Invisible Histories of the Sunshine State

Directed by Georg Koszulinski. 2007.

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Georg Koszulinski’s documentary Cracker Crazy: Invisible Histories of the Sunshine State reminds us that beyond the history we read in text books there is often a hidden history, shrouded in myth. According to Koszulinski, “all histories are invisible but some are more invisible than others”. Case in point, the history of Florida where the popular images of bathing beauties, sandy beaches, and tourist hotels hide an untold story of racism and exploitation. The film, culled from 850 images and 1,000 films in the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee, looks at Florida from the point of first European contact to the 2000 election. Employing both narration and extensive use of inter-titles, it depicts the struggle of the Calusa, the Seminoles, and the Creeks to hold onto their land against the many encroachments of Europeans and Americans. 

Modern Floridian history began with the Spanish expedition of Ponce de Leon, the first white man to reach Florida in 1513. It was a time when 350,000 Indians inhabited the State. Ostensibly looking for the Fountain of Youth but more likely seeking gold to pad his country’s coffers, Ponce de Leon brought cattle and 200 passengers when he returned after his initial visit but was killed by Colusa Indians who had heard stories that the goal of the white man was to enslave the brown man. Hernando de Soto soon followed and discovered the Mississippi River for the Europeans but also baptized natives in blood, massacring and mutilating them in the process. 

Koszulinski details the trek of the 1000 Creek Indians who escaped into Florida and the killing of 800 of their warriors at the Battle of Horseshoe bend by Andrew Jackson, earning him the nickname of “Sharp Knife”. The biggest segment is devoted to the Seminoles and the two wars they fought, the longest and costliest Indian conflicts in U.S. history. Andrew Jackson attacked a Seminole fort in 1816 because it harbored hundreds of runaway slaves, thus initiating the First Seminole War. The Second War, which lasted for seven years, was touched off by the Dade Massacre, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history in which 16 plantations were destroyed. 

Fighting to overcome plantation owners who sought to recapture runaway slaves who lived among the Seminoles, the Indian warriors, led by Osceola, fought bravely but were eventually forced to give up 28 million acres of land in exchange for a reservation near Lake Okeechobee and most of the tribe was exiled to lands west of the Mississippi. Because of the inhospitable land on the reservation on which they were unable to grow crops, they often had to migrate beyond their boundaries to grow crops to eat. The boundaries, however, were strictly enforced by laws that allowed anyone to arrest an Indian found off the reservation. 

The film then describes the failed efforts of Henry Flagler to build a railroad and an overseas highway to Key West, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan after D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and the slaughter at Rosewood in 1923 where 100 black residents were massacred by Klan members and the town destroyed because a white woman claimed she was assaulted by a black man. In addition, the film relates how the first hotel built in Miami, The Royal Palm, was constructed on top of an ancient Indian burial site whose remains were tossed into an open pit, and discusses the plight of Latino farm workers, mostly illegal aliens who are exploited with impunity. 

Though the Spanish stronghold would be compromised by Great Britain and later the United States who acquired Florida in 1845 because slaveholders demanded it, massive Spanish influence remains, but the film is strangely silent about the influx of Cuban refugees in South Florida during the last twenty years. Cracker Crazy, however, is a fascinating documentary that is backed by an outstanding soundtrack of archival blues and folk songs from the Florida Folklore Collection and Archives. While the sequence of events is somewhat disjointed and jumps in time are confusing, it is still an important and very entertaining film. Cracker Crazy, scheduled for limited release in June 2007, tells it like it is, or like it was. “Like a specter whose death remains unavenged”, Koszulinski says, “time passes, history becomes myth, and our lies and half-truths are forgotten”. Cracker Crazy will not let us forget. 


Howard Schumann
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