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Should We Learn About History Through Film? Or Leave It To The Historians?


"And black women in this profession, as for playing a lawyer, out of the question, for what they play Aunt Jemima is the perfect term, even if now she got a perm, so let's make our own movies like Spike Lee, cause the roles being offered don't strike me"

A classic few lines from Burn Hollywood Burn by Public Enemy perfectly sums up how Hollywood always has and very much still is stereotyping black characters to certain roles such as the 'Mammy'. Films that feature the Civil Rights Movement often don't portray the history accurately, but does this matter? Shall we leave the history to historians? Or shall we take it upon ourselves to venture into a historical period by using film as a visual aid?

Being cast as the role of 'Mammy' or a maid is an ongoing issue for black female actresses in modern film. The 'Mammy' stereotype is the idea that all black women from the early 1800's to the 1950's were overweight, loud, big breasted and very, if not too, cheery all of the time. Since the early 20th century, the role of 'Mammy' has been prominent in film, take Aunt Jemima (pictured below) for example, played by Hattie McDaniel in 'Gone with the Wind' (1939), she is the classic stereotype of everything the 'Mammy' supposedly stands for.

Although McDaniel was the first African American women to win an Oscar in 1939, it was for her degrading role of the 'Mammy' figure. Similarly, Octavia Spencer won Best Supporting Role for her part in The Help (2011) playing a domestic worker during the Civil Rights Movement, where she was often pictured making chocolate pies and fried chicken. Sure, it's great that she won an Oscar, especially considering all the current controversy that there is little diversity among Oscar winners, but again, she won her award for playing the character of a maid. This brought about mixed feelings with the common thought among audiences and the internet, " I want them to win, but I wish it wasn't for this movie." As the Association of Black Women Historians argue, "The Help distorts, ignores and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers." They also contend that the film portrays "a disappointing resurrection of 'Mammy.'"

We learn a lot from popular culture and it often translates a message that can easily stick with us. The problem with this stereotype, in general, but more importantly in film as more and more people turn to the screen for a history lesson, is that exposure to stereotypes like these can actually influence behaviors that imitate a particular generalization towards black women from their negative representations in film, as scholars Margaret C. Campbell and Gina S. Mohr argue. The issue with the ongoing use of the stereotypical role of 'Mammy' is that this is a false representation of the lives of maids during the Civil Rights Movement. In 'The Help' there is no mention of all the daily sexual and physical abuse the women would face and their roles provide us with laughter the majority of the time.

This brings up the argument of whether or not it's correct to use film as a historical source. Shall we leave history to historians and use film solely as entertainment? Or can we rely on supposedly non-fictional films to teach us about an historical event and rely on the the writers to be accurate in the history? Barbara Reynolds argues that it is "incumbent on the anointed storytellers, those who do have that power, to reflect history accurately". Reynolds believes that misrepresentations of the history within a film might not affect those who believe the theory that film-makers are not historians and their mission is to entertain rather than educate while dramatically pursue a riveting story regardless of its truth. She expands by arguing it is incorrect for storytellers to engage in open miseducation. "Doing so robs real people of their historic truth, particularly when those people can no longer defend themselves."

Conversely, historian Peniel Joseph contends that many celebrated films often dramatize historical events, arguing that films are not scholarly books and people should not turn to film to learn a thing or two about history. Similarly, Elaine Teng suggests that films are the expression of the director's dream of a narrative, and one must not take credit away from an award winning film simply for the director portraying the film how they envisioned it, regardless of the inaccuracy of the history.

Many Hollywood films do in fact take dramatic moves when it comes to historical events. For example, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln completely removes the abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the film. But this did not prevent Lincoln from being an Oscar worthy film. However, if you're looking to learn about American history through award-winning films, remember they are not always accurate.

Robert Rosenstone suggests a theory to resolve the issue of using film as a historical source. He suggests that the unsystematic nature of history on film, and the lack of professional control insofar as a historian does not approve the film's accuracy before it is released, makes it even more essential that historians who are passionate about public history, must learn how to read and judge film. To overcome the stigma of turning to film to learn history, one must learn how to intercede between the historical world of the filmmaker and that of the historian. Therefore, historians will have to reassess the standards for history or must learn to negotiate between the standards of historians and those of filmmakers.

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