Reel History: Smithsonian/NEH History Film Forum Explores History on the Screen

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Chris Wilson is Director of the Experience and Program Design and the Program in African American History and Culture at the National Museum of American History. Chris created the Museum’s award-winning History Alive! theater program, the History Film Forum, and the National Youth Summit series of programming. Chris holds a B. A. in history and English language and literature from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in history from Wayne State University.

Christopher W. Wilson is Director of the Experience and Program Design and the Program in African American History and Culture at the National Museum of American History. He created and serves as Executive Director and Curator for the History Film Forum, exploring film as public history. Chris also created the Museum’s award-winning History Alive! theater program and the National Youth Summit series of programming. Chris holds a B. A. from the University of Michigan and an M.A. in history from Wayne State University.

Earlier this year, on my way to the theater to see Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, I was awash with mixed feelings. On the one hand, since I arrived at the Smithsonian in 2004 to head the National Museum of American History’s Program in African American History and Culture, I had been deeply involved in the study and public presentation of the Selma movement. In 2005, I headed the Smithsonian’s 40th anniversary commemoration of the Selma marches that included an interactive theater performance that involved nearly 100,000 museum visitors in this story of the courage, commitment, and strategy of activists. In doing so, I had the chance to interview dozens of Selma marchers and organizers and to peruse the Smithsonian’s collections of first-hand accounts of the Civil Rights movement. I was pretty excited, therefore, to see this area of study and work presented on the big screen.

On the other hand, it was in my mind what Hollywood can do to any story. My familiarity with this history gave me particular trepidation. I remembered the disdain with which the words Mississippi Burning are spoken by anyone who found themselves investigated by the FBI or presented as an enemy of the United States like former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Mississippi field secretary Larry Rubin. Far from seeing the government and FBI agents as played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as allies in his work during the 1964 Freedom Summer project, activists like Rubin saw them as adversaries. Rubin, who was targeted by Mississippi Senator James Eastland, called the Voice of the South, in a race baiting speech in the Senate claiming Jewish, communist connections in the Civil Rights Movement, viewed the Hollywood take on Freedom Summer as both laughable and deeply offensive.

I came out of the theater just as conflicted as I had been when I entered. Of course there were the nitpicky problems with the film that only a student of the history might have. I could mostly get over those. As I had a call scheduled the next day with civil rights legend Diane Nash, her depiction in the film was on my mind. Nash, as I soon wrote in an article for the Smithsonian’s What it Means to be American project, was the architect of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Selma voting rights campaign and perhaps the most important force impelling Martin Luther King to be there, yet she is barely in the film.

More vexing was the construction of the film, which used the Selma history as a vehicle for a biographical film on King. I felt, in many ways, a mythic portrayal of King was appropriate. And as Nash mentioned to me, the film set a benchmark for a depiction of black men (and a few women) not just struggling but strategizing, providing a strong statement about the underpinnings of the movement. But, the centrality of King played into a view of the movement’s history that my program at the Smithsonian, founded by scholar and artist Bernice Johnson Reagon, has been working to defeat for 30 years—namely that the movement’s success sprang from the work of charismatic leaders rather than from the commitment of many thousands willing to put their bodies on the line to make a better future.

In the Heart of the Sea Chris 1

An image from the upcoming film In the Heart of the Sea, featured in the Smithsonian/NEH Film Forum.

Films on history remain hot in Hollywood and technology is expanding both the creation and distribution of history documentary films. While we welcome some five million visitors annually to my museum, the most of any history museum in the nation, that number of people watch each episode of an HBO project like Band of Brothers or John Adams. Millions more watch a feature film like Selma or Ron Howard’s upcoming In the Heart of the Sea. Because of that popularity, my colleagues at the Smithsonian and partners at the National Endowment for the Humanities decided to launch a new project, the History Film Forum. The Forum is a four day exploration of history on the screen that will take place this year November 19-22 in Washington, D.C. at the National Museum of American History. In our program this year and a second festival in 2016, we will screen brand new narrative and documentary films to examine the state of film as public history. You can learn more about the Forum at our website.

As I began working on the History Film Forum, I kept returning to my conflicted feelings about Selma. One scene in that film stands out. Oprah Winfrey, as Annie Lee Cooper, enters the Dallas County registrar’s office to take one of Alabama’s notorious literacy tests in order to register to vote. She encounters a sneering clerk who knows her as working for “Mr. Dunn down at the rest home.” He wonders aloud what her employer would think of one of “his gals… stirring a fuss.” When Winfrey’s Cooper informs him that she’s not trying to make trouble but just attempting to register, the questioning of her fitness to vote begins with her being asked to recite the Preamble to the Constitution. Cooper has clearly memorized it and is cut off after “more perfect union.” Next the registrar, visibly annoyed, asks her how many county judges there are in Alabama. Cooper correctly answers “67.” Now the white man behind the counter is really perturbed at her impudence and spits out, “Name them.” The one-minute scene ends with a voter application form being stamped with a large, red “DENIED” mark across it.

This scene was great theater and quickly gives one the gist of a couple elements in voter suppression in the Jim Crow South. Prospective black voters did risk their names getting out, sometimes published in newspapers, and word getting to their employers, or white terrorists, that they were “making a fuss.” And literacy tests were certainly designed to keep blacks from passing. But this dramatic scene utilized a Hollywood shorthand that detracts from its value as history education.

The Smithsonian’s Moses Moon collection of recordings sheds a great deal of light on the mechanisms of disenfranchisement and the desires and tactics of the people of Selma. Moon, around the time of the 1963 March on Washington, decided to go around the country with a reel to reel tape recorder and document the movement. He spent much of the fall of 1964 in Selma, well before King arrived, when local people and SNCC organizers were working to attempt to register voters. The picture one gets from Moon’s recordings is considerably different from the scene in the film. While people did face literacy tests, the feeling surrounding the questioning by the registrar was very different and much less confrontational than the movie depicted. One woman interviewed by Moon, Billie Johnson, described being asked a series of questions she called “very elementary to me.” When she objected to a question as irrelevant, the registrar was untroubled and told her she could answer it, or not, it was up to her. Though she very easily answered all the questions, the anger never rose in the registrar as it did in the actor on the screen, and Johnson simply left the office and went home. Only later did she get the form letter telling her, with no reason stated, that she had failed to meet the qualifications of a voter in Alabama.

From evidence like this, we can see the true nature of white supremacy in Selma. There was no need for rising anger on the part of a county registrar as there was no way Billie Johnson was going to pass the test. In many of the Moses Moon collection recordings from Selma, one clear refrain is how invisible and powerless blacks in Selma felt. In trying to show this in one minute of film time, the scene in Selma succeeds in diminishing the insidiousness of racism. The scene leaves the viewer to wonder what if Oprah had answered that third question. It depicts a venomous, redneck opponent, threatened by this challenge. It doesn’t well portray the power dynamic at work in this society. In my career in public history, I’ve seen how this shorthand presentation of stories of the past creates mythic interpretations that become deeply rooted. In this case, disfranchisement of black voters becomes this caricature of the redneck racist asking a few hard trivia questions. It’s no wonder many young people with whom I’ve spoken assume they would never be held down by such a system.

Despite their shortcomings, I think there is much historical understanding and general interest in history that can come from films like Selma, and even one with such egregious problems as Mississippi Burning. We hope the collaboration between the NEH and the Smithsonian at the History Film Forum will provide a platform for discussions between scholars, filmmakers, and audiences that will be valuable and instructive for the field.

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