Monday, July 1, 2013

Copperhead: The Movie

Last night my wife and I went out to a small theater in Manlius, NY to watch the latest Ron Maxwell film (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) on the Civil War.  When we got there we were surprised to learn that the screen writer for the movie (Bill Kauffman) was there and going to do a Q&A afterwards.  This isn't Hollywood, this is central New York State.  What in the world was he doing in Manlius? 

Local Interest

It turns out that Copperhead is set in 1860's Oneida County, NY.  It turns out that the book, The Copperhead, was written by Harold Frederic (author of The Damnation of Thereon Ware) who was a resident of Utica, NY.  And it turns out that the screen writer, author Bill Kauffman, is from Batavia, NY and currently lives in Elba, NY.  (In fact, when I told him that my hometown is Oakfield, NY (four miles west of Elba) he asked me my last name.  When I told him, "Speed", he said that he used the name of a distant cousin of mine who was quite elderly when I was young, Anson, in the script to give it some local flavor.  The Speeds settled in the Oakfield\Elba area in 1850.)

So, this movie has more than the usual historical interest for me.

I had always hoped that the next Ron Maxwell film I would see would be the film version of The Last Full Measure, the conclusion to the Civil War trilogy by Michael and Jeffrey Shaara.  Rumor has it that we'll never see that since Ted Turner, the financier of those projects, was less than impressed by Maxwell's honest depiction of Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals.  After all, he is depicted as a somewhat eccentric but a very much Christian man.  Since the movie bombed at the box office, he was probably even less impressed.  Nevertheless, movies that are actually good artistically regularly bomb at the box office.  You cannot trust American movie-going sensibility to define art.  Since making epic films requires epic money, we will probably have to be content to read the book. 

Not the Status Quo Civil War Flick

 This movie is different than any Civil War movie you have ever seen.  The reviews that are out right now, just a couple of days since the release, are critical because the movie starts slow.  This was intentional on the part of the producer.  You are about to watch a movie set in Oneida County, NY in 1862.  The pace of life in general is slower than 21st century America.  One of the great things about independent films is that they are not bound by Hollywood restrictions on art.  Copperhead is a beautiful film and the pace is part of what makes this art and not a mere blockbuster. 

What you see in Copperhead is the effect of the War on a northern community which is divided over the Constitutionality of the Civil War.  Abolitionism was strong in this part of the state.  It's not depicted in the movie, but Auburn, NY would become the home of Harriet Tubman.  Frederic Douglass was based in Rochester, NY, as was Susan B. Anthony.  Gerrit Smith, one of the financial supporters of John Brown's (of North Elba, NY) Harper's Ferry raid was from Peterboro.  Obviously northern support was strong in this northern region, but there were Democratic (as in the party, not the ideology) dissenters named Copperheads.  They were so-called because they were considered dangerous, like the snake.  They embraced that label and began wearing the Liberty symbol clipped from copper pennies on their lapels.  They did not necessarily support slavery, but they opposed Lincoln's unconstitutional measures during the Civil War (recruiting young boys to fight, the draft, unilaterally declaring the slaves free without support from Congress). 

For anyone who has grown up in this part of New York State, this movie is a bit of a shock to the system.  We were taught that Abraham Lincoln was a hero.  We believed that the abolitionists were always level headed and right thinking activists.  Our known Underground Railroad sites are the pride of historical societies in every upstate county.  I took pride in the fact that a man named Joshua Speed (no direct relation that I can trace) was Abraham Lincoln's best friend.  Copperhead shows that the ugly side of human nature can manifest itself even in righteous causes.  These causes can lead believers to forget one of the most basic teachings of Jesus.  The theme is repeated by a couple of the characters: "Whatever happened to 'love thy neighbor'?"

I hate reviews that give away plot details so I am going to refrain from doing that here.  I do want to make some comments on an issue that is parallel to 19th century American slavery.  I've been giving this some thought lately. 


I am co-producing a film with Crown Rights Media called Babies Are Murdered Here.  The film is a documentary on one of the great evils of our day: abortion.  Over the last couple of years there have been many in the pro-life movement who have seen the parallels between abortion and American slavery and have found inspiration in the abolitionists.  I, and many others, are unequivocal in our goal: we want to see abortion end.  We make no apologies for that and work tirelessly toward that end by producing media that will accomplish that goal.  Why?  Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, we believe that it is immoral to rob the defenseless of life.  We believe the Bible has clearly spoken about the value of human life in the womb and that to take it is premeditated murder, "with malice aforethought."  We believe that abortion should be criminalized. 

Not a popular message, to be sure.  My family and I have been threatened, cussed out, and otherwise harassed.  A popular leader IN the pro-life movement threatened to call the FBI on myself and Crown Rights Media.  Churches have opposed us.  What many do not realize is that even in the pro-life world, few are willing to take an unequivocal stand.  Most are incrementalists who believe, as many did in the case of 19th century slavery, that abortion ought to be gradually phased out using legislation that limits abortion but not ends it.  We do not believe that murder should be phased out any more than anyone believed that the Nazi Holocaust should have been gradually phased out. 

As you might imagine, we're kept on the fringe of the pro-life movement and that is as we would have it.  We don't identify as pro-life.  We identify as anti-abortion. 

But here's the problem.  What does it say about my Christianity if I am so passionate about ending abortion that I am willing to forget the second greatest commandment to love my neighbor as myself?  Now we will quickly point out that we ARE loving our neighbor enough to call them to stop murdering their babies.  And that is true. 

But what about:

  • the pro-lifers who I don't agree with?
  • the churches and other believers who have actively opposed what we do?
  • the abortionists and their staff?
  • the men and women who are brazen in their pursuit of abortion?
Do I love them?  Do they know it?  If I do love them they will know it. 

In Copperhead, you see activism on both sides run amok.  You see activism's potential to destroy families, communities and churches. 

I will continue to stand in front of abortion clinics with signs that warn, Babies Are Murdered Here.  I will continue to preach the gospel to abortionists and the mothers and fathers who are paying them to murder their own sons and daughters.  I will continue to call the pro-life world to repentance over its pragmatism.  But if I cannot do it with genuine care for those who oppose me, I should stop. 

The Bible still says, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). 

To take it a step further, am I willing to forgive those who oppose me?  Jesus said, "but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15).  Am I willing to forgive the abortionists who have swerved their cars at me and my children?  Am I willing to forgive the pro-life leader who threatened to call the FBI?  Am I willing to forgive the pastor who told me that I cannot use his church's parking lot to park my car as I stand in front of the abortion clinic across the street from his church?  By God's grace, and only by God's grace, I am. 

That may chafe a little bit with some of my friends.  Remember this.  While Jesus was being nailed to the cross, He repeated over and over again, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34).  While they were nailing Him to the cross!   Those Roman soldiers were not repentant at that moment.  Jesus' attitude was still forgiveness even though He did not grant it without their repentance.  

Copperhead ought to be a sober reminder to all of us who wish to abolish abortion that the commands of Scripture are full orbed and not limited to our cause celebre. It is a reminder that while we ought to be very passionate about abolitionism we cannot let it consume us to the degree that we allow it to override our love for our own families, our love for our neighbors and even our love for our enemies. This is a MUST watch.

Whether this movie IS a sober reminder or not will depend on whether or not you will seek it out or just keep paying for super heroes and teenage vampires.