Nobody just releases trailers for movies any more; now, thanks to the Twilight franchise (and others, perhaps), we’re starting to see trailers for trailers — and the latest trailer-for-a-trailer to hit the interwebs is this 44-second clip from Steven Spielberg’s film about Abraham Lincoln. There’s not a whole lot to comment on here, but I did think this would be as good a time as any to re-post an article I wrote for Books & Culture back in 1998 on the last Spielberg movie that dealt with the Civil War, i.e. Amistad (most of which takes place about 20 years before the war, but there are some clear foreshadowings of it, and, if memory serves, the film does include a brief shot of American soldiers meeting each other on the battlefield during the epilogue). You can read that article here. (And, wow, 1998 seems so long ago now, like it was a whole other century. Oh, wait, that’s because it was.)
It is a bitter irony, much noted by critics, that many films dealing with the civil-rights movement and its legacy — Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom, and, most recently, Ghosts of Mississippi, to name three prominent examples — have minimized the role of black activists within their own movements while extolling the (at times fictitious) heroism of white people who came to their rescue. But what is equally true, and not so frequently noted, is how these films secularize their white heroes and, through them, the process of racial reconciliation. If religion is visible at all, it is typically found among racial minorities or on the lips of white villains.1
Ghosts of Mississippi is a classic case in point. The film tells the true story of Bobby DeLaughter, an attorney who successfully prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith in 1994 for murdering civil-rights activist Medgar Evers some 30 years before. In the film, the black activist and his family take a back seat to the white lawyer and his domestic troubles, while the film’s only clearly articulated reference to religious belief comes in a racist rant of De La Beckwith’s. But when I interviewed the real-life DeLaughter for a secular publication, he told several stories of the prayers that had been said by himself, by members of Evers’s family, and even by the foreman of the jury. These prayers, he believed, helped bring the killer to justice, but there is no trace of them in the film.