Archive for Friday, August 5, 2005

Checkered flag

Does the Confederate symbol deserve a place with the ‘Dukes,’ or is it merely a reminder of America’s enduring racism?

August 5, 2005

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Bo and Luke Duke sit in their car, stuck in traffic on an Atlanta street.

A vehicle pulls up next to them and a driver shouts, "Nice roof, redneck. Why don't you join us in the 21st century?"

On the other side, a trucker slows down to counter, "The South will rise again!"

Unbeknownst to the Dukes, their mechanic has painted a large Confederate battle flag on the top of their Dodge Charger, nicknamed the "General Lee."

A young black girl rolls alongside, and the abuse continues.

"Late for your Klan rally?"

In the new big-screen version of "The Dukes of Hazzard," Bo and Luke (played by Seann William Scott and Johnny Knoxville) are ideologically stuck in the middle between two opposing sides of that beloved and hated symbol. Warner Bros. Pictures is caught in the same position.

Once again the debate rages over America's most embattled emblem.

"Putting a Confederate flag on a car in a big Hollywood movie - and having it seen all over the world - is really destructive," says Kevin Willmott.

The Lawrence filmmaker is awaiting the national release in the fall of "CSA: The Confederate States of America," his mock documentary that speculates what the country would be like if the South had won the Civil War.

He asks, "Can you imagine a Hollywood studio putting two heroes in a car with a swastika on top of the hood?"

Warner Bros. foresaw that controversy might erupt, so the sight of the flag is judiciously absent in all theatrical trailers and TV ads for the movie. In fact, the press kit features nine different promotional photos of the General Lee, and not one of them displays an angle in which the flag is legible.

"Clearly, they knew they had a problem," Willmott says. "They handled it all wrong. It would have been more honest to just say, 'We don't think there's a problem with this flag.' But to put the flag on the car, and then try to be slick and have it both ways, is really dishonest. They kept the flag on the car because they did not want to upset the NASCAR audience, which is their main audience."

"I don't see how you could produce 'The Dukes of Hazzard' and NOT have the flag on top when the car is called the General Lee," says Jean Warren.

Kevin Willmott

Kevin Willmott

Warren is a Civil War re-enactor who co-owns James Country Mercantile in Liberty, Mo. - a store that offers "authentic period goods and services to living historians, ladies and gentlemen, military and civilian."

"It's the correct flag for a car called the General Lee because it was Lee's army's flag," she says.

Would Warner Bros. have been forced to weather an even stronger reaction from irate "Dukes of Hazzard" fans if the flag was completely excised from the General Lee?

"I don't think anybody would have said anything," Willmott speculates. "The small portion of the NASCAR audience that would have been upset would have taken it like a man.

"If you allow people to be ignorant, they'll be ignorant. Someone has to sometimes come in and say, 'This is not good for you. And so we're going to remove it from you.' We do that all the time in movies."

Interestingly, the Chrysler Group refused to participate in a "Dukes of Hazzard" marketing tie-in with its 2006 Dodge Charger because of the emblem.

"We were approached and we looked at it, but the Confederate flag concerned us," says Suraya DaSante, a spokeswoman for Chrysler's marketing communications. "It wasn't really something we wanted to risk."

Calls from the Journal-World to Warner Bros. publicity compelled them to issue this statement: "By including the car as it looked in the TV series, we're being faithful to the original General Lee of TV fame. We present the car, and the entire movie, in a tongue-in-cheek way that pokes holes in those symbols without making a big deal out of them."

Roots of the battle flag

"The X flag that everybody gets so uptight about is the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia," clarifies Warren, who is a member of Friends of the Anderson House, a civilian support group for the Battle of Lexington, and routinely performs Civil War re-enacting as a laundress attached to a Confederate mounted cavalry unit.

The General Lee races away from the police in a scene from "The Dukes of Hazzard." The promotional photo is one of many that obscures the Confederate battle flag painted on top of the stars&squot; Dodge Charger.

The General Lee races away from the police in a scene from "The Dukes of Hazzard." The promotional photo is one of many that obscures the Confederate battle flag painted on top of the stars' Dodge Charger.

Indeed, that specific red-and-blue image with 13 white stars has over time come to represent the entire Confederacy.

"In my shop here in Liberty I fly the First National Flag of the Confederacy every day," she says. "I also fly the Missouri Confederate Flag. Nobody knows what it is, I'll be honest with you. I've been flying those for nine years, and nobody has ever said a word about it. But if I put an X like on the General Lee, they'd be all over me so fast."

Who are "they," exactly?

"The NAACP, Hatebusters, which is an organization we have here in Liberty that is attached to William Jewell College, and the media," she responds. "I wouldn't dare fly a battle flag."

Jonathan Earle, an associate professor of history at Kansas University, says, "What Johnny Knoxville and the people who brought you this movie would have you think is that the Confederate battle flag is just about the South, which is this quirky, fun place where the racial problems of the past don't exist."

Earle says the battle flag only came to prominence as a cultural symbol in the 1950s when used in defiance of desegregation.

"People just didn't fly the Confederate flag in the 1870s and the 1920s," he says. "Not only does it hearken back to the militaristic defense of slavery, it hearkens back to: 'We won't send our white kids to school with black kids.'"

A symbol for the '00s

Movie
The Dukes of Hazzard * 1/2

Stupidity is exchanged like hard currency in this sub-"Smokey and the Bandit" romp around backwater Georgia, the summer's worst adaptation of a "classic" TV show. The film features the same ratio of car chasing, bar fighting, arrow shooting and lowbrowing as before, but with more racism and sexism added for laughs.

Get movie listings, reviews, and more at lawrence.com

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"When we were kids watching 'The Dukes of Hazzard,' the Confederate flag meant something very different than it does now," Earle adds. "I do not see how you can escape from the reality that it represents the aggressive defense of slavery of the Confederacy."

Earle admits he was a fan of the original CBS show ("I watched it every Friday night when I was 8 years old. I thought it was the greatest thing ever") but can't understand the thinking behind Warner Bros. trying to adapt it for a modern audience.

"I just don't see this (concept) working now," he says.

Similarly, Warren says she, too, enjoyed the original series.

"I am a child of the '70s," she says. "I watched the Dukes. Tom Wopat and John Schneider were good-looking men."

However, she also believes society has undergone a significant cultural shift.

"In the time span from when the TV show was on until now, we have gotten into this whole PC (politically correct) thing," she says. "For whatever reason, the battle flag is not PC, because it has been misrepresented, misidentified, misused, etc."

Willmott remembers watching the program also, although his perception of it differs slightly from the others.

"It wasn't like I was relating to the rural culture part of it," says Willmott, who was in his early 20s when the program debuted. "It was just dumb and funny and fast. It had a style to it. But one thing I remember is I always felt uncomfortable watching it. There was always something that bothered me about it. And it was clearly the flag."

He says that uneasy quality continues to plague people when they encounter the image.

"A lot of Americans live with the Confederate flag," Willmott says. "They see it on cars and they go, 'Something about that bothers me.' And they don't quite know what it is."

Hollywood revisionism

Willmott embraced the opportunity to attend an advance screening of "The Dukes of Hazzard." He found elements of the movie "disturbing."

"It's another example of how Hollywood deals with slavery," he says of the film, which opens today nationwide. "They kind of do a sleight-of-hand move. They always try and divorce the immoral implications of slavery from the main characters. They did that in 'The Patriot,' where Mel Gibson is not a slave owner, even though he's got all these black people working for him on a plantation in 1775.

"They did the same thing with Nicole Kidman's character in 'Cold Mountain.' She and Jude Law support the Confederacy - he goes marching off to fight for it - but both are against slavery. ... That's like making a movie about somebody who joins the Nazi Party to fight against the Americans but really has nothing against the Jews."

While Willmott was appalled by many aspects of the new movie, he cites the scene where the Dukes are sandwiched between motorists with opposing views of the car's Confederate symbol as particularly misleading.

"The flag comes off as an innocent victim here," he says. "Those people (who call the Dukes 'rednecks') are not the good guys in the film. I did not come away from them as people that I liked. They seemed loud and unfair. That's what the NASCAR audience would say about those people: 'They're loud and unfair.'"

Willmott explains he employs the phrase "NASCAR fan" as a catchall for those who aren't culturally enlightened.

"I hate to use the term redneck because that's unfair," he says. "I use the term NASCAR fan, because when you go to a NASCAR race you see so many Confederate flags. Because of that, Warner Bros. chose to really embrace that culture. And that culture is not one that is real sensitive to the suffering of black folks. It's not that they don't like black people, it's just they've been told, 'Well, they've been whining a long time.'"

Comments

gontek 9 years, 12 months ago

This Wilmont guy needs to get over himself - maybe I should call him a "ballet fan". I hate to use the term oversensitive wussy because that is unfair, so I'll call him a ballet fan as a catchall for those who need to pull their heads out of the sand. I've never seen a confederate flag at the Kansas Speedway, has this guy has ever been to a Nascar event? Quick to predjudge and stereotype he is, I'd say.

He says we shouldn't let people be ignorant? He himself seems to he ignorant of the real history of the flag . Should we embrace our history good and bad and learn from it, or should we erase these bad sections and the symbology from the books? That is my question.

gontek 9 years, 12 months ago

This Wilmont guy needs to get over himself - maybe I should call him a "ballet fan". I hate to use the term oversensitive wussy because that is unfair, so I'll call him a ballet fan as a catchall for those who need to pull their heads out of the sand. I've never seen a confederate flag at the Kansas Speedway, has this guy has ever been to a Nascar event? Quick to predjudge and stereotype he is, I'd say.

He says we shouldn't let people be ignorant? He himself seems to he ignorant of the real history of the flag . Should we embrace our history good and bad and learn from it, or should we erase these bad sections and the symbology from the books? That is my question.

Good article. FWIW, I'm not going to see this movie, but I will watch the dukes on CMT every once in a while. Rosco is the greatest character ever, James Best is awesome!

bugmenot 9 years, 12 months ago

Oh, I'd say "NASCAR fan" is a fairly widespread term used as a catchall for the redneck crowd.

junkhand 9 years, 12 months ago

even though i basically agree with mr wilmott, i must admit he comes off pretty bad in this article

kansaskate 9 years, 12 months ago

Don't presume to call Kevin Willmott (NOT Wilmont) ignorant. Just don't. A teacher and renowned film maker would not put himself out there to be seen as such. Do some more research yourself before making yourself sound stupid.

jdal 9 years, 12 months ago

think back to when you were a little kid. You probably asked your mother or father at some point, "Mommy (or Daddy), is HELL a bad word?". The answer that you probably got was, "Well honey, it depends upon how it's used". The same is true of the Confederate battle emblem.

The Confederate Battle flag has been and in used in three distinct contexts: As a historical banner, and as a regional symbol of the South, and yes, as a racist insignia meant to intimidate.

As long as it's used within the spirit of the first two contexts, as it is in "Dukes", there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Keep in mind, that the American Flag, Old Glory Itself, was used by the KKK extensively during the first half of the twentieth century. Should that emblem be discarded as well?

Willmont seems to have trouble keeping things in perspective. Additionally, I would suggest that if he wishes to further the interests of African Americans, he would accomplish far more by concentrating his efforts on substantive issues.

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