- Historic Sites
The author sent dozens of historians to the movies to find out how much—and how well—films could teach us about the past
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
The answer is that some can—and do. James Axtell noted that Black Robe convincingly depicted not an event but a cultural process: the complex interaction of Jesuit missionaries and Hurons in seventeenth-century Ontario. “Neither culture,” Axtell wrote of the movie, “is morally privileged; each is presented in its undiluted strangeness to the viewer, as it was to the other in 1634.” Brandeis’s Joyce Antler found that Hester Street (1975) challenges the muchheralded rock-solid Jewish family by showing how the stresses of assimilation in the early twentieth century caused many Jewish men to desert their families (the Jewish Daily Forward even ran a regular feature, “Gallery of Missing Men”). In Matewan (1987), the director, John Sayles, refuses to leaven his gritty story of labor strife in the coalfields with romantic subplots. Tea and Sympathy (1956) managed (barely) to slip by the censors and offer a subtle indictment of homophobia, noted George Chauncey, author of Gay New York . Gallipoli (1981) set up all the usual last-minute rescue clichés, including a footrace to call off a hopeless attack, but the race is lost—and the men, too, as often happened in the Great War. Go Tell the Spartans (1978) showed the elements of human contingency missing from so many Vietnam movies. And The Long Walk Home (1990), in which Whoopi Goldberg plays a maid during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, offered striking proof that filmmakers who journey into the past need not cling to kings and queens, generals and presidents. “Hooray for Hollywood,” the Brandeis historian Jacqueline Jones wrote, for The Long Walk Home constituted “a testament to individual courage and a hymn to the power of community, with women front and center.”
Filmmakers have said much about the past. They have spoken both eloquently and foolishly. Sometimes their fabrications have gone unnoticed, sometimes their truths unappreciated. But they have spoken, nearly always, in ways historians find fascinating. This article—and indeed our book—are meant not as a rebuttal but as a reply, a modest contribution to the ongoing conversation between the past and present.