Movies, Dissent, and the Civil War

Controversy over Copperhead


Bill Kauffman, who worked for Reason back in the '80s and still occasionally contributes to our pages, wrote the screenplay for Copperhead, an upcoming movie set in upstate New York during the Civil War. Scott Horton interviewed Kauffman earlier this month, and in the course of that conversation the writer described one of the picture's themes:

If the movie has a political point, to me it's a defense of dissent….Of course, everyone says he's for dissent, you know? Or everyone's for the First Amendment, everyone is for "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." But I don't know how often we really mean that. Most works of art—movies, plays, books, whatever—about dissenters, to me they really stack the deck…because the author flatters himself, and the audience, that of course the dissenter is right, and of course all right-thinking people—including you, the audience member—will be on the side of the dissenter. Because the dissenter is always the guy who insists that the Earth goes around the Sun or that the Earth is older than 6,000 years, or they're the witches at Salem. It's so easy to stand at a great distance of years and miles with Galileo, or with the witches of Salem, or with Scopes and Darrow in Inherit the Wind.

This movie, one reason that I think it's challenging, is that it shows a dissenter that many audience members may not instinctively want to stand with. He's a farmer who's against the war. He explains why he's against it. Maybe you'll agree; maybe you'll disagree. But he's gradually ostracized by the community, and a horrible act is committed, and— I don't know, I think it challenges audiences in a way that historical films seldom do.

Right on cue, here's Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress. She hasn't seen the movie, but she did watch the trailer, and she has concerns:

I just wish that instead of Copperhead, we were getting a biopic about Charlotte Despard, a wealthy British woman (and sister to British war leader John French) whose pacifism grew out of a range of social concerns, including her work on poverty and her suffragist activism—in other words, a movie that can put war resistance in its social context, rather than one that in its advertising is hiding the uncomfortable truth of the Copperheads' acceptance of slavery.