sweat. Off-screen, Kidman has an adopted African American son and has been romantically linked with Q-Tip and Lenny Kravitz. There are race metaphors lurking in Kidman’s recent roles: the working woman in The Human Stain, fallen belle Ada in Mountain, the robotic concubine in The Stepford Wives, and in Lars “The Bitch-Killer” Von Trier’s Dogville, a woman repeatedly raped, beaten, and exploited by an entire town. There is something unavoidably “raced” about her being adoptive mother to a black male child. It’s almost like something out of a damn Marvel comic: The whitest woman in the movies by day is an African American mama figure by night. If anybody needs to deal with slavery in a film, it’s her. If Minghella hadn’t punked out on the subject, Kidman’s chops and racially involved social life could have allowed her to work wonders with the material.