Robert Brent Toplin discusses in “The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead” the way films have been viewed as supplemental materials for studying history, but not necessarily counted as a window into better understanding, analyzing, or inspiring historical thinking. He refers to E. O’Connor, who identified four broad ways historians can work with film, “they can study film as a representation of history, use it for insights into the social and cultural values of the past, examine it as a form of historical evidence, and study the history of the film and television industries.” Toplin points out that until recently the focus of utilizing film in teaching history has been on elements in the plot and visual presentation, it concentrated on the movie. Thus, historians are expecting and demanding greater depth and breadth in the analysis of motion pictures as historical evidence.
In order to dig deeper into creating a broader historical analysis, students need to consider how filmmakers have interpreted the past and how much fictionalizing is acceptable in a given film. Toplin suggests that the production itself must be the subject of analysis examining the personal background and viewpoints of the producers, directors, and writers. The production experience should also be part of analysis such as the economic and political pressures that might influence historical interpretation. Therefore historians should include scripts, unedited film clips, notes, business correspondence, interviews, and other circumstances that enhance understanding the completed film cannot possibly illuminate.
For instance, I have used The Great Debaters movie for several purposes in my middle school and high school classes. We watched the movie to gain knowledge of debating techniques and how they may or may not have changed over time. Students have examined the historical context of the debaters, looking at segregation, discrimination, a snapshot of the Jim Crow South, and the determination of the human spirit to prove its greatness as it resonates with peaceful perseverance. To elevate and increase the depth of historical inquiry, in future lessons, I would assign a research aspect to examining the movie. Students would consider the director (Denzel Washington) and his views on the big themes and issues of the movie. They could watch interviews and reviews of the movie to gauge its reception. In addition, students would consider other collaborators on the movie and their influence. Researching the movie myself, I have found curious details of the production regarding location and characters. Since the movie is based on a real story (some details of that are included in the credits at the end of the film), students would investigate how closely the film stayed to the actual story or how accurately were the characters portrayed. Then, students will need to step back and consider the film in its larger historical context, zooming out from the main story of a small black college overcoming adversity and becoming champion debaters. What other historical events were taking place during the 1930’s? What was left out? Why? How would the film be different if it was made before the events of the Civil Rights Movement? Finally, students need to then re-examine their initial take on the film and evaluate not only its historical accuracy, but also its place in presenting history, people, and events.