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Screening History

BY ON February 25, 2015

Screening HistoryI can’t help watching the Oscars and not find myself reflecting afterward on how important a role films have played in my classroom over the years.  Occasionally, I have used mainstream Hollywood movies to illuminate the culture of the era we were studying.  One semester, for instance, I organized my 1960s course as if it had a once-a-week “lab” session: on Thursday afternoons, we assembled to watch a ‘60s movie. The Manchurian Candidate captured the paranoia that the Cold War and McCarthyism engendered.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner exposed how retrograde Hollywood was in presenting race.  Its idea of a film that promoted racial justice, at a time when mass protests covered the country and Black Power had become the leading edge of racial politics, was a domestic story about a white family.  The Graduate gave a view of the “generation gap” that was so much a part of the cultural atmosphere.

Most of the time, however, I have incorporated documentary films to illustrate vividly the times we were reading about – films, in other words, that made a claim to being history.  For post-World War II history, I will forever be grateful to the makers of the two series, Eyes on the Prize and Vietnam:  A Television History.  They drove students back to the pages of history books, which can be drier at times than I would like them to be, to learn more about the episodes the films depicted.

Documentary films have been especially valuable to me in teaching LGBT topics.  Until fairly recently, popular culture has not done much to portray queer lives, and so these documentaries allow students to see people and settings and hear discussions that otherwise were not widely accessible. The Times of Harvey Milk reliably provoked spasms of shock and outrage – shock at the events they saw on the screen and outrage that they hadn’t known about these events before.  Common Threads made the AIDS epidemic more immediate than it had ever been and provoked its share of outrage as well.  And It’s Elementary has often worked as a history about my students’ lives.  The film, about how to integrate LGBT issues into classrooms, was released in 1996, and college students today can still identify closely with the stories it presents since it very much describes issues relevant to their own experience of schooling.

Last year saw the release of two movies that were not documentaries but that gave dramatic on-screen life to two important pieces of history.  Selma, set in 1965, showed the courage it took for African Americans to fight for the right to vote in the South and the resistance of the system to demands for racial justice.  The Imitation Game was a “biopic” about the life of Alan Turing, whose role in deciphering Nazi code during World War II may have been decisive in the Allied victory and whose gayness made him the target of the harshest oppression after the war.

Both films generated a lot of discussion about their portrayal of history, mostly in the form of criticism of the inaccuracies and distortions.  For instance, critics of Selma found fault with the way President Lyndon Baines Johnson was presented – as someone trying to obstruct the campaigns of civil rights protesters rather than as a strong supporter of voting rights himself. I thought these criticisms were groundless.  LBJ did oppose the demonstrations early on, and the film does show his turnaround later in the story.

The criticisms of The Imitation Game have been more far-ranging.  The filmmakers have been accused of distorting almost every aspect of Turing’s life.  They have variously questioned the presentation of his personality as snarky and curmudgeonly; challenged whether he was as obsessed with an early boyhood friend as the film suggests; taken issue with major aspects of how the breaking of the Nazi code was pictured and the working relationships among the group of characters; and objected to the depiction of Turing’s death as a suicide.  Unlike with Selma, where I know the history well, I’m not in a position to pass judgment on any of these issues.  But the criticism has come from so many writers (including from my cherished co-director, Claire Potter, in a blog post on this site) that I assume that, in fact, The Imitation Game is bad history.

So, let me get to my “shocking for a historian” conclusion:  I find myself not caring whether the criticisms are accurate or not, or whether The Imitation Game is “good history” or “bad history.”

What makes me say such a thing, I wonder and you might ask.  Well, when I went to see the movie with a friend last fall, we both sat there utterly mesmerized by the story that was unfolding and the passion and drama of it.  The whole audience (probably 200 or so people, most of whom to my eyes were not gay) seemed to be having the same response.  The film gripped them.  I try to imagine why.  Most, I suspect, had never heard of Alan Turing.  And now they were coming away with the sense that 1) this man played a crucial role in the winning of World War II; and 2) horrible things happened to him for no reason other than that he was a gay man.

Roughly 10 million people in the U.S. have seen this movie.  I am SO pleased that most of them will have taken those two historical lessons home with them from the theater.  The Imitation Game isn’t a documentary.  Its purpose is to dramatize a story successfully so that it wins over an audience.  It did that.  And, while there may have been lots to question in the way of historical accuracy, I simply can’t take issue with the two big lessons that are at the heart of the movie.  See it if you haven’t already.

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