Character "Assassination"

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,  anti-Union cause.

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 women.

 “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?

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