How to teach film with historical thinking.

For my film this week I reviewed the movie North Country. I settled on this movie due its availability (I could buy it) and because it addressed an issue of injustice. Most of the movies about Minnesota do not address history, especially the history of people of color.

In the future, I’d like to incorporate a movie called _The New Land_ from 1972. The Swedish film tells the story a family that arrives in Minnesota just before the US- Dakota War of 1862. Given when the film was produced, I think students will be able to recognize some of the disparate values, even just production values, between the film and today. In this assignment, I hope to echo Peter Saixas findings in his article “Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Films: Young People Respond to Historical Relativism.” A recent (June 2017) controversy over a public art piece in the form of a scaffold that relates directly to the history of the film and the 1862 war, should help provide a foil for student thinking. As Saixas recommends, I’ll pair the film with historical documents to provide context for the film.

One of my struggles in thinking about how to use film is wrestling with the enduring and pernicious racism that permeates feature films in the US. As a historian, viewing a century of sources that largely ignored the stories of particular groups, cast whites to play people of color, and largely stereotyped people of color would be problematic, at best. In fact, any source that prejudiced really needs to be taught “against the grain,” that is pointing out how the manifestations of racism morphed over time in ways that distort our vision of the past. I’m a bit appalled at how historians gloss over the pervasive racism of feature films, or use academic language to downplay the forms’ racism. For example, Paul Weinstein called the racism in Birth of a Nation “archaic attitudes,” which sounds like a euphemism for wanting to use butter instead of shortening rather than the violent racism that film embodied.

In short, I find the entire form of feature films, not just the attitudes expressed by some characters, to be systematically racist. That’s not a moral statement, but a historical one. As I consider how to teach the past through film, I’m wrestling with how to address this issue. Natalie Zemon Davis notes that historians need to communicate to our audiences where we found our evidence and acknowledge the limitations of that evidence. Teaching through film presents some clear limitations of our evidence with regard to race.

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