- The Burden of Historical Representation:Race, Freedom, and “Educational” Hollywood Film
When asked to describe a recent use of Hollywood film in her U.S. history class, one teacher responded, "I use Glory every year to reinforce the role of African Americans in American history." Depending on this teacher's specific classroom practices, this statement is both promising and problematic. On the promising side is the indication that the teacher is including the stories and roles of African Americans in her class. The teacher's use of Glory (1989) also needs to be problematized, however, and forces us to ask several key questions. What else is being reinforced when films portray stories of groups traditionally marginalized in history? What are students learning about the history of African Americans and their role within U.S. history when films like Glory are used as part of the curriculum—and how does this align with one of the core goals of social studies—to develop citizens for a pluralistic democracy?
The teacher's statement quoted above was representative of the responses collected as part of a recent survey of eighty-four Wisconsin and Connecticut U.S. history teachers.1 In addition to the open-ended descriptions of classroom practice with film, we also asked the teachers to report which films they were using in their classes overall, how they were using the films as part of their instruction, and why they chose those films and methods. The two films identified as being used most often were the aforementioned Glory, a film about the all Black Massachusetts 54th regiment that fought during the U.S. Civil War, and Amistad (1997), a film about a group of African slaves who revolted against their captors aboard ship en route to a slave market and ended up fighting for freedom in the U.S. Court system during the 1830s. Both films were created by large studios with big name actors during the late 1980s through the 1990s, a period that saw a cultural and economic demand for stories and films about and for African-Americans.2
As the number of days of school is extremely limited, and the time it takes to view a feature length film significant, there is a large burden placed on these films and the manner in which they represent Africans and African Americans and their roles in the history of the United States. Of particular importance is how Glory and Amistad characterize the concept of freedom in relation to Africans and African Americans given freedom's importance in the films' narratives, its prominence in national and state U.S. history curriculum standards, and its status as a fundamental theme in the development of democracy and our nation.
Here we consider what students can learn about Africans and African Americans in U.S. history from viewing Glory and Amistad, with a particular focus on the themes of race, racism, and freedom.3 Building off of the survey data, literature from history and film studies, and a new look at the films, this analysis will examine how effectively these two films help to fill the gaps that traditionally exist in the U.S. history curriculum and challenge the dominant historical narrative through including the stories and perspectives of Africans and African Americans and their complex role in the history of the U.S. As part of our analysis we also address the larger issue of what role feature films should have in history classrooms, within the larger goals of social studies education, and explore specific pedagogical practices with film that might help teachers to better fulfill the standards of the burden of historical representation. Glory and Amistad have already undergone significant analysis and critique by historians, film critics, and others. Given the frequent use of these films in the classroom, we seek to draw from and build on this previous work and reflect on the films in the context of the secondary history classroom. [End Page 26]
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Teacher Practices, the Burden of Historical Representation, and Freedom