I value that Juneteenth is getting a lot more broader attention these days. It’s a really important day in American history, not so much this particular day (which was when the Emancipation Proclamation became applied in Texas) but as part of a long process of freedom for slaves. In many ways it is like the Declaration of Independence, which wasn’t signed all on one day, but we pick a day to honor what it set in motion.
For about 30 years, any time I’ve been asked about my favorite movie, I have immediately responded with Glory. Don’t believe me? The soundtrack was the first CD I ever owned (before I even had a CD player) and the VHS tape was likewise the first I owned, and that was when videotapes were priced for rental, so it cost quite a bit (a gift I deeply wanted and got for a holiday).
That movie hit me in so many ways and came at a time in my life when I was seriously into Civil War history. If you don’t know it, it’s a movie about the first regular army Black regiment in the Civil War. It stars Matthew Broderick, but the key role really is played by Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor.
I liked it then and now because it was such a good portrayal of the Civil War, maybe still among the best, and also because it entered into the complexity of the experiences of the time, both among whites and blacks, who all came to the field of battle with vastly different journeys.
It shows how there was mixed motives for the war but also how deeply the abolitionist movement was behind all that happened.
It also shows the complexity of responses within that movement, with some advocating for equal treatment and others committed to a paternalism.
I think especially of the contrasting scene where the Massachusetts 54th is sent to support another Union regiment in the South which was made up of freed slaves, which they called contraband. Both regiments were ‘free’ but the 54th expressed a dignity and commitment by the soldiers and the officers together.
It isn’t an easy movie to watch, especially in contemporary climate where likely much of the raw treatment shown wouldn’t be allowed. Though it really is tamed down compared to what life was like for far too many.
I’ve since learned that I have family on both sides who fought on both sides of this war, so it’s a story that deeply intersects my own heritage in deeply thought provoking ways.
What I really loved about it then was the message of hope within the struggle, the message of perseverance, of fighting for a cause even when there are enemies both on the outside and the inside. It digs into the deep trauma and emotions such trauma continue in and yet has this inspiring message of working together within patterns of injustice that lead to movements of hope.
The message of Juneteenth brings this all back, and so we’re likely watching this movie again this evening. It’s not an easy story, and the deeply troubling message is how the moment of freedom and possibility that came out of the Civil War eventually, far too quickly, devolved into cowardly treatment of former slaves and blacks all over the country. It also points to how violence may solve an immediate problem but there’s a need for deeper transformation too, which Glory also gets into.
Humanity and human history are complex, and we rightly critique the ways sin distorts, co-opts, and then controls our society in systemic and personal ways. But in the midst of this there are glimpses of liberation and people of all kinds of backgrounds who fight for that liberation.
Even if the battles aren’t always one, there’s such a need to honor those moments where freedom broke through and to find renewed hope for the moments we encounter in our age.