And Another Thing: The Revisionism of Historical Fiction

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about. 

Some years ago, I watched (and enjoyed!) the 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams. I spent that first viewing more or less falling in love with American character actor Paul Giamatti — I really don’t know much at all about John Adams: American Statesman, but I know I loved the way Giamatti played him, as a more-or-less human man who is kind of annoying. It was compelling, and educated me on a few broad-strokes facts about the Revolutionary War.

But facts are stubborn things. My second viewing of the miniseries last week was seen through a far more critical eye, and I was forced to stop the entire proceedings and call bullshit halfway into the first episode. Necessary historical background: In 1770, John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers who were charged with murder after the Boston Massacre (I’ve seen it referred to as “The Incident on King Street,” from a Loyalist perspective). This success in court was both a sign of John Adams’ fancy lawyerin’ and an indication to the rest of the world that the colonies were led by reasonable men of worth.

Here’s the scene where the record scratched: 

There’s rewriting history, and then there’s this. I’m no Revolutionary War buff, I’m no expert on the Boston Massacre, but I knew in my soul of souls there was no way this actual trial proceeded with John Adams oh-so-magnanimously helping a frightened Black witness give exculpatory evidence, in the middle of threats on his life, and then physically giving him thanks by squeezing his hand. I had no choice but to turn that shit off and consult the historical record. 

The plain English is gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and out landish jack tarrs. And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can’t conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them.”

Ah, so what actually happened is Adams won that trial because he convinced the jury that soldiers fired in self-defense into a mob of black and Irish stick-wielders who had it coming. Weird how that didn’t make it to HBO! This miniseries was based on a specific biography of Adams, so I was able to confirm that exact quote from the trial appears in the source material. But if the year is 2008, and you want to make a miniseries about Our Great American Forefathers, most of the facts are pretty racist and disgusting. 

Just last week, HBO pulled 1939’s Gone With the Wind from its new streaming service. This was done in the exact same spirit as Lady Antebellum changing their name to “Lady A,” even though it has always, always been an explicitly romantic evocation of a slave plantation. I do not like it when people play dumb. I’m reminded of that Sartre quote on anti-Semites: “They delight on acting in bad faith.” This more recent attitude of modern-day racists is also evocative of @dril: “Sorry. Im sorry. Im trying to remove it.” 

HBO has decided to put Gone With the Wind back up, only now it will add a context-providing note, indicating that the film is racist 1930s revisionism of the Civil War era. Because it’s big and ugly and obvious. The racism on display in John Adams is merely 2000s Liberal Revisionist pap borne of some deeply twisted part of the white-boomer psyche that filled mythical fantasies about dead presidents in the part of their soul where a father’s love was supposed to go, or something — don’t ask me, I just watch their TV shows. It’s weak and insidious and pathetic.

The first American to die during the Revolutionary War was Crispus Attucks, and in the John Adams miniseries, he’s basically an Easter egg — an unnamed Black man, dead on the ground. In fact, before you even see Attucks, you see multiple white bodies, a young white boy nearly dead, and scared white British soldiers. In the real trial, Adams blames it all on Attucks, a “stout Molatto fellow whose very looks was enough to terrify any person [...] to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.” He then throws an Irishman under the carriage, for good measure.  

What’s so galling isn’t just that they excised the racism from Adams’ role in the Boston Massacre — it’s the wholesale invention of a make-believe, un-racist Adams. But don’t you worry: The screenwriter won a bunch of awards for John Adams. (He also did a miniseries on The Beach Boys and a TV movie on The Three Stooges.) Maybe ... just stop lying? Whether it’s Margaret Mitchell’s coy little rape fantasies or an idolator’s shaky worship of an imperfect man, White Feelings snatching precedence away from Actual Facts is older than America itself.

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