- Telling Ghost Stories: Reflections on History and Hollywood
“This story is true.” So begins the trailer advertising Ghosts of Mississippi, the 1996 film directed by Rob Reiner and featuring Alec Baldwin, James Woods, and Whoopi Goldberg. The film portrays the 1963 assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and, more than three decades later, the trial of his accused murderer, Byron de la Beckwith. Questions of racism and class, of national and local identity, and of justice, especially as they were shaped and manifested in the turbulent 1960s, provide a thematic spine to the production. Even more, the film raises issues of history, memory and, yes, of truth, testing the legacy of the 1960s today and reflecting on the contemporary role of movies and moviemakers in the production of popular history. By presenting itself as a “true story,” Ghosts of Mississippi inserts itself into an active set of debates among filmmakers and historians struggling to represent and give meaning to the past.
The issues at play are numerous and knotty, both bound up in the specific historical incidents portrayed in individual films and ineluctably related to larger questions of representation, memory, and myth. In History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, Robert Brent Toplin takes on this complex of issues through the case study of eight films and the historical and cinematic controversies surrounding them. His division of the book’s introduction into two distinct sections conveys from the outset Toplin’s acknowledgment of the necessary breadth of any discussion of [End Page 175] history and film. “The Power to Embody Ghosts” limns some of the more far-reaching questions posed by contemporary discussants. What is the relation between written history and filmed history? How do historians in different media employ evidence or standards of fact or fiction? How do myth and memory intervene in the productions of these different media and the creation of popular history? The second section, “The Practice of Cinematic History,” is more concrete and outlines four of the “principal methods of cinematic history: mixing fact with fiction, shaping evidence to deliver specific conclusions, suggesting messages for the present in stories about the past, and employing a documentary style to develop the ‘Great Man’ perspective on the past.” 1 The implication is that some of the broader issues of historical representation and media analysis will be clarified by discussions of specific cinematic practices, which in turn will emerge from carefully researched accounts of individual historical films.
That is an ambitious undertaking, one requiring thoughtful address of a range of representational and historiographic issues, and Toplin in many ways delivers. A professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the film review editor of the Journal of American History, Toplin writes regularly on film and history, and most recently edited Ken Burns’ ‘The Civil War’: Historians Respond, a collection of scholarly essays (and meditations) on the documentary series. He has also served in creative and scholarly capacities on the production of PBS and Discovery Channel films. Toplin is thus able to bring both careful scholarship and a sensitivity to the vagaries of the creative process to History by Hollywood. Indeed, his pursuit of abstract or theoretical understanding in each chapter begins with concrete documentary research. Responses to more sweeping questions then develop from the detailed case studies of individual films. Often those responses are oblique, making them sufficiently suggestive to readers familiar with the pertinent issues while perhaps a bit frustrating to others. When Toplin errs it is typically on the side of caution, of relying on close scrutiny of his documentary research rather than opening inquiry to its wider ramifications.
His research primarily concerns “a particular category of message movies: dramas that tell the story of real people and actual events from American history” (1). The movies are Mississippi Burning, JFK, Sergeant York, Missing, Bonnie and Clyde, Patton, All the President’s Men, and Norma Rae. To his credit, Toplin explains the category not with rudimentary definitions but...