Watching “The Downing of a Flag” on PBS

The two-part PBS documentary The Downing of a Flag studies the history of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, using the 2015 murder of nine people in Charleston by a white supremacist as the basis of the narrative.  The story twists and turns during the 150 years between the end of the Civil War and the aforementioned killings committed by a young man name Dylann Roof. Though it’s total runtime is just short of two hours, the documentary does a good job of revealing the history and symbolism of the flag by presenting multiple perspectives.

The Confederate battle flag has been a highly visible symbol of the confrontation over Civil Rights since the 1960s. Of course, the flag’s roots go much further back into Southern history, but its modern, mythic incarnation was meant to counter an increasingly victorious movement for equality. This documentary covers that trajectory, specifically in South Carolina, from the realities of the Civil War in the 1860s through the tragic killing of nine African Americans in 2015, though it employs a structure that jumps backs and forth on a timeline to insert the necessary back stories.

What is perhaps most useful to a modern viewer is how this documentary explores the flag controversies in the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, as Generation X came of age, widespread calls were made to remove the flag from state capitols all over the South . . . which were met by retorts about “heritage, not hate.” (The issue was so pervasive that, if anyone remembers the Hootie & the Blowfish song “Drowning,” they may recall lyrics about this issue in it. Even singalong college-rock bands were weighing in.) In the late twentieth century, the South was making its shift from “blue” to “red,” and politicians were called to take sides. White conservatives chose to appease their white voters, who had lived through the Civil Rights movements and did not want to feel the sting of another defeat. Black politicians and a smattering of white liberals and moderates took a stand in favor of leaving behind a dark time that should have been long gone already. Compromises were made, though, and the flag remained in plain view much longer than it should— long enough to take root in the minds of people like Dylann Roof.

We hear calls often today about how we need a “conversation” on this or that. The Downing of a Flag shows us what those conversations can look like. We won’t always hear what we want to hear, but we’ll know that a complex range of perspectives exist.

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