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The Painful History of a Confederate Monument Tells Itself

Haunting archival footage of Stone Mountain's creation.

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The stated goal of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this year was to oppose the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. In the wake of the events that erupted, filmmaker Sierra Pettengill closely followed the debate surrounding the legacy of Confederate monuments. “I was struck by the way the word ‘history’ was blankly lobbed as a defense of the monuments,” Pettengill told The Atlantic. “Take Trump’s reaction, for one: ‘They’re trying to take away our history.’ My instinct was, ‘Okay, then: Let’s look at the history.’”

The history of a single monument is writ large in Pettengill's new short film, Graven Image, produced by Field of Vision and premiering on The Atlantic today. The documentary relies solely on archival record to tell the story of Georgia’s Stone Mountain monument, which depicts Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis engraved in the mountain face. Originally conceived of by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1912, Stone Mountain was chosen as the site of the rebirth of the KKK in 1915. Although it was shelved during the Great Depression, it was later revitalized in the wake of the seminal Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case, and finally completed in 1970. In 2001, Georgia state law passed a mandate that the monument never be removed or altered.

With Graven Image, Pettengill hopes to recontextualize the Confederate monument and examine the way American narratives are told—and often warped—through time.

“Stone Mountain allows for a full century’s worth of reckoning with the motivations and politics behind these celebrations of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative,” Pettengill said. “In my film, a voiceover from a 1972 Stone Mountain promotional film says, ‘Remember how it used to be? It’s still that way for you to enjoy at Stone Mountain Park.’ I want this film to make us remember how it actually used to be.”