History's Mirror Revisited: Media education and movie history

Since at least the days of Birth of a Nation (1915), Hollywood has turned to history for material. A quick survey of this year's Academy Award nominations shows that this is as true now as ever, with five out of the nine nominees for Best Picture – Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and odds-on favourite Lincoln – based in history in some way. Their approaches vary, of course, with the history-as-backdrop approach of Les Miserables, the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained, the academic character study of Lincoln, the docudrama of Zero Dark Thirty and the history-as-thriller of Argo.

One result of this is that for many of us, movies and other mass media are a major factor in how we perceive history. Not only are we likely to believe the factual errors and misconceptions found in movies on historical subjects, but our understanding of history is influenced as well by the assumptions and implications inherent with a particular medium and genre. For instance, you seldom see a historical film that tries to communicate how people in the past thought or saw the world differently than we do. You couldn't possibly understand the Middle Ages, or Ancient Greece, without having some knowledge of their mindset; but often, in movie portrayals of these periods, the characters are fundamentally modern people with funny clothes. This isn't just a consequence of bad filmmaking: it's a consequence of commercial filmmaking as a genre and a medium. To be successful a movie has to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and having characters with motivations and thought processes that are difficult to understand makes this more difficult. Media education can be an important part of teaching history by encouraging students to ask the critical questions needed to challenge and contextualize historical depictions such as these.

In a very real way, history is media study. As historians we study media products – the primary sources on which history is built -- and ask questions like Who wrote this? What purpose did it serve? In what context was it written? Is there any reason to believe it's misleading or biased? What's missing from the story it tells? These are all essential media studies questions. For most of history, the sources that have reached us are those that were written down, copied and preserved: each has a significance that may not be immediately obvious today. When literacy was rare, to make a written document had a significant cost; so, too, did copying a document before the invention of the printing press. These facts mean that a primary document isn't simply a neutral record: it embodies a power structure, an economic system and a point of view. It is not unusual for us to question the role of media – such as radio, television and the Internet – in shaping our perceptions of modern history. The same scrutiny needs to be given to the primary documents from which we form our understanding of the past.

How can history teachers integrate media education into their classrooms?

Teachers do not have to be media experts to bring a media education approach to their practice. Media education is fundamentally about asking the right questions, not knowing the right answers, and we can draw those questions from five key media literacy concepts:

Media are constructions. Media products don't just come into existence: they are created by human beings. They have a purpose and are made with particular forms and techniques. Teachers can have their students consider the decisions that were made in creating a media product as well as the factors that influenced its production. You might compare, for instance, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which are very similar in some ways (both are structured as traditional thrillers and are both about troubled but ultimately successful US intelligence operations) but are extremely different in terms of the tone and the film-makers' approach (Argo is much more light-hearted, while Zero Dark Thirty is almost reverential towards its topic).

Audiences negotiate meaning. The meaning of a media product is not static: it is created in collaboration with the audience, and different audiences interpret media differently. This is why to fully understand the effects of stereotyping and absent voices we have to try to see things from the perspective of those affected. For instance, Lincoln, which is about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution which outlawed slavery, has no African-American characters who are depicted as active participants in the process of passing the Amendment. While the film does begin  with a scene in which Lincoln meets with African-American soldiers who express their concerns to him, the film glosses over the fact that those same soldiers did rather more than implore Lincoln to pass the Amendment: as Guyora Binder, author of the article "Did the Slaves Author the Thirteenth Amendment? An Essay in Redemptive History" (Yale Journal of Law & Humanities, Vol. 5, 1993) put it, "[O]nce the war was won, the presence of a large number of blacks under arms continued to exert pressure on federal policy. Black soldiers were willing to remain mobilized longer than whites and hence played a greater role in maintaining the military occupation of the South after the Civil War. By constituting a substantial portion—in many areas the bulk—of the occupation army, blacks were suddenly in a position to influence the terms of the peace…. The quickest way literally to pacify these armed guardians of black liberty was to constitutionalize emancipation by passing the Thirteenth Amendment." After that scene, moreover, all of the African-American characters in the movie serve only as symbols and sounding-boards for the White characters – in particular White House servants William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley, who appear only as a faithful maid and butler, with no mention of the political organizations in which both were active or their roles as leaders of their communities. The most significant absence is that of Frederick Douglass, who was a frequent presence at the White House during the period and whose efforts to get equal treatment for African-American soldiers in the Union army (the issue raised in the opening scene) were essential in changing the minds of many who had earlier opposed full abolition. How might African-American audiences see the message of this film differently from White audiences, and what message about history might either audience take from the fact that African-Americans are portrayed only as passive recipients of freedoms granted to them by White men rather than arguing and fighting for it themselves?

Media have commercial implications. Few media products are created without economic considerations. Most of the media products we use in classrooms are created to make money, and that affects how they are made. Even the most faithful historical movie has to follow the “Hollywood format”: consider how the many intelligence agents who pursued Bin Laden are compressed into a single character in Zero Dark Thirty, allowing for a simpler narrative and easier audience identification – as well as reinforcing the idea that history is made primarily by individuals. As far back as Herodotus, history has been written as entertainment and this shapes our study of it.

Textbooks have commercial implications too: students can find out who at their school or school board decides which textbooks to buy, and consider how that might influence what’s left in and left out. James W. Loewen's excellent book Lies My Teacher Told Me examines just this question, and while the textbooks we use may not be as egregious as some of the examples he cites (such as a history of Mississippi that did not mention a single African-American), some of the reasons he identifies for why particular facts are included or left out of textbooks may be more familiar (for instance, U.S. history textbooks must devote space to Chester A. Arthur – an eminently forgettable president – if they hope to sell copies in Vermont, his home state).

Even if they are not intended to make money media products cost money to create, copy and preserve, and that influences the content – it's a big reason why the history of the rich and powerful comes to us from media products like documents, paintings and tapestries while we largely have to recreate the history of the lower classes from physical evidence.

Values and ideological messages underpin all media. Even if media products are not created to promote a particular agenda – as nearly all primary sources, and most textbooks, are – the cultural values and assumptions of their creators are inevitably reflected in the text. This can be a difficult concept for students to grasp for the same reason that fish don't know they're in water; most often, the assumptions found in the media works we consume are the same assumptions we ourselves hold. It takes an intentional change of perspective in order to even recognize that we have these assumptions, let alone to challenge them.

A good example of this would be Zero Dark Thirty, whose director and screenwriter, in a bid to make the movie as accurate as possible, interviewed many people involved in the long process of tracking Osama Bin Laden. One consequence of this is that the film's story is told almost exclusively from the perspective of those people, and inflected with their values. Argo, similarly, has been criticized for minimizing Canadian diplomat Ken Taylor’s role in rescuing the Americans stranded in Iran following the storming of the US embassy in 1979. As with Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln, the need to have a single, strong protagonist drove the film-makers to make the role of CIA agent  Tony Mendez (played by the film's director Ben Affleck) more important, at Taylor's expense.

Each medium has a unique aesthetic form. The medium in which history is written or told influences its meaning: a history textbook will follow different codes and conventions than a movie or a comic book. These conventions can have a significant effect on the meaning we take from a text. Perhaps the best example among this year's Best Picture nominees is Django Unchained, which director Quentin Tarantino has said is an attempt to address slavery through the lens of the Western: "I want to do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies." (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/starsandstories/3664742/Quentin-Tarantino-Im-proud-of-my-flop.html) While we might debate the effectiveness of Django Unchained in communicating the evils of slavery (and the fact that most of Tarantino's understanding of slavery seems to have come from other movies), it's clear that filtering it through the Western genre turns it into a story of personal revenge with little or no sense of context. (In particular, there's a strong implication that what's wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio's character is not that he's a slave-owner, but that he's a particularly bad slave-owner, in order for his misdeeds to be dramatic enough to justify the title character's vengeance.)

Textbooks, too, have their own aesthetic form. Nearly all are locked into a strict chronological format; not an unnatural choice for history, but not necessarily the best way to discuss or explain complex processes and events. Textbooks have a number of genre conventions as well: James Loewen has pointed out that they rely heavily on the passive voice – "chaos seems always to be breaking out or about to break out" – obscuring the genuine causes (and the debate that surrounds possible causes) of events.

The connection between history and media education may not be an obvious one. Mass media are, after all, a modern phenomenon, and when media is discussed in most history courses it's almost always in the context of the meaning or significance of particular media products. But the focus of media studies isn't just media products: it's about how different media shape how we think and how we see the world.

Portions of this blog first appeared in "History's Mirror: Media education and the teaching of history," posted on this blog on November 3, 2009.