How Historical Movies like Selma can be Used to Teach History

Movies like Lincoln, The King’s Speech, and most recently, Selma generate very different reactions depending on their audience. The Academy of Motion Pictures often gives Oscar nominations to these films, but they also annoy some historians.

If there is a factual error in a film, historians need to point that out to the public. For example, in the movie Lincoln the Congressmen from Connecticut voted against the constitutional amendment which abolished slavery. In reality Connecticut voted in favor of the amendment. Yet those who study history should not be surprised that Hollywood is not run by historians. Producing and directing films are skills that most historians do not possess. Most people who make films also do not possess in-depth historical knowledge.

Historians often like to point out the details that historical films did not address. Complaints about a movie’s failure to include certain aspects of history are often unfair. A movie cannot possibly cover every detail of a historical event because of time constraints. Even my college American history professor, gifted though she was, couldn’t possibly cover everything in an introductory course on American history. There was simply too much material.

Picture of books from Basking Ridge Historical Society taken by William Hoiles.

Picture of books from Basking Ridge Historical Society taken by William Hoiles.

The other complaint often voiced by historians is that young people get their history from movies and therefore the movies have to get every detail right. This begs the question: why are young people more likely to watch a film than pick up a history book? If students think their textbooks are boring that is not Hollywood’s fault. Authors who write history books for young people need to find a way to keep their audience’s attention. Even though I majored in history in college, I wasn’t always so fascinated with the subject. As a young student I was drawn to historical fiction novels, but my textbooks bored me. My favorite author of historical fiction always included a list of sources in the back of her novels, so I started reading biographies about some of the historical figures in her books.

Historians and teachers could do something similar with movies about historical topics.  For example, students who watch Selma could read Martin Luther King Junior’s writings.

Sparking a young person’s interest in history is valuable regardless of the medium used. Authors who write history for young people should view films like Selma as an opportunity to write books that are interesting and explain historical events in more detail.

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