A Ridiculously Long Movie Review: Unbowed (1999)

Unbowed (1999) tells the story of three Lakota Sioux men who are captured and brought to a fictional co-ed black college called Betsworth, set “some time after the Civil War.” This movie boasts familiar black faces such as Tembi Locke, who I know from the 90s scifi tv show Sliders, Michelle Thomas, aka Myra from Family Matters, and Ron Glass of The Cosby Show and Firefly fame. They were my initial entry point into this story.

I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and came across this movie. The first viewing consisted of watching bits and pieces of it, as I skipped around, rewound, and fast-forwarded. Why? The uploaded quality is not great. The sound is meh for most of it and the color of the film gives it a 1970s color palette to me. Coupled with the exaggerated accents of certain characters (see Thomas), it felt very hokey and not in a good way. I thought it would be like every other movie I stumble upon on YouTube. Interested for a minute before quickly forgetting about it. However, this one stayed with me.

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So here’s a lengthy synopsis:

The story takes place during summer break at the college to which there are only a handful of students present, specifically six students (4 men; 2 women). One day a white US Army officer (Edward Albert) arrives with three Lakota Sioux men: Waka Mani (Jay Tavare), Simon Crow (Vincent McLean), and Jumping Elk (Mark Abbott). They were captured in Twin Forks (wherever that is) in which they attacked some soldiers. Rather than be hanged for their crimes, the officer persuades President Duquesne (Ron Glass) of the college to take them in and educate them, in order to prove that Indigenous people can be civilized. The officer adds that the three men in question have previously been educated by missionaries, thereby explaining how they understand and speak English. Their arrival brings tension between the students and the Lakota men.

What makes this movie compelling is the underlying tension between these minority groups (black and Indigenous) and the looming nature and impact of colonialism and white supremacy. Within that frame, you see Cleola (Tembi Locke) and Waka Mani positioned as love interests but it is a love story that doesn’t take center stage until midway through the movie.

I should add that this was female driven production. Nanci Rossov served as director and producer. I did a little digging and this movie was one of two movies she did as a director. The other is a 2012 movie called Redemption. Based on her LinkedIn page, she is still very much involved in directing as she is a Directing Faculty member at the Weengushk Film Institute and an Acting/Directing Coach. The screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, was executive producer for Harold & Maude, a movie I have yet to see but it’s on my Netlfix quene.

Let’s dive in shall we. My review pulls out themes that I picked up on as well as the things that irked me about the movie.

White Supremacy

The best moments, I think, took place between Waka Mani and Richard (Chuma Gault) & Waka Mani and Cleola. Waka Mani consistently points out the problems of white supremacy which he critiques through his usage of “the white man” or “white people.” He rightfully criticizes Richard and Cleola’s adherence to “the white man’s ways” given, historically, what white people have done to and spoken about black people. This is most evident in the confrontation with Richard who is initially Waka Mani’s teacher. They spar about the white man’s ways and how Richard, in pushing Waka Mani to learn these ways and Christianity in order to become civilized, is no different than a white man doing it. Their confrontation ultimately becomes physical. It ends with Richard being dismissed by Duquesne as Waka Mani’s teacher.

He is replaced by Cleola who is the only other qualified student to teach and Richard’s fiance. Here is when the Cleola and Waka Mani’s relationship begins to develop. However, their confrontation takes on a different tone. What brings the confrontation to a head is, in helping to build the anniversary stage, Waka Mani uses the n-word in retaliation to being called a savage by Junius (Catero Colbert), a black male student who despises Indigenous people. It is later that Cleola confronts him. She gives him such a dressing down that he is shameful and apologizes but this doesn’t end it. I found it interesting how education was a point of divergence for the two characters that mirror these different experiences of black and Indigenous people. Waka Mani positions education, specifically the white man’s education, as highly problematic. It is a tool and weapon of colonization. This instantly called to mind the Carlisle Indian School. I shuddered. Cleola counters with how education is a source of liberation for black people, who during slavery were denied it by white people. There is no clear resolution. Fam, whew. That was a lot to tackle in what translated into a 3-5 minute scene.

Funny how even though white people are barely a blip in the movie their presence, their history, their colonization, looms so fucking large.

The Romance Angle

Building on the previous section, I appreciated that Cleola was an established character before the romance angle kicked in. We know that she is engaged to Richard but ambivalent about it, due in part she does not love him. Also, he brings financial security whereas she lives on a “trust fund.” She is a top student at Betsworth but already experiencing the patriarchal call to be a wife and mother. This is established in the fact her final classes in the fall will not be political science and other academic subjects but sewing. Her desire to do something more, to have employment, is looked at with subtle bemusement by those closest to her. Couple that with having to lie about her “trust fund,” she has a lot going on.

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When Waka Mani is introduced, there is an unmistakable attraction. This is evident in several encounters: outside on the school grounds, the staircase, the library, the classroom. It is when she becomes Waka Mani’s teacher after Richard’s dismissal that their attraction truly builds. He finds within her not just a romantic interest but an ally. In their first lesson, he refuses to learn what she teaches him because it is not useful to his people’s survival or understanding of the white man. Cleola accepts the challenge and begins to teach him things that may help him. For example, she used math to help him determine how many rifles needed to kill a squadron of soldiers or reading the Constitution to know the basis for which the U.S. is governed. All of these are topics and approaches that Cleola, as a “respectable black woman” in the 19th century should not be doing but she does them anyway.

What further bonds the two together is Cleola’s grief at the lost of her mother and the weight of carrying that secret. Waka Mani is the first one to learn that Cleola is not really an orphan. Her mother, a former enslaved woman, is toiling away at a nearby boardinghouse to support her daughter. The money being sent to the school as part of her “trust fund.” To Cleola’s surprise, she learns of her mother’s passing after the fact. Through montages we see her move through this grief and Waka Mani’s concern grow. He wants to comfort her but a.) there is the issue of her fiance and b.) it exposes her secret. It’s only when she comes to him does their relationship pivot. What I loved about that scene in particular is that she had the space to openly express her grief and cry. He shares his blanket and sits with her in grief.

It was this whole romantic arc that made me take to Twitter to ask about the female gaze. The male gaze is the hypersexualization of women in movies and I wondered what made the female gaze different. I do not think the director overly sexualized Waka Mani but it was hard to ignore Tavare’s build and his muscles. Part of my discomfort came from how the relationship was built up. There was tenderness and compassion. It felt intrusive to watch this couple’s most intimate moments esp their love-making scene. Granted I did think it was absurd that this occurred on top of a rooftop. Like, people can see you!

Points of Connection

Outside of Cleola and Waka Mani, there are some through lines of connection between the black students and the Lakota Sioux men. The most substantive example is Simon Crow and Lewis (Rugg Williams). While other students such as Junius show contempt for the men, Lewis is genuinely curious and expresses a desire to know more about them. He and Crow, although in the background for the majority of the time, have moments where they bond and learn from the other. It is Lewis who argues against Junius’ prejudicial attitude toward them.

Lewis is also the catalyst for the one scene where the black students finally express interest in knowing more about the men. While Lewis sings “Wade in the Water,” Waka Mani joins in singing a complementary sounding song in Lakota that goes along with the music. From there, Crow and Jumping Elk join in adding sounds and texture to the music. All of these voices blending beautifully together. At the conclusion, the students and the staff marvel and clap. It is then Anna (Michelle Thomas), hesitantly, broaches the question of where they are from and what home is like. The moment is all too brief before tensions flare up again.

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By the time the movie begins to wind down, there is an unspoken respect  among both parties especially when Crow dies from a bout of pneumonia. In that scene, Waka Mani bemoans not having access to the medicine of his people. He tries to persuade Duquesne to get the doctor from town. Grimly, Duquesne replies that the doctor (presumably white) won’t “come to a colored school.” That statement and the look between the two men crystalize that feeling of helplessness and frustration with racism. Furthermore, Duquesne chastises Junius, Isaac (Aaron Knight), and Richard for laughing outside of Crow’s bedroom door, lacking decorum at such a solemn moment.

Colorism and Passing

This is an area that I wish that the screenwriter, Mildred Lewis, had delved more into. I don’t know Lewis background or race, as an Internet search yielded no information. The one Lewis I did find, who was a black woman, didn’t necessarily match up to the scant information I found of Lewis, the movie’s screenwriter.

I say this because these two topics come up briefly but not dug into. The Army officer, who was referenced earlier who is played by white actor Edward Albert, reveals to Duquesne that he is a white-passing Indigenous person. He even uses this term “passing” to indicate how he shook off the culture of his ancestors in order to move through white society. We learn that because of this choice, his son attends Harvard. But we are supposed to empathize with him because he low key gives money to Betsworth, to which Duquesne points out that he is in a financial position to give more to the failing college but chooses not to. At the same time, the officer, in passing as white, adopts the problematic, harmful rhetoric of the white man that “civilizing the savage” is the key. Honestly, fuck that noise. On some level, I get it within the context of that time but harm is harm.

Another topic that went unexplored was the latent colorism vis-a-vis social class among the black students. It was Cleola’s mother, a dark-skinned formerly enslaved woman, that made me aware of this. To the students and the president of the college, Cleola is an orphan who has a trust fund. It gives the impression that she comes from money. What we discover is that her mother is very much alive and working in a boarding house and that it is her hard work and saving that is making Cleola’s future possible. In the one scene with her mother, her mother is excited to hear that Cleola is engaged to Richard, a well to do, light-skinned man from an affluent family. Cleola wants so much to tell her fiance about her mother to which her mother severely scolds her noting “they wouldn’t want to see a dark-skinned woman like me in the family.” She directs her daughter to wait until after they are wed to tell the truth.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

The only scene between Cleola and her mother.

It is then I realize, in this small cast of characters, that the ones with privilege and wealth are those of a lighter hue. It’s laced in the conversation and speech of Richard, Junius, and Anna. Given that the movie is only a few decades out from the Civil War, I began to wonder about their families. Were they free blacks? Perhaps even some white-passing family members? So much left unexplored.

My nitpicks

Time frame

Honestly, I don’t know when this movie was set, hence the “some time after the Civil War” quotation marks at the beginning of this review. Based on what I picked up in the dialogue, I would surmise that this is set sometime between the mid-1880s-1890s. I based this on the fact that Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells were mentioned.

I questioned this, however, because I was unable to get a clear sense of characters’ ages. For example, Junius spoke of the reasons for his hatred of Indigenous people. In a short monologue, he spoke of serving in the U.S. Calvary, growing up in “Oklahoma...Indian Territory” and related quite vividly about Indigenous people owning slaves and his grandfather being killed two days after the end of the war by an Indigenous man. There was a lot to unpack here. That is further compounded by the fact the actor looks like he is in his 20s. Also, I was unsure if Oklahoma was called Oklahoma considering it officially became a state in 1907.

Location

The college is set in Ohio. However, the men were captured in Twin Forks. I have no idea where that is but presumably it was three days walk from the college and involved crossing mountains.

The few white people

The few white people we encounter, specifically the Army men, show politeness and deference to the President of the college and the students. I….did not believe this for a minute. Whatever the time frame, we were not far out from the Civil War which *checks notes* was fought over slavery. Note to white creatives, white people in history didn’t treat black people, hell any people of color, universally as the same or equal to them. Nope. Never. Not a one.

Final thoughts:

I recognize that this review is written from the viewpoint of a hetero black woman. As such, I tried to refrain from projecting authority or knowledge of Lakota Sioux people and customs. It would be interesting to hear what a Lakota Sioux person thinks of this movie, watching it in 2019. I do know that Tavare won an award for his acting in the American Indian Film Festival in 1999.

If you can get past the video quality, I suggest you check out Unbowed on YouTube.








Book Review: They Where Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

As a Black daughter of the South, I am encouraged by the recent scholarship being researched, written, and published by historians of color, especially Black female historians, as they pose different questions of the extant source material or dive into little regarded material. Shout out to my archivists, citizen-archivists, librarians, and volunteers for the work you do to preserve these materials.

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Dr. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, is my second foray into this reimagined South. My first read was Dr. Daina Ramey Berry’s amazing book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of the Nation.

Jones-Rogers postulates that contrary to prior historical study of the antebellum South, white women were active participants in slavery. What follows over the course of 205 pages is a multifaceted understanding of white women during this period (including postbellum) and in this region.

In a word, y’all, Jones-Rogers shakes the whole damn table, even for this daughter of the South. Drawing from court records, records of slave traders, personal papers, publications and WPA’s oral histories of formerly enslaved people, etc, she puts on display the source material hiding in plain sight but long dismissed or undermined by (white) historians, male or female.

She challenges readers to reckon with white women. Readers are confronted with multiple examples of how white women were deeply embedded in slavery from inheriting enslaved property, attending auctions to buy or sell enslaved people, to suing husbands, family members or slave traders to protect their rights. A common refrain of the time was their [white women] “sole and separate use” to manage their property how they saw fit. And, in most cases, as Jones-Rogers pointed out, they were successful.

The throughline I saw in all of this was the false assumptions of previous historians who allowed their own biases to shape, color, and flat out dismiss very real aspects of Southern culture and history. Jones-Rogers introduces these historians and their theories many of which are couched in patriarchal and paternalistic tones toward white women. In bringing their biases into the scholarship, they unknowingly (or knowingly?) minimized the harsh reality. In a slave society, these women were not unaware, unlearned, or exempt from it. They were often at the forefront as seen in Chapter 5 regarding the creation of a niche market for enslaved wet nurses. They shaped it and doled out the brutal punishments. (Aside: one story in particular made me shudder) Also, Jones-Rogers notes many white women owned less than ten enslaved people, likely one or two so these were not necessarily elite women living in grand mansions.

Why should we know this? Why should we re-engage with this history? Jones-Rogers offers up this statement:

If we acknowledge that white women stood to personally and directly benefit from the commodification and enslavement of African Americans we can better understand their participation in postwar white-supremacist movements and atrocities such as lynching - as well as their membership in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. Southern white women’s roles in upholding and sustaining slavery form part of the much larger history of white supremacy and oppression. And through it all, they were not passive bystanders. They were co-conspirators.

As this book shows, these women were active participants, kind or brutal but most certainly owners. Active in the sale and destruction of enslaved families. Active in punishment. Active in engineering rape and sexual assault to ensure the continuation and profitability of their enslaved people. Active in ignoring the newfound freedom of their enslaved people with the Emancipation Proclamation. All the while spinning lies to tell themselves to justify their superiority over African and African American bodies.

Lies that are still being used today, I might add. Do white people know that when they pull these racial cards (“slavery was good for black people” and “white people were kind to their slaves” or “black people are lazy”) they are pulling on centuries old and well-documented fallacies that date to when white people actually owned people. They align themselves with the oppressors. I use to chock this up to white people being uneducated but now I see it for what it is: racial tradition that white people have passed down to absolve themselves of wrongdoing. Willfully sidestepping the generational trauma and genocide their ancestors inflicted, they presently inflict, or, equally as bad, remain indifferent to by seeing trauma unfold and do no more than virtual hand-wringing on these social media streets as if power to do something is outside of their grasp.

But, I digress.

In summation, READ this book. It will challenge your assumptions of white women during the antebellum and postbellum period, your understanding of Southern white marriages, and, honestly, break your heart all over again regarding the experience of enslaved African Americans in this country.



My Take on Black Panther

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post originally written around March 2018

I was about ten years old. For weeks, I had been building up the nerve to cross over into the adult side of the public library. My mom was over there searching for a book. I still remember the slow walk across the taupe tiled floor. I cast a furtive glance over at the librarians at the circulation desk. My small hand touched the cool door frame. No one yelled “stop” or “adults only.” I took a deep breath and I pushed against the glass door.

The silence. Even know, I remember the silence that pressed against my ears. I shot a glance at the librarian behind the desk. He didn’t stop me. I took in my new, unfamiliar surroundings. Wooden and metal bookshelves taller than me. Taller than anything in the kids section. The 70s style furniture. A room awash in shades of brown. One section, to the right of where I stood, reminded me of a living room as two men sat reading the paper. To the left of me were large, long tables. I stepped further into this new space wanting to run away, flee back to the kids section but then I saw my mom. The sight of her made me feel better so I went to her.

She was still looking for her book and slightly in a huff because I had ventured over to the adults side. She told me to keep myself busy but not to touch anything. I didn’t roam far from her instead I scanned the shelves looking at different titles. Bored out of my mind.

Then I came to these plastic bins. There were so many. They were full of laminated white card stock. As I flipped through them, I saw new titles. I pulled out a card stock to see the image of a movie poster. I grinned.

I hungrily flipped through them trying to find something, anything that looked interesting. I had almost given up hope until I came to “S.” Star Wars: A New Hope

When my mom found me again, she mentioned that it was part of a trilogy so there were three movies total. She helped me find them. I pulled the card stock and walked with my mom to check out Star Wars.

I went home and watched all three in one sitting.  

By the time I was 12 years old, my mother was dropping me off at the mall to see movies by myself. Between 10 and 12, my momma went with me. Something to keep her rambunctious youngest child busy following church when my entire family wanted to eat Sunday dinner and then nap. Every Sunday, like clockwork, we went to the movies. By the time I was 12, she deemed me old enough to be dropped off. She gave some change to use the payphone to call home when I was ready.

When I would get home, I would take the movie tickets and put them in a red velvet earring box that I kept for the occasion. I’d place my movie stubs in there and clap it shut.

Cut to nine years later, I was returning home for the last time to sort through my childhood belongings. The house filled me with sadness. My mom had died a year earlier and now I had one chance to grab what I could from my room before my dad threw it all away. That velvet box still sat on my dresser. I opened it to find it stuffed with movie stubs ready to explode out. I marveled at all the movies I saw as a kid. The low prices of movies. But also my mom.

She sparked the creativity inside of me and stoked the flames throughout my childhood.

Why should you care? Context. It gives invaluable context to what I will say next.

From an early age, I drank up movies. I greedily absorbed them. And in them, I learned the art of storytelling. What it means to tell a story. What worked, what didn’t, and how that mediocre story could have been improved with changes. Some read books. I watched movies.

Within that, I absorbed the Hollywood image. The white leading man or woman. Seldom did I see myself or anyone I know portrayed on screen in any substantive, meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed Color Purple, Harlem Nights, and Waiting to Exhale but I experienced those movies between childhood up to my early 20s. There are things, jokes, and situations you don’t fully grasp because of your age.

Then came Black Panther.

In a crowded, family-owned Mediterranean restaurant, I wanted George, my fellow cinephile and white male friend, to shut the fuck up. We had just come from seeing Black Panther. I sat in the small maroon-colored booth bedecked in my long orange and green African print skirt paired with black power earrings and a black shirt with white words emblazoned on my chest:

“We Out.”

-Harriet Tubman, 1849

He jabbered on about the elements of the movie and the performance of the actors. I heard snatches of it. My ears momentarily perked up at the mention of T’Challa or Okoye but I had retreated inward. Processing and reflecting on what I had experienced. Not watched. Experienced. It wasn’t the cinematic experience of seeing Star Wars as a kid or even the first Avengers movie.  This was something else.

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In Okoye, I saw my sister. Her determined stance and stern face but also the compassion that belied it. Interestingly, my sister is a soldier with over 10 years in the U.S. Army. My sister has seen war. My sister graduated in 2000 and promptly enlisted in the army. Then September 11, 2001 happened. I sat in my 11th grade English Lit class taking a test when my A.P. History teacher, Mr. Ervin burst into the room.

“Turn on the tv, now,” he barked at my teacher. We chuckled amongst ourselves thinking what craziness is Mr. Ervin doing. My teacher turned on the TV to the channel Mr. Ervin specified. We sat watching. The plums of smoke emanating from one of the towers.

Then the second plane hit. Silence.

Somewhere, right at that moment, my sister was on a plane.

It was two days before we heard from her. She was OK. Her unit had landed at their layover in Ireland when they heard the news. Soon after, my sister was deployed to Afghanistan and then Iraq. She missed my 2003 high school graduation because of it. When I was a freshman in college, I remember her crying on the phone because all she wanted to come home. The bubbly (still mean) sister changed. Still my sister but different. She had seen some shit. That’s what I saw in Okoye.

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In the playfulness of T’Challa and Shuri, I saw my brother. I think of summer time. Summertime is when we had our fun. At 16, with his first paycheck from Burger King, my brother bought himself a SuperSoaker and two smaller ones for my sister and I. We had a water gun fight in the house.

I remember the inflection of his voice when he calls me “nerd” or, his personal favorite, “beanface.” A few months ago, I saw my big brother and sister. In those moments, where it was was the three of us (no kids underfoot or spouses), I relished in being their little sister. I missed it.

That is why I needed George to shut up. I wanted to luxuriate in the magic, the glory of being seen. To distinctly see the people I know, love, and respect reflected on screen. Not only that, black people thriving and not suffering (for the most part). I didn’t know how much I needed to see that.

It’s that image that drew black audiences to see it multiple times. I kept saying I wanted to see Black Panther a second time. I blamed my failure to do so on the fact I was busy. Friends, that’s not it.

I wanted (and still do) to hold on to that feeling for as long as I can because I know, once I see it a second time, my inner cinephile will come bursting forth. Over 20 years in the making, I can spot a good story. I can spot the holes. I can see the cracks in the foundation.

I want to admire the house for as long as I can before I notice that it may not be as perfect as I think it is or hope it to be.

As a people (speaking to my black folks), we’re still striving to be included at the table, in the conversation. That for one person to succeed is a success for us all. But all too often, we can overlook the cracks. The problem spots. Only the brave speak out on it early. Sometime after seeing Black Panther, I listened to an episode of #StillProcessing, a culture podcast. The two hosts raised the issue of critiquing black art. When will we get to that point where we [meaning black people] critique our work? Not to tear it down but to learn from it and as a result improve upon it.

I nodded along because in their conversation I realized the aforementioned point. I staved off watching the movie because I knew I would have a more critical, less emotional eye on it. And if I did find the cracks, what the fuck was I suppose to do with them?

Critique a commercially-successful move with such meaning to the black community. Deal with the potential blowback. The misygnoir that would (inevitably) rear its ugly head. Yet have black people who will slide in my mentions or DMs to say they privately agree with me. Have my words twisted and weaponized used by white people to say “see this black person didn’t like it.”

Or, more personally, say to my family, I liked it but...and prepare for the clowning I would get. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m overthinking it but reality tells me I’m not.

Black Panther gave us a glimpse of a world where black people are prospering and thriving. It imagined a different way of life. It gave hope.

Who am I to undermine that?

At least, I mean, for now.








A History Lover's Lament: TV Show fuckups

TV writers from NBC to ABC to AMC to Netflix gather in a small conference room awash in shades of calming blue. Some are seated. Most are standing shifting from one foot to another. Silence settles over the group as I stand up. A wry chuckle escapes my lips. My gaze shifts to the pack of Newport 100s in my hand. Ripping the plastic off, I open the pack and slide out one cigarette while looking at them. My unblinking, piercing stare unnerves them. The corners of my mouth flick upward. I like it. I drink in their nervousness.

I take a long drag from my cigarette reflexively closing my eyes. I gently push out the nicotine air. My eyes open once most of the smoke starts to dissipate. Now is the time I open my mouth to say why I gathered them. Why they are standing here?

If you’re not going to study fucking history, don’t write it.

After finishing Season 2 of Anne With an E, I felt annoyed. I took to Twitter and wrote the following tweet:

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My main grievance was the modernization of a historical show. I acknowledge that the show is a work of fiction. However, it draws from history and a very real place: Prince Edward Island, specifically in the 1900s. The first season was solid. The writers utilized our expansive knowledge of the effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder to flesh out Anne Shirley. While her fortunes may have changed, at the heart, she was a 13 year old orphan who had a traumatic childhood. That does not simply go away. A moment conjures up painful memories of abuse in the orphanage at the hands of the other children and foster parents.

Anne is not the only character explored with greater depth. Over the course of Season 1 and Season 2, the show spends considerable time fleshing out brother-sister duo Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Theirs is a story of familial grief, resilience, and hopes deferred. Who could they have been had their older brother Michael not died? His death was a tremendous impact that obliterated their family.

It is through Anne’s experience that the lens expands to touch on the social mores of 1900s rural Canada. Avonlea, for all its homespun, lighthearted glory, is a close-minded, deeply conservative town. Despite being a child, Anne is regarded as defective, troublesome, and broken. From Marilla’s childhood friend Rachel Lynde to the good minister, they are all too eager to believe the worst of her and to shun her. Much of the show consists of Anne having to prove herself worthy, in some way, to this town.

Taking all of the Season 1 groundwork into consideration, the show (and its writers) blow all of that up in Season 2. On the pillars of race and sexuality, the show makes a bungled foray into historical territory that exists on the margins. This is tackled through the introduction of Sebastian (aka Bash), a Trinidadian man, Cole, an artistic Avonlea farm boy, and Josephine Barry, a wealthy relative of the Barry family.

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In the case of Bash, the show relied on obvious racial discomfort and shock of seeing a black man and overt racism. It is then we learn, interestingly, that black people do live in an area called "The Bog." The Bog is referred derisively by white characters as a place for “criminals and the wretches of society.” Yet, that is not what Bash experiences. In this space, Bash finds rest from the white gaze and enjoys kinship. Season 1 demonstrated that Anne, a white female orphan had to prove herself over and over to these judgmental townies that, despite what they thought, she was good. Bash does not follow a similar trajectory. He is, more or less, accepted.

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Then there is Cole who is relentlessly bullied by an asshole kid Billy and often scolded by his teacher, Mr. Phillips, who struggles with being gay as well. On the show, being gay is demonstrated as being artistic and a preference for hanging with the girls instead of the boys. When he reveals his sexuality to Anne, he finds acceptance. When his world comes crashing down and everything ripped away from him, he finds a solution. He gets his happy ending no matter how implausible.

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Josephine Barry, given what little we know of her financial background other than “well off,” likely lives a life slightly truer to history. With money, she can go to Paris and have extravagant parties. Essentially, live her life out loud. Yet, it circles back to whether or not she would have been ostracized by her family, specifically her relatives in provincial Avonlea.

All of these questions swirl around these characters and yet none tackled to any sufficient degree. This show did not shy away from showing the harsher aspects of life in regards to Anne. However, when they introduce characters of color and queer people, suddenly, their experience is different, better. Warm and inviting. A modern corrective on a likely abysmal but historical experience. Frankly, these characters are written as white, male characters where bad things happen to them but they still win out in the end. Historically, when you exist on the margins, a true happy ending was the exception not the rule.

Yet, when I pull back the curtain, the treatment of history among TV shows is wanting. As a student of history, I cannot suspend my disbelief and gloss over historical experiences. From the practically nonexistent sexism and racism toward Betsy, a black female sex worker in Damnation to the problematic, sloppy Season 2 of Underground, television writers have demonstrated they take too much creative license and paint history with a modern lens. Try as I might I still give them a chance.

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Only one show succeeded in creating a nuanced take on history and that’s AMC’s Hell on Wheels. It is a masterful study of an interesting time in America’s history beginning soon after the Civil War. This show depicted the realities of life not only in that time but in general. A perfect happy ending is rare but you can still find a good ending. I did not watch the show much after its second season. I tuned out when the protagonist made a choice that was far afield of his character. I could not believe everything that resulted from that decision. That colossal mistake aside, the show kept me captivated. Underground started out on that trajectory and then bungled the play in the second season. I stuck with it but left underwhelmed.