Point of Honor's Impossible Post-Racial Dream

The proposed Amazon series tries to make sympathetic heroes of white Confederate slaveowners by choosing to largely brush aside the issue of slavery.

Early on in the pilot for Amazon's proposed Civil War series Point of Honor, anti-slavery West Point grad Robert Sumner (Chris O'Shea) launches into an impassioned speech about how the Civil War was about slavery, first, last, and overall. It's a refreshing argument, given the decades of neo-Confederate hooey about the war's origins, from Gone With the Wind on down. The Civil War was not a battle about state's rights, or economic interests, or preserving the Union—except as those issues derived from the primary conflict over slavery. The South fought to keep its slaves; the North fought because it was afraid that the South was determined to expand slavery throughout the country.

Which means that, yes, the Southern cause was, as Ulysses S. Grant said, "one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." Not everyone in the South was evil, obviously, but the South's cause was evil. The Civil War, along with World War II, was one of the few conflicts in which one side was clearly the bad guys, even if the other side was not necessarily good. Civil War dramas are often reluctant to acknowledge that; Robert suggests that Point of Honor is.

But, alas, it isn't, really. Robert's speech is just a feint. Point of Honor may nod briefly to the centrality of slavery, but only as a way of getting slavery (and, not incidentally, black people) safely off to the side. The show's central character, John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons), is the scion of a Virginia slaveholding family, owner of the titular plantation, Point of Honor. John not only recognizes that slavery is evil, but is one of the few slaveholders willing to actually do something about it—he frees his slaves. But though he's willing to beggar his family for his anti-slavery passion, he’s still loyal to his state. So he determines to fight on the side of the South in order to defend Virginia and fight for its institutions, in all their iniquity.

Improbable, you say? Well, yes—but tactically necessary. Point of Honor aspires to Gone with the Wind's romantic neo-Confederatism, but without the virulent racism. The pilot appears to be written to answer the question, "How can we present Confederates as heroic without them being racist jerks?" The answer, brilliant in its idiocy, is to focus on Confederates who've heroically divested themselves of their slaves.

With the family's sins efficiently cleansed, and the nobility of their motives established, the pilot can cheerfully draw upon the emotional resonance of the Lost Cause without the inconvenience of white supremacy. John's sisters—all three of them—channel Scarlett O'Hara's determined, feisty, ruthless Southern belle, sans Scarlett's unthinking contempt for her servants. When the slave Phoebe (Tiffany Boone) gets above her station, Kate Rhodes (Annabelle Stephenson) doesn't even slap her; instead one of the other slaves, Abby (Adrienne Warren), does it for her. The big moment for the rest of the Point of Honor slaves comes when John sets them free, and we're treated to the familiar scene of tearful black people thanking their white savior for releasing them. There's even a little shout out to the neo-Confederate myth of the "good darky." An old slave asks querulously, "Free? Free to do what?" Diegetically, he's deaf and can't follow what's happening. But extra-narratively, he's an Uncle Tom caricature echoing Gone With the Wind's Mammy, and all the "good" slaves who see freedom as an inconvenience and would rather stay enslaved.

Many reviews of the pilot have focused on its logical flaws and temporal inconsistencies. These are certainly distracting; among other things, why on earth would all the liberated slaves stay in Virginia, where they have few rights and the entire community sees them as a legitimate target? But these individual stupidities matter less than the show's noxious, but very contemporary, ideological assumptions and demands. Point of Honor is neither consciously racist (like Gone With the Wind) nor is it consciously anti-racist (like Glory or 12 Years a Slave.) Rather, it seems committed to making the Civil War, of all things, post-racial.

This is done not just through freeing the slaves, but through a general elimination of racism from the landscape of the antebellum United States. The n-word is understandably absent from the pilot, but there’s hardly any other evidence of racial animus on display. Robert and even John seem to take the righteousness of the most extreme abolitionist claims for granted. The Rhodes sisters are horrified at the potential loss of income from slavery, but that horror is never expressed in anything like racial animosity—no one ever says, as everyone does in Gone With the Wind, that black people are unfit for freedom. Even the low-life bad-guy slave traders who revel in torture and violence aren't willing to stoop to anything like a racial epithet. As far as Point of Honor is concerned, slavery appears to be an entirely economic arrangement. Owning people is an evil so thoroughly divorced from hate and corruption that it hardly seems like evil at all.

Point of Honor, then, is a curiously thorough demonstration of the ways in which a refusal to think about racism is just another, slightly more subtle, form of racism. The show doesn't get rid of slavery because it thinks slavery is wrong. It gets rid of slavery so that it can focus on the noble, exciting struggles of good whites, rather than on structural evils or (heaven forfend) on the stories of black people. Point of Honor demonstrates that a post-racial world is not one in which racial injustice is transcended. Rather, it's one in which racial injustice is bracketed so that white people can go on fighting the same old racist war as ever.