Film, Images, and History

As historians and history educators, part of our job is to make history accessible and interesting to public audiences and to our students. Presenting history with images and film is quickly becoming one of the most engaging ways to do this. Nevertheless, many historians and educators worry that historic images are being regarded simply as illustrations and historical films are being passively accepted as historic fact by their viewing audience. For example, in his article “Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Film: Young People Respond to Historical Revisionism,” Peter Seixas expresses his concern that students are passive absorbers of film interpretations. In his 1994 study, he showed students two films which had different interpretations of White/Native American relations. On film was from the 1950s and the other was from the early 1990s. While the students had no problem picking out the “racist” attitudes in the early film, they commented that the newer film had balanced view. They believed that the early film was a product of its time, and were therefore more analytical and critical. But when they talked about the later film, most of the students took it at face value. They were so emotionally engaged, that they failed to analyze the film as a product of the 1990s revisionist culture.

However, instead of being afraid to utilize images and film, we need to recognize these items as valuable tools when used way to help our audiences think critically about the historical themes, events and figures they depict. We can also use intriguing films and images as jumping off points to encourage further inquiry into the historical record.

Eventually I hope to teach my own college classes, and I will be excited to include images and film as part of my curriculum. I envision teaching US history survey courses using Dr. Lendol Calder’s history workshop approach. Calder’s emphasis is on letting his student “uncover” material about a small number of topics instead of trying to “cover” a large amount of material. He also has a strong focus on historical thinking skills, which can be applied to written documents as well as images and film.

Like Calder, I would start off my first class of each unit with a film/image day. I would show part of a film, several extended movie clips, or a series of images. This would serve several purposes. First of all, it would give the students context and a basic level of content that would help them better understand the topic we are focusing on for that unit. While many history educators veer away from using films that are not strictly historically accurate, films that give the right look and feel of the time period can still be useful. As Paul Weinstein writes in his article, “Movies as the Gateway to History: The History and Film Project,” it also important for students to ask questions like: Does the film capture the feel of the period? and Does it present a convincing portrait of times past?

Secondly, I would use the film or images to create interest and intrigue in answering the question (also posed by Weinstein): How does the film’s presentation of history compare with the scholarly history you have researched? While the students would not be able to answer this question during the first class period, I would ask them to consider this question as they completed the assigned primary source readings for the next class.

In the second class period of the unit, I would use a history workshop method to discuss the primary sources themselves (teaching concepts like sourcing, significance, evidence, developing questions, making inferences, etc.). But I would also circle back around at the end of class to discuss how the view portrayed in the film or images compared to the information they learned from the primary sources. One of my goals in this section would be for them to be able to apply when they had learned from the primary sources in order to analyze and critique images and film from both photographic/cinematic and historic perspectives.

For example, in the first half of US Survey, I might use clips from films such as The Crucible, The Last of the Mohicans, Amistad, Gettysburg, and Gone with the Wind. For images, I would definitely want to utilize early Civil War era photos such as those taken by Matthew Brady, George Barnard, and Tim O’Sullivan. (More than 6,000 digitized images from the Civil War are now available through the National Archives.) In the second half of US Survey, I would use films/TV series such as Dances with Wolves, Band of Brothers, and The Butler. For images, I would definitely use the Farm Security Administration photos (now digitally accessible from the Library of Congress) for two reasons. First of all, they give a incredible pictorial record of the impact of the Great Depression. But secondly, all the photographers were required to turn in all of the photos they took on assignment. This is extremely helpful when you can look at companion photos that were taken on the same day or in the same location. This gives students more information about the photo they are trying to analyze.

Overall, I firmly believes that we can use the intrigue of historical films and images to capture the interest of our students and then teach them to think more critically about films they watch both in and out of our classrooms. I hope to engage my students with questions like: How is the film or image a product of its time? How has the interpretation or view it portrays affected American views or culture? How is it supported or not supported by primary sources? Is it accurate? If it is not factually accurate, then does it have merit in portraying a certain look and feel of the period? In the end, I hope that students will come to their own conclusions about these questions, and their answers do not have to match my own thinking. But I think the important part is teaching them how to think critically instead of blindly accepting the interpretations presented by others.

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