U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Archive for August, 2008

US History in Film Initial Reactions

So another semester begins and yet again I am enrolled in a McClurken digitally enhanced class that requires/or suggests for extra credit at least, a blog.

I am looking forward to debunking and also qualifying historical movies that have been produced for the general public. Tuesday we are watching Disney’s Pocahontas and I am intrigued to know what good came from that movie.

Last week we discussed that historical films are just another interpretation of history, and they should be appreciated for what they are- a representation of the truth. I have never really heard anyone truly praise a historical film more than they tore it apart, so I am very excited to see where this semester leads. I definitely do agree that if nothing else, historical films do at least shed light on an event and make more persons aware – even if they question what the movie says to be true, hopefully it peaks an interest.

Stay tuned.

Recreation of Memory

A few months back I listened to a podcast on memory from one of my favorite radio shows, Radiolab out of NYC.

While we often think of our memory as file cabinet and when we want to retrieve a memory we just go into the drawer and pull it out. Through experiments scientist have concluded that this file cabinet view is wrong and in actuality each time we remember something we create a new memory, so the more we think about something the less it is like what actually happened.

So what does this have to do with US history in film? Consider Birth of a Nation, a movie about slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Knowing the majority of US citizens go to the theater at this point in history, while they watch the movie they are forced to think about the time period. In thinking about that memory, either from what was learned or actual memories from the time, they are recreating it. So their memory is being slightly skewed towards what the film has presented.

Historical films force us to think about history (duh) and with that the memories of what we have learned about or experience during the time period. Knowing visual and audio leave a lasting impression on us and that we create new memories every time we remember, watching films can change (without us even realizing it) the way we view historical events.

First discussion

This morning in 329, we talked first about what movies mean to our society and how they influence us. While it was brought up in one of the readings that movies tell us what to buy, what to wear, and how to act, I can’t help but think this idea is a bit antiquated. This may have been true once upon a time (and is still true to an extent), but there are so many movies now with so many different points of view and lifestyles represented.. movies don’t necessarily capture the status quo that we all aspire to anymore.

More importantly, we discussed how we as historians can both use and look at major motion pictures. Is history whitewashed? I imagine so, especially after seeing a short scene from DW Griffith’s “Birth of A Nation” featuring white men in bad blackface. The film is so far removed from our time that it seems like worse than a joke — almost more like simply an attempt to offend. This was obviously not the desired effect (not to offend white viewers, anyway), but it was shocking to see such blatant racism and unapologetic attitudes.

I suppose this is another hurdle that we as historians can encounter. While primary sources are stupendously helpful to our research and understanding of a time period, we may find ourselves shocked by their attitudes, be it towards race, gender, sexuality, culture, etc. Not to say that we don’t shock others with these same things today, but in historical resources it can be much easier to see. It is definitely difficult to put yourself in a position to attempt to understand a time when it was OK to see white men in blackface, or for women to hear blatant sexual remarks in the workplace (thinking mostly of “Mad Men” here).

In non-film class news, I should be creating my bibliography for my independent study on Chinese imagery in the 1930s and the 1950s. I think I will find myself appalled by the sexism and Westernization of the propaganda, but one cannot deny that it is interesting to analyze what parts of imagery did not succumb to Western ideas.

Making sure that your film blog posts get noticed

If you include the following tag: “2008hist329” in the tags section when you create a post (it’s just below the box you compose your blog text in), then it will show up here in the course website. This is true for any UMWblogs.org site, even if you’re using that blog for other classes. Give it a try.


Film class test


This is the course blog for HIST 329 for Fall 2008.  Do you know which films the above images come from?


This is the course blog for HIST 329 for Fall 2008.  Do you know which films the above images come from?