U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

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.

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