The late 2010s ushered in a new reckoning with the deep racism at the core of the United States government. Police killings, the rise of online White Extremism and the decision by Republicans to elect an openly a racist con man as their standard-bearer. It has only gotten more and more overt. The subtext of their political party become the text. We’ve all lived through it, one way or another.
The subject of documentaries like Look Away, Look Away feels dime-a-dozen — a look at the late-2010s cultural crisis, this one focused principally on the movement to change the Mississippi state flag between 2015 and 2019. The flag prominently included a Confederate flag within its design. As Black citizens became more empowered, racist state legislatures pushed back.
What makes this film interesting, though, is that director Patrick O’Connor set out with the intent of being empathetic and listening to both the citizens arguing in favor of dismantling the old regime and those who see the Confederacy as their heritage. In doing so, he chronicles the way those on the Right became increasingly willing to use violence and intimidation as the shallowness of their “rational” appeals melted away under scrutiny. It’s a fascinating documentary that provices a unique perspective on a defining movement of our time.
O’Connor is fair in his methods. His film is fast, succinct and focused. He doesn’t elevate those who argue in bad faith that the Confederacy wasn’t racist or that its flag is a symbol of neutral heritage. He lets them expose themselves as hypocrites, as hateful, as angry at something they can’t usually express in polite company. Something that benefits O’Connor — and he recognizes it — is that, as a well-spoken White man, O’Connor is welcomed more openly in the Sons of the Confederacy community than Black documentarians making similar films; The Neutral Ground is a particularly great one, which focuses more on the broader status conflict. That comfort breeds familiarity and looser lips.
What comes out of those lips is, of course, frustrating, not only because it’s bullshit — as John Horhn, a State Senator from Mississippi bluntly states — but because it’s so banal. It’s the kind of stuff you see on Facebook endlessly. Big lies, like the idea that the Civil War was not fought over slavery or that slaves loved their masters. Little lies, like the idea that those who fought in the Civil War didn’t care about slavery and just wanted to defend their homes from aggressors. Of course, these all stem from the biggest lie of all, born from reclamation mythology that dominated America’s historical record for the 20th century and beyond. O’Connor does a solid job documenting all of the history as quickly as he can but mostly lets his interviews speak for themselves.
This brings to the fore a quandary: Most of the men who argue in favor of the Confederate flag and their Confederate heritage aren’t in positions of political power. Their implicit cultural power is undeniable, but many of them truly believe they’re fighting for something that is a part of them. They believe the stories they’re told. Some walk through old Confederate cemeteries and empathize with the purported noble intentions of dead men. They truly feel this is a fact of their life. How do we combat such devotion? How does change happen?
To that question: That the push to change the Mississippi state flag was roundly resisted by the White powers that be (with, again, increasingly open and racist arguments) until the events of summer 2020, when the George Floyd protests amid the COVID-19 pandemic, made it clear to them that it was a losing argument. The new flag was adopted in early 2021.
The answer, then, seems to be that these changes take time, pressure and real change. Thankfully, every one of the activists in favor of changing the flag and fixing the system is considerably more thoughtful about their cause than the men who rally around old statues with a Confederate flag to feel big about themselves. Whether that means true institutional change is possible isn’t something Look Away, Look Away is able to determine, but it’s cautiously hopeful and does a good job laying out the challenges ahead. Changing a flag was hard. Changing the hearts and minds of these folks? A noble, but terrifying, fight lays ahead.