“I Don’t Think Black People Should be Expected to Carry All the Weight of Grappling with America’s History of Racism and White Supremacy”: Rachel Boynton on Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are)
Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are), the latest doc from Rachel Boynton (Big Men, Our Brand Is Crisis) unfolds in a series of revelations. The project was sparked in the wake of the slaughter of Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC during President Obama’s last year in office,and continued right through the domestic terrorism of the Trump administration. During that time Boynton took a historical journey, traversing the US from Massachusetts to Mississippi, with a singular question in mind: What’s the story of the Civil War? Or more precisely, What’s your story of the Civil War?
Boynton began by approaching (all-white and all-Black) classrooms in Chattanooga and Lexington, and found that history is not so much written by the victors but interpreted by point of view. If the story of the Civil War is being taught exclusively from the POV of the white slave holder (centered on his uncontestedly immoral justifications on economic and religious grounds) – or alternately, wholly from that of the enslaved – then these two tales become, in head scratching fashion, both diametrically opposed and simultaneously true.
In other words, what the director discovered was a nation not just divided but comprised of two sides completely talking past one another. Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are) is Boynton’s heroic – and surprisingly successful – attempt to actually bridge that gap.
Filmmaker reached out to Boynton, one of 2005’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” just prior to the doc’s September 17th theatrical (NYC’s IFC Center and LA’s Laemmle Santa Monica) release.
Filmmaker: You began this doc during the last year of the Obama administration “on a hunch,” and there is certainly a searching quality throughout. Which seems rather dissimilar from your earlier, maybe more logline-friendly films. So was this a particularly difficult – or perhaps just different – film to make?
Boynton: I think this film is both very different and also of a piece with the other two. All three of my films – Our Brand Is Crisis, Big Men, and Civil War (or, Who Do We Think We Are) – are investigating what we stand for as Americans. They are about democracy, capitalism, race and history. When I was in college I wrote my senior thesis about national identity. It’s a theme that clearly resonates with me. I’m interested in the connections between people.
I think the thing you’re responding to, when you feel this film is different, is the episodic nature of Civil War and also my presence in it. It’s a film told in interconnecting pieces, rather than in a straight narrative line. In 2015, I learned that many Americans are convinced that the Civil War was not fought over slavery; immediately I wanted to look at how the War is taught and remembered today. I thought it could be a window into why we’re so divided. And it was clear to me that telling the film in pieces was the right approach. There are so many ways of seeing in this country. I wanted to film in multiple locations with different kinds of people — to explore how Americans feel, North and South, and to understand why they feel the way they do.
Yes, it was difficult to make, but all films are difficult to make. Grappling with my presence in the film was a new kind of challenge, though. It came rather late in the process. I wasn’t in the first cuts at all, except for my voice, asking questions (I’ve used my voice asking questions in all three of my films). But in rough cut screenings we faced two big hurdles: the audience needed more guidance as they watched the movie; and all the liberal-minded folks who came to the Brooklyn screenings were clearly made very uncomfortable by me. People told me I needed to own my whiteness more. A few people said I didn’t have the authority to make the film. Many people asked for more of me in the movie – partially, I think, because personally narrated films are much easier to follow and digest. Civil War is not a film about me, but identity is a big part of the story. (As David Blight says, “Historical memory is all about who is controlling the story.”) And so I wanted to make my identity as a white director explicit from the beginning, without turning it into “Rachel Boynton’s journey across America.” It took some time to find the right balance.
Filmmaker: The doc is quite sprawling when it comes to locations and characters – yet also very specific. For example, you film in the McCallie School for Boys in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and also the Holmes County Central High School in Lexington, Mississippi. So how did you even find these places and ultimately decide where and who to film?
Boynton: In Boston and Washington, D.C. I had Thea Piltzecker, my AP, helping with research. Everywhere else I worked alone. I did all the on-site scouting myself.
The original idea was to focus solely on classrooms, North and South. But while we were shooting at McCallie (the first location) I decided to film outside the school too. I realized there were important, deeply felt themes I couldn’t touch otherwise.
I got access to McCallie through a friend of a friend of my husband’s. After that the film built on itself. I would decide where to go next based on what I had found in the previous place. If I filmed somewhere urban, I tried to find somewhere rural. If I had just filmed in a private school, I looked for a public school. If the teacher had been white, I tried to find a Black teacher. I also wanted to make sure I captured the reality of segregation in American classrooms, because that segregation is intimately linked to the subject matter of the film. I always focused on places that had a deep connection to the War, places where the history had marked the land and the people. And it was very important to go South and North (as too often Northern racism and complicity are completely ignored).
A few times, while I was filming and editing, people suggested I should focus on one school or on a couple of locations with strong characters. But I never wanted this to be a film about a few emblematic people or places. For me it was always much bigger than that. I didn’t want to let viewers off the hook by turning it into a particular person’s story. I wanted it to be about everyone who’s watching the film too.
Filmmaker: Did you use a multiracial crew on all the shoots or take a path more akin to Whitney Dow and Marco Williams’ Two Towns of Jasper and their “segregated crews” m.o.?
Boynton: We never had enough money for multiple anything on this film and the crew wasn’t much of a crew. We were two white people – Nelson Walker (the cinematographer) and myself (I directed and did sound). When I got access to McCallie in December 2015 the first call I made was to Nelson. We had never worked together, but I had met him when I was looking for DPs to take to Nigeria with me for Big Men; I remembered him as someone who was remarkably open to the world and to other people. Civil War is an intimate look at some of the most uncomfortable topics in American culture, and we were talking to people in their living rooms and in all sorts of private spaces. I knew it was vital to find a DP who was generous of spirit, humble in front of the unfamiliar, and who was an incredibly good listener. Nelson is all of those things in spades. I also wanted to work with one person as much as possible because I really wanted the collaboration.
I didn’t feel the need to hire a Black DP, but I did feel the need to build a filmmaking team that included as many Black people as possible. My producing partner Erika Dilday is Black, as is Steven Golliday, our first editor, who worked on the project while we were shooting. The very first person who I asked for advice was Sam Pollard, an EP and editorial consultant on the film, and an incredibly talented director. This is a film that represents many points of view; it was important to collaborate in a meaningful way with Black filmmakers who could help me see my blindspots, and who could help shape what we shot and how we used the footage.
But I should say a few other things about this: I don’t think Black people should be expected to carry all the weight of grappling with America’s history of racism and white supremacy, nor do I think Black people are uniquely qualified to examine the subject. All Americans should have a point of view on it (informed, of course, by listening to perspectives they haven’t considered before). And we should all figure out how we’re going to confront it and change it in our own lives.
And I didn’t hire Steven because he’s Black; I hired him because I appreciated his work and I thought we could make something great together. And I appreciated Erika’s input because she is smart and strong and incisive. And Sam is just fantastic all around. Each person comes to the table with his or her perspective and talents; we have value because of our unique, layered points of view. I was incredibly lucky to have creative insightful collaborators —including the second editor Mark Juergens, and the composer Nathan Larson — throughout the process.
Filmmaker: It struck me as a pretty ingenious move to film students as they question you and your own motivations. In essence, as a director you’re enthusiastically relinquishing your power (something all white Americans, from North to South, need to do but overwhelmingly don’t). How did you come up with this approach?
Boynton: When I interview people I often ask them if they have questions for me. It’s my way of giving back some of the openness I hope the person in front of the lens will give to me. We were filming at the third school we shot – the one in Holmes County, MS – and I asked one of the students if she had any questions for me. Later that day Nelson said he thought that moment was really interesting. So from then on I made a point of opening myself up to questions in all the interviews. In the end, using those moments in which the students in front of the lens ask me questions became a way to guide the movie, and to acknowledge my presence and role. My answers help point the audience in the direction I want them to look. And it’s also a way of modeling the humility and self-searching that I hope viewers will adopt as they watch the film.
Filmmaker: You’ve said in your director’s statement that, “Ultimately my goal is to hold up a mirror to the people who watch the film. I want us to see it and to recognize ourselves in it, and, perhaps, to become a little less certain of our own self-righteousness.” I love that quote, particularly because this is actually one of the few films in recent memory that could very well challenge the POV of the white liberal audiences that most “issues” docs reach (and then pat on the back reassuringly). Did you have this demographic in the back of your mind as you were making the film – or were you simply trying to interrogate your own (white liberal) assumptions?
Boynton: When I’m making a film of my own I don’t start with an idea about who the audience will be. I don’t make it for a particular market or a demographic. I make it because I can’t stop thinking about it and I feel compelled to make it. As a filmmaker you have lots of ideas and most of them fade. The movies you make are the ones that get under your skin and hold your attention for years. When I’m making something I’m often not sure why I’m making it, but I can’t stop.
As an aside, I think one of my strengths as a director — one of the things I’m most proud of, which also connects all three of my films so far — is that I go out into the world with enormous questions, rather than a set story, and I work with what I find, in the form of unscripted footage. I work to be open and non-judgmental while still insisting on truth. Then I take my footage and I look for connections — repetitive themes and feelings and impulses that make the spinal cord of a movie possible. It’s uncovering unexpected poetry in the real, exploring big complicated ideas through small observed moments. The scenes dictate the movie, not the other way around, but the final movie always reflects my unique way of seeing. My films are unusually intricate and complicated, particularly for verité documentaries. It’s a kind of filmmaking that’s not very popular these days, partially because it’s incredibly time-consuming, impossible to finance and not very flashy. Still, it feels right to me.
So the questioning of assumptions emerged from the film. That’s what the film became. It began with an instinct, not a specific intention. It was me jumping off a cliff.