An Expedition Into the Dark Roots of Racism in America

in 22nd Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI)

by Neusa Barbosa

In “The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant”, director Jim Finn uncovers some of the myths of white supremacism in America that have been evolving since the Civil War. 

One may say that Jim Finn, the director of The Annotated Field Guide of Ulysses S. Grant (2021), has a penchant for historical and political themes — albeit not from a very strict or conventional point of view. Finn’s filmography up to this point is filled with so-called avant-garde shorts such as La Trinchera Luminosa del President Gonzalo (2007), a very original depiction of women guerrillas from the Maoist Shining Path Movement, or his three Inner Trotsky Child videos. 

In The Annotated Field Guide, which was part of the American Competition in BAFICI 2021, Finn again follows an unusual path, fusing historical gravity with a touch of pop culture to address the dark legacy of the American Civil War. In this travelogue through many critical sites from the war that in the late 1860s threatened to divide the USA into two countries, the director has opted to use 16mm photography to create a texture that exudes a kind of nostalgia while, at the same time, an ambivalence toward the persistence, in our days, of concepts and ideas that no longer can be ignored if one is determined  to seriously discuss racism in America. Let’s not forget that not so few Americans maintain an open cult of Confederate symbols in remembrance of a long lost but never forgotten white supremacist myth, as the film wants to pinpoint. 

Making a creative use of animation and board games, Finn introduces a touch of humour that is instrumental to break expectations and avoid the didacticism that is always a risk with any historical film. He visits many battlefields, places of bloodshed in the war that today bear memorial plaques, cemeteries or wax museums to commemorate what happened there and, in many ways, reconstructs their meaning. Finn stresses how history can be so easily revised and fictionalized to fit a determined set of values. What is seen as bravery by one side of the war is described as barbarity by the other, as is the case of the actions of General Grant’s army through the eyes of the Southerners that lost the war.

Making a documentary for the first time in his career, Finn gracefully deviates from any form of hagiography regarding Grant, discussing some of the controversies that tainted Grant’s biography, such as at least one episode of antisemitism. The director injects much more energy, though, in offering solid data to sustain a revision of the role played by Black Americans in the war, providing intelligence to the Union troops that proved instrumental for their victory. 

The most notable feature of this film are its creative, often quite unusual ways of calling into question the legend of the Southerners’ “lost cause” that alleged a Christian basis to the submission of Black people by whites, as if it consisted of a “natural state of things.” Absurd as it seems, this mentality survives among the white supremacists in America today, such as with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers that stormed the Capitol and threatened the integrity of American democracy on January 6th.  

What Finn, himself a Southerner from Missouri, is saying is that it is time to finally bury the inequality myths that feed racism and violence to this day in America.

One of the most intriguing choices in this creative documentary is its soundtrack, allegedly an homage to the 1970s. Among the songs, one of the most curious choices is the Brazilian Amigo from Roberto Carlos and Erasmo Carlos, that describes the long friendship between the two composers. They are among the most popular pop singers and composers from the cast of Jovem Guarda or Youth Guard, a very famous TV program in Brazil during the military dictatorship of the 1960s. Amigo has no direct connections with military activity; it is just about the ability to count on one’s friends, no matter what. Finn is probably referring to this kind of hardcore brotherhood that can, sometimes, become a sort of blindness towards the failure of an old friend or faith.

Neusa Barbosa
Edited by José Teodoro