As people of all color, sexuality, gender, and race unite to decry the actions of brutality and oppression, there is a unified understanding of the need to reexamine not only where we are heading, but where we have been. The honors and commemorations of past leaders that have been revered for years are now being called into question and reexamined. Examples of past oppression that had previously been silenced are finally being heard. The violations of the past are swiftly coming into focus. Wilmington on Fire, from writer and director Chris Everett, is the latest documentary to sharpen the lens, to focus on an injustice that has fallen on deaf ears – an injustice that resulted in a political change that would stunt civil rights of newly freed slaves for years to come.
History books were written by those in power, those of an elite group. History books may claim to be unbiased but are renowned for only presenting one perspective, whiting out some of the most impactful moments of history – even omitting entirely. Wilmington on Fire does not rewrite history, but rather brings light to a political coup that changed the face of Wilmington and North Carolina in 1898. Where the militia and red coats who carried out the coup may have patted the backs of their fellow man for years, Wilmington on Fire puts them under the harsh light of reality, all while honoring those lives that were sadly lost.
The Aftermath of War
Wilmington on Fire opens up with the aftermath of the war, the descendent of Thomas C. Miller addressing the audience. As the camera pans over present-day Wilmington, she speaks of what was lost and a need for recognition – for compensation. While this is not the aftermath of the Civil War, it is the aftermath of violence that was brought upon the black community of Wilmington in the name of political control. The heartbreak is immediately felt as she speaks of what was and what was taken, her descriptions are vague, her emotions as she speaks the real introduction to the film. While this is a story of violence, it is also a story of heartbreak and those who have been left to remember.
Following the brief testimonial of Faye Chaplin, viewers are plunged into the aftermath of the Civil War, where surprisingly, Wilmington, North Carolina has become a mecca for blacks to prosper. It was a “great time to be alive until 1898” one of the talking heads states. Not only was there employment and prosperity for the black community, but there was also an opportunity. Literacy rates and education was increasing. There were black business owners, lawyers, doctors, and even members within local and state legislature. Relationships were also beginning to intermingle amongst black and white citizens, creating a more fluid and accepting atmosphere. Wilmington on Fire crafts this image of peace and prosperity, and viewers will have a hard time wondering what the south, and even the nation, might be like if the events of November 11, 1898, had not occurred.
Though while Wilmington flourished at the forefront of civil rights and a newfound sense of freedom, there were those who did not share in the ideals of what the future could become. For many, they had lost to their own slaves. While many state Abraham Lincoln and the Union won the war, it was on the backs of black soldiers – soldiers who had once been slaves – that victory was attained. Animosity and hate are hard to quell, and the fear of losing not only the war but political power as well drove many to form The White Government Movement with objectives clearly stated in their bi-laws to install white supremacy within the government of North Carolina – starting with Wilmington.
The coup of 1898 is the only successful coup d’etat in US history. In a matter of days, the historical and political platform of North Carolina was forever changed, becoming a beacon for white supremacists struggling to regain control in their new reality. Following the end of the Civil War, the United States government was lenient towards the citizens and leaders of the south. Unfortunately, the need to maintain unity amongst the states remained the central objective, the aftermath of the end of slavery left in many places to resolve itself. Without this focus, the government failed to enact lustration, preventing former slave traders and owners from participating in political affairs. From this one oversight, white supremacy found its opening to flourish.
With the creation of The White Government Movement and no preventative measures in place to prevent slave traders and owners in politics, the stage was set for the coup d’etat in Wilmington, NC. While the players and pieces were quietly maneuvered over the course of a few years, it took mere days to destroy any progression Wilmington had. Not only was the government overthrown, democrats of the White Government Movement becoming the majority, the military and their henchmen, the redshirts, had left destruction and death in their wake.
There is disbelief and shock in the success of not only the coup but the aftermath that followed. The fact that they got away with it. And not only did they get away with it, W. B. McKoy, the coup’s leader, was reelected solidifying not only the coup but the change in power and political direction of North Carolina. Racial segregation was enacted throughout Wilmington, white schools were given better education than the blacks, wage disparity greatly increased and many of the prominent leaders of the black community run out of town. Threats of death and violence plagued the black community that still remained, many fleeing to surrounding towns. Gut-wrenching and all too real, Wilmington on Fire forces viewers to not only understand what happened but to decry the lack of action that followed from the government of North Carolina and the country.
Understanding the past for the future
There is an eerie thread of recognition that runs through Wilmington on Fire. I found myself examining not only the current political environment but the environment that we have been overwhelming saturated within since President Trump began his campaign for his run at the presidency. When speaking of the success of the coup, propaganda was driven home as one of the strongest elements of its success. Much like Hitler did with the army and citizens of Germany, propaganda is repetitive, unrelenting, and persuasive. It starts off small but grows, eventually leading to the unquestioning loyalty. When Hitler began to physically remove the Jews, his unrelenting propaganda left few to prevent it from happening. Fear of the Jews and fear of Hitler had become so ingrained, it was allowed to happen.
Years before Hitler’s genocide, The White Government Movement took a similar path, utilizing propaganda to paint the black community in negative connotations through cartoons, articles, and speeches. Through the red shirts and militia, fear was truly ingrained. When the mob came to your door asking for your signature, there was little will to fight. When the white men of Wilmington launched their massacre and slaughter of black citizens, no one stopped them.
As I watched Wilmington on Fire and reexamined present times, you see the propaganda, you see the plays of power. You can’t help but wonder if you are presently living within a political coup d’etat, wherein a presidential candidate may have launched his own coup, winning a presidency, subsequently replacing those who will further aid his political gain and control. When you look at all those who have not fallen in line and who have been fired (or forced to resign) over the last four years, there is an eery feeling that resonates as the documentary discusses the magistrates in the court system who experienced the same outcome following the coup of 1898.
White supremacist and racist verbiage that is spewed at every chance given, no longer just seems racist, but also as propaganda. As civil rights for blacks, gays and woman have been swiftly, and at times quietly, peeled back over the last four years, there is a terrifying feeling that the propaganda has worked – and there is enough political power to not only maintain but push forward (especially as the 2020 election approaches). As the release of Wilmington on Fire coincides with the cry for the end of police brutality and equality, and attacks on the new outlets willing to capture (resonating the burning of Alex Manley’s newspaper company the day before the massacre in 1898), this effect of propaganda on a nation and a political platform only becomes that more immediate to identify – and call out for what it is.
Conclusion: Wilmington on Fire
Wilmington on Fire is a documentary that understands not just the massive amount of information that surrounds this pivotal moment in time, and the events leading up to it, but allows the time needed to be understood and digested. While the rapid-fire of information is unrelenting, it is delivered from various talking heads, each with their own perspective on the importance of Wilmington in 1898, but also the mindset of the south following their defeat. While at times overwhelming, especially as you discover political parties of today are not what they were in 1898, Wilmington on Fire maintains its path of creating a strong and comprehensive account of the political mood of the time and the world that was left in its wake.
Wilmington on Fire is a film that will pull on all the strings of emotion. These descendants of Wilmington were denied their families wealth, prosperity, and opportunity. Rather than passing down fortune and opportunity, they are left with the responsibility of passing on the truth, of keeping the horrors of that day alive. They are responsible for making sure we never forget so that it never happens again.
Watch Wilmington on Fire
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.