Who needs history?

I’ve done my share of bashing the movie Cold Mountain (before it ever came out), but I do have to raise a point (without having seen the movie) with Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon. The review turns on the complaint that there are only “about 12 African-Americans” in the movie.

Not to be confused with a reactionary conservative, but I must point out that there weren’t a lot of African Americans in the part of North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains where the book and movie are set. Primarily because there isn’t a lot of anything there. The economic elite owned slaves, to be sure, but the farmers who worked the land weren’t slave owning planters; for the most part, they were poor farmers working poorer land. (My father, who grew up in Madison County, recalls plowing pasture land and watching the clods raised by the plow roll straight down hill—that is, when he wasn’t digging rocks out of the soil.)

I’m not saying that Minghella’s movie isn’t flawed. But there was always more to the South than plantations, and one of the book’s strengths to me was how it illuminated the lives of these farmers and mountain folk, who were drawn into the conflict more by geography than by economics. To argue that the movie should have focused on slavery shows an astonishing ignorance about the history of the Appalachians.