I find it
kind of serendipitous that the release of “The Assassination of Jesse James by
the Coward Robert Ford” takes place in the midst of the growing controversy
about the Jena Six. As you probably know, several thousand people have marched
in that small Louisiana
town protesting the draconian punishments meted out to African-American high
school students goaded by racial harassment (including a noose hung from a
tree) into assaulting a white classmate. Two guys drove by the demonstration in a
pickup, also subtly sporting a pair of nooses. They were arrested, and one
apparently is a member of the KKK. Adding to the growing sense of deja vu to
the Jim Crow era evoked these events are other recent, disturbing incidents such
as this and this.
So what does
all this have to do with Jesses James? The noble rebellious soul persecuted by rotten politicians and capitalist nabobs into resorting to a life of crime?
The Wild West Robin Hood betrayed by a quisling he trusted? Such is the Jesse
Jame promoted by a long tradition of Westerns ranging from “Jesse James Under
the Black Flag” (1921) to “American Outlaw” (2001).
Punch “Jesse James” into the IMDB and you’ll come up with over 200 titles in
which he’s played by actors including Audie Murphy, Robert Duvall, Colin
Farrell, George Reeves and Jesse James, Jr. He’s a Hollywood
icon on a par with John Wayne.
But if T.J.
Stiles fine book “Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War” is to be believed, the Western outlaw hero of the silver screen was in real
life a racist thug who started out as a bushwacker, a Confederate guerilla
murdering abolitionists, Unionists and African-Americans during the Civil War
and after. He and opportunistic politicians and newspapermen would transform
his image from that of a ruthless thief and killer into a romantic symbol of
the late, great Confedracy. It was part of a successful campaign to undo the
gains of Reconstruction and restore white supremacy to Missouri and the South. In short, he was a
terrorist for a racist, pro-slavery,
Don’t get me
wrong. We don’t look to movies for history lessons, not yet, anyway. And some
of those films were classics, like Fritz
Lang’s 1940 “The Return of Frank James” (though it’s more about Jesse’s older brother), Sam Fuller’s 1949 “I Shot Jesse
James” (though this was more about the
conflicted Bob Ford) and Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist Western “The Great
Northfield, Minnesota Raid” (though this
portrays James, accurately one imagines, as a scumbag).
But “Birth of
a Nation” is a great film, too, and I doubt if many people are still
comfortable with its portrayal of the KKK as heroic crusaders saving the white
south from Yankee carpetbaggers and
black degenerates lusting after white
“The Assassination of Jesse James” might also turn out to be a classic — I haven’t seen it yet and
I’m looking forward to doing so. A quick glance at some of the reviews suggests
the film is about legend and myth and celebrity (with James a kind of John
Lennon and Ford a stalking Mark David Chapman?). All well and good, but since this
is the kind of legend that promotes racism and strife and nooses tied to trees
and pickup trucks, isn’t it time that Hollywood reconsidered the legend and
printed the truth?