Left: a white actor in blackface portraying a maniacal black soldier out to rape white women in The Birth of a Nation. Right: a Confederate vampire attacking Union troops in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Vampireface?
The national conversation about race, slavery and our collective Civil War memory has been at fever pitch. With the releases of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, movie critics talk about the two almost like a box set. See them together. Get the serious, political take on how we rid our country of a heinous institution, and then see the cruelties of that institution in full force (plus a little revenge). I’ve followed that advice and I’ve appreciated the ongoing dialogue, but I believe we’re missing a crucial piece from this year.
At the urging of my friends, I didn’t see Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter when it came out in theaters. A review called it “the worst thing to happen to Lincoln in a theatre since he was last in one.” When I finally watched it, I saw that everyone was right.
It’s outrageous. Almost as outrageous as The Birth of a Nation. And in my opinion, almost as important. Let me explain.
In the movie, Abe Lincoln since he was young trained as an ax-wielding vampire killer and tried to rid the North of all vampires and keep them where they lived - in the South. Vampires feasted on slaves and constantly tried to move into new territories and establish their own country. When the war came and Lincoln became President, vampires fought in the Confederate Army against him. (You can replace vampires here with another word and it would actually make sense.)
But here’s the #realtalk in this movie:
"We have to decide whether we’re a country of men or a country of monsters."
It goes without saying that Southerners were not vampires. And no, slavery wasn’t sucking blood from human beings. But were Southern slaveowners monsters? Was slavery not just as bad as sucking blood from people? Anyone want to argue about that?
Yes, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is a ridiculous Northern-biased fairytale meant to vilify the South. But is it any different from the portrayals of black men as sex-crazed sub-human brutes out to pillage the South in The Birth of a Nation? Is saying that the South was run by vampires any different from saying the Ku Klux Klan was formed to protect white people from black people?
Southern romanticism of the Civil War dominated our national memory for 100 years. From Thomas Dixon’s books to films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, we were ingrained with the belief that we didn’t fight the war over slavery and that the institution of slavery was kind to slaves. It’s that kind of perversion of the truth that led to support of policies that kept much of black America under Jim Crow laws. It took the Civil Rights Movement to change the tide on this kind of thinking, but 50 years later still 2/3 of white Americans in the Old South believe the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is simply a mirror. A mirror held up to the Old South to say: the rest of the country can tell outrageous stories too, and this is how it feels.