Rachel Boynton on Raising a Key Question of Our Times in “Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are)”

If the films of Rachel Boynton have a way of sticking with you, it’s in part because of how much of a hold they have on her. Case in point, the director of “Our Brand is Crisis” (later to inspire a fictional Sandra Bullock-led remake) had every intention of completing an interview with James Musselman, one of the central subjects of her second feature “Big Men,” about the oil trade in Africa, despite the fact she was due to give birth to her first child at any time.

“When I went into labor, I was literally on my cell phone making calls, cancelling the shoot for the next day,” Boynton recalls, flashing one of those half-smiles where she clearly sees the absurdity in it now, but likely wouldn’t change a thing. “I had to cancel that, and we were still shooting [after] my first child was born, though I was done with the militants in Nigeria.”

What Boynton wasn’t done with, however, was the extraordinarily provocative, large-canvas documentaries that have been her signature, films that have taken the better part of a decade each time out in order to thoroughly explore some of the most thorny issues of our times, often grappling with how America has wielded its power as a political and economic force around the world. Both the intellectual rigor and the care she takes in looking at every side of a subject over time has turned her films into events and the arrival of her latest, “Civil War (Or, Who Do We Think We Are)” is no exception, though it is her first to unfold on native soil, looking at what impressionable young minds across the country are being taught regarding the 1860s in America.

Though it’s become clearer than ever over the past two election cycles that there are very different perspectives on what’s happening in the U.S. based on geography, Boynton’s investigation recognized this division even earlier, finding its roots in grade school where slavery isn’t necessarily seen as the root cause of the attempted succession of the South. The filmmaker travels from one classroom to another from Mississippi to Massachusetts, where some lessons passed down from previous generations maintain that Southeners were defending their homes from government overreach and some schools resist desegregation to this day due to the legacy of redlining, irregardless of the current laws encouraging more diverse communities.

Boynton, who has prided herself on being an observer in the grand cinema verite tradition, is pulled more into the frame more than ever before when “Civil War” actively courts a dialogue, trying to reconcile how divergent narratives have taken shape from something that was once accepted as fact by all, and in response to history being subject to debate, the filmmaker illuminates how the past continues to linger in the present with Confederate monuments still standing and ideas that have been discredited long ago continue to persist under new terminology. Rather than envisioning such engagement as a burden, the spirit of conversation that takes place as the director talks to people across a spectrum of race and multiple generations is invigorating and Boynton is hoping to open it up across the country with the film making its premiere this weekend on MSNBC following a theatrical screening tour this fall. Shortly before its television and streaming debut, the director spoke about how she got her arms around a project she thought would be an impossible endeavor, making such a film at a time when the national conversation around race was changing so dramatically and the great deliberation that went into how much of herself to include in the film.

How did this come about?

Back in 2015, I was finishing up my previous film “Big Men,” and I was trying to figure out what I was doing with my life. That summer was when the massacre at the AME Church in South Carolina happened and I heard a podcast after that that informed me that there were still people in the South of this country who vehemently believed that the Civil War was not about slavery. I didn’t grow up in the South and it wasn’t a way of thinking that I was familiar with. I immediately understood that if that were the case, if we were literally telling different stories about our history, it would be impossible for us to have a unified nation. The whole point of history is to unify a nation, and I thought to myself, “What are we teaching our kids? Are our kids learning different histories?” So I started with the notion that I’d be in classrooms and look at this question of how we talked about and taught the story of our past and by looking at that, understand something fundamental about who we are as a country.

This is no less ambitious than any of your previous films, but it was striking formally how different it is as far as having a more imposed structure to it as far as moving back and forth between the classrooms and various places around the country where this reckoning with the past is occurring. Did you actually envision this any differently than your previous films?

I really didn’t know if this was going to work. It’s actually a terrible idea for a film – I’m pretty good with story and structure and I knew from the beginning, this was a horrible idea because it’s not an idea, it’s a question. It’s not a movie. So how do you make a movie out of a question? And the very first person I talked to was Sam Pollard, someone I really admire who is one of the EPs on the project, and I said, “Sam, I need your advice. Is this a horrible idea?” And he was incredibly encouraging and gave me a sense that it could work, but the structure of this film is something that emerged from the scenes themselves. What happens when you’re doing a project like this is you go out into the world, you film all this stuff, you see what you find, you look for the themes in your material and then the film emerges out of the footage, rather than filming the footage you need to fit the framework. It’s a very different approach. It’s way longer, it’s way more expensive and it’s fun because you get to be responsive to your material, but it’s nerve-racking because you never know if you’re going to have what you need.

It’s not a film I would’ve made as my first film because it requires a lot more directing in the field. As you were moving forward over the course of years that you’re filming, you have to be developing your sense of what you’re gathering, what it means and what you need to be filming in response. Everything you’re filming is in response to the thing you’ve filmed before. My previous films were following stories over time. I made this film “Our Brand is Crisis” that followed a group of political consultants in Bolivia and for that film, I had to make sure I was always at the right room at the right moment, and there was basically only one room I could be in. The same was true of my next film, “Big Men,” which was about this group of American oil people in Ghana — there were really not very many choices about filming some alternative. With this film, I could film almost anything. It’s so much a film about the fabric of our nation and there are infinite number of scenes and places that would make for compelling scenes in a film about this subject, so it was a lot less stressful in certain ways than my previous projects because I had enormous freedom. If I couldn’t manage to film one thing, there would always be something else that could be filmed.

A lot of this movie was [also] dictated by the fact that I had two children while I was making “Big Men,” so my personal circumstances were very different from what they had been on my previous projects. I didn’t have the same freedom of movement that I had before, so it wasn’t possible for me to make a film in Nigeria [as] I had before. I had to do something closer to home. Now that said, this film is pretty wide-ranging. It’s not like I was making a film in my backyard.

Although it’s fascinating to see you making your first film in America after these previous films that have explored the idea of American exceptionalism.

Thanks. That’s sort of what turns me on. [laughs] I’m really into this American identity thing, what we tell ourselves we stand for and who we are as a people. It fascinates me.

If you were filming at the end of the Obama Administration onward, did the national conversation regarding race change how you thought about the film?

We finished shooting at the end of 2019, so before [the death of] George Floyd, and it was interesting while I was shooting this film, the conversation was changing — even the conversation among filmmakers, people who finance films and who show films — about who should be making films and what kind of films should be shown. When you’re making a film, you fall down a rabbit hole and you’re focusing so much on your work that the world evolves around you and you’re aware of it in a shadowy kind of way, but not fully aware of it until you stick your head out and you’re trying to put your film out into the world. These conversations were happening and evolving. I’m not sure that changed the way I was going about the film and I don’t think it radically altered the material because the places I was filming in were principally classrooms, which weren’t being hugely affected by that at the time, but I’m not really sure I would be allowed to make this film today.

What ended up getting you out of the classrooms?

It was when I was filming at McCauley, that all-boys school in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I realized pretty quickly that in order to grapple with the questions I was interested in fully, I couldn’t just do it in the classroom. It was just too limited in terms of the conversation. And Chattanooga as a town [where] the history is very palpable and very present. There are these throwaway shots in the movie of Civil War cannons in people’s front yards on Lookout Mountain, so the history is in your face. You can literally walk out the door and film history right there and people exist with the history. They’ve passed down the history through generations through their families, so people have very strong feelings about the Civil War there.

That scene in Clinton, Mississippi, where the site of the Clinton race riot in 1875 is commemorated with a small placard, but it’s essentially hiding behind a much larger building seems like such a perfect visual metaphor. What was that like to find?

One thing I had to confront over and over and over again with this movie was silences. How do you film silence? How do you document a story that isn’t being talked about? Because so much of this history has been buried or lied about or papered over. How do you show that in a compelling way cinematically? So I was very lucky to find that Clinton story because I think it really brings to light a lot of the very human struggles around remembering the violence of that time and again, it isn’t that I go out looking for something specific, but I go out asking questions and I respond to what I find. Melissa Jones, the professor at Mississippi College in Clinton who is the main character in that section, was somebody I was introduced to by other history professors that I knew in Jackson [because] I was talking to everyone about the themes I was interested in, specifically in stories about reconstruction because those are a lot harder to come by because the history was so buried for so long.

Something that becomes quite moving is your own presence in the film, which is primarily just hearing your voice off-camera express your own search for answers or inviting the students to ask you questions in the classrooms about what you’re filming. How did you figure out what your voice would be in this?

It wasn’t something I wanted to do at all. I had no interest in being part of this movie, but getting that right because it was so important to me that this was not “This is Rachel Boynton’s Journey Across America.” Part of the reason [was because] there is no central character here— and no central narrative. It’s made in this episodic way because I’m trying not to make anybody the central focus. It’s a film about our nation. And it goes north and it goes south and it shows all these people’s living rooms and schools, but it is not hanging the blame on one family or one group of individuals, it is keeping the focus broad. So in that same sense, I didn’t want it to be my story because it’s not my story.

But when I had the rough cut screenings, there were two main problems. Problem #1 – everybody wanted more guidance. And in all three of my films, I’ve used my voice to ask questions, but those moments where the students asked me the questions [in “Civil War”], they weren’t [initially] in the movie. And everybody wanted more guidance about what they were supposed to be thinking about. Problem #2 was that many [test audiences] objected to me as the filmmaker – I’ve never been asked as many times as I have with this particular film to justify myself. What gives you the right to make this movie? And because I was getting that pushback, I felt I needed to acknowledge myself in the film. I’m white and I think it’s important, given the subject matter, that my race and my presence in the film are visually acknowledged in the film so you know exactly who is behind the lens and whose voice this is, so that was important to figure out. But I wanted it to be very delicate. I didn’t want my presence to become in any way a focal point, so I felt [having] the kids asking me questions became a very good solution because those moments allow for my voice to guide the viewer without becoming the subject matter of the film itself.

It’s such a lovely way in, and obviously only the start of the important conversations you engage in with the film. What’s it been like to take this one out into the world so far?

It’s kind of amazing. This film does exactly what I wanted it to do, which is so rewarding. People will watch the movie and they don’t want to leave the room — whether they like the movie or they hate the movie, everybody afterwards wants to talk. We’ve had some fantastic conversations in Boston and DC, New York and [we have screenings in] Jackson, Mississippi, Dallas, Birmingham and Chattanooga — and the film will be on MSNBC, so it’s why I made the movie. I wanted people to watch it with others and turn and talk to their neighbor and talk about it after.

“Civil War (Or Who Do We Think We Are)” airs on MSNBC on October 24th at 7 pm PST/10 pm EST and will be streaming on Peacock thereafter.