An interview with b-Metro
Whitney Hamilton’s new civil war film casts a new light on lives on and off the Battlefield.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
In creating her two Civil War films—the second of which, Union, is set to wrap later this year—filmmaker Whitney Hamilton did not have the benefit of an on-set historian to provide context or ensure factual accuracy. What she did have, along with a great deal of her own research, was some hands-on experience, or as close as you can come in the 21st century: participating in Civil War re-enactments.
And that took chutzpah, because in order to gain entry onto the battlefield, she had to disguise herself as a man—a perfect parallel to the role she plays in Union, in which her character, Grace, takes on the identity of her slain brother Henry and fights alongside the Confederates as a matter of survival. “There was only one person who knew I was a girl,” Hamilton recalls of her first re-enactment, held in Pennsylvania to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “Thankfully he kept my secret, because they would take you off the field if they knew.”
Though Hamilton now lives in New York, she grew up in Birmingham, and in many ways Union—which had a 2005 prequel, My Brother’s War—has come to have unique connections to the city as the project has progressed. For one, parts of the movie were filmed in locations around the region including Montevallo, Tannehill State Park, and historic Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham.
This is also where she had the chance last year to tell audiences at the Sidewalk Film Festival about Union, for which filming is on hiatus until spring. (Production is expected to wrap near the end of the year). A short film she codirected called Jeremy was accepted into the festival in 2014, and during a Q&A session she talked a bit about Union as well.
Here is where it’s important to mention another major plot element of the film: while disguised as Henry, Hamilton’s character forms a close friendship with another woman, Virginia, who has also lost her family. Eventually their friendship and fierce protection of each other evolves into a romantic bond. While it is only one of several large themes in the movie, their relationship explores timely questions about love and gender. “During and after the festival,” Hamilton remembers, “I met several people in the LGBT community and mentioned that the movie Union was loosely adapted from a 2001 off-Broadway play I did (as well as a novel adaptation, Firefly). So then interest in the play increased, and before I knew it I was speaking to someone in the theatre community who wanted to do a reading of the play to help boost and possibly fundraise for the film.”
Something else significant happened as well. “I found myself in a local Presbyterian church whose minister was very interested in using the play as a way to start a dialog between the congregation, the theatre community, and the LGBT community (about) marriage: How can we be open to the changing perception of what marriage is and be both traditional and inclusive?”
Hamilton’s costar, actress Virginia Newcomb—who coincidentally grew up in Alabaster—says she was also drawn to the idea of creating a character for whom a relationship turns out not to be defined or bound by gender. “It’s certainly not your typical love story,” Newcomb explains. “It’s about how we as humans survive given our circumstances, which I think is actually at the root of a lot of our war stories and a lot of our history. How did we help each other get through this? That’s a big theme in it.”
Newcomb, whose credentials include having worked with Steve Carell, Jack Black, and directors Jason Reitman and Jay Roach, says she believed in Hamilton’s vision from the start and was unafraid of taking a role in a micro-budget film, although she’s no stranger to cushier jobs where money is no object. “I’ve had those experiences, and they can be very nice and comfortable,” she says. “But I think some of the greatest art isn’t comfortable. You team up with people you want to work with, and then everyone’s part of the journey. And they’re in it in a bigger and deeper way than you might be on a cushy film set.”
She adds that she has been impressed not only by Hamilton’s talent but her sheer force of will in finding ways to make the project a reality. She was particularly impressed with how Hamilton has earned the trust of the Civil War re-enactment community, which even gave them permission to shoot valuable footage at their re-enactments.
In fact, Hamilton’s career has been defined by a willingness to take chances. She actually started out as an aspiring painter, and after earning her BFA at Birmingham-Southern College she attended the Pratt Institute in New York City before she began to run short on tuition money. She was also already beginning to enjoy some success as an artist—to this day, a number of collectors in New York buy her work—so finishing her MFA was no longer a make-or-break goal.
Meanwhile, she had other artistic avenues she wanted to explore. Though she continued to paint, she began to pursue some of her other interests as well, starting by enrolling in the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and eventually landing a number of acting roles in both theatre and film. She also began edging her way into writing, with credits that now include novels, plays, and several indie films and shorts that have picked up their share of awards over the years on the festival circuit. Hamilton says that for films of the size she has made, word of mouth—including the interest shown by the people she met in Birmingham through Sidewalk—is invaluable. “The festival circuit will be key in marketing and rollout,” she says.
In the meantime, along with playing the many other roles she’s played in Union—writer, star, and promoter—she can also add historian to the list. Her research for the project led her to the little-known fact, for instance, that Grace would not have been an anomaly, because it’s believed some 400 women fought disguised as men on both sides of the Civil War. Moreover, playing a woman passing as a man was only one of many challenges the role posed, given how far removed modern society is from the unthinkable suffering of that era. “For me, it’s about trying to put yourself in that historic space and feeling the emotion of it,” she explains. “We’re used to so many modern luxuries and amenities, we can’t even imagine as people in the 21st century what it was like just to live back then, let alone fight a war against your own countrymen.
“With historic dramas,” she continues, “you really do have to create a whole different world. And I find that both challenging and attractive.