History on the screen: who speaks for the past?

Ken Burns' fans and critics have their say

Originally published in Current, May 3, 1993

By Karen Everhart Bedford

"It is never just a movie," said Judy Richardson, a producer for Blackside Inc. And on that point, at least, filmmakers and historians do agree.

During a two-day conference April 25-26, 1993, "Telling the Story: The Media, the Public and American History," filmmakers, historians, teachers, librarians and museum directors--gathered to share ideas, offer criticisms and discuss challenges in representing history on film.

The conference sponsored by the New England Foundation for the Humanities began as an opportunity for prominent scholars to debate the merits and failings of Ken Burns' tremendously popular public television series, The Civil War, and by its close the next evening, "Telling the Story" had ventured to the boundaries of historical filmmaking, where independent producers are exploring how to tell untold stories of the nation's past and its people.

"This is a celebration of an idea whose time has come," said Robert Rosenstone, professor of history at the California Institute of Technology. He described creating a course about history in film in 1976. "My collegues thought I was odd and trying to avoid work." But his students, "less eager to read, wanted to know how film worked."

Judging by exchanges between historians and filmmakers at the conference, scholarly consideration of history in film has broadened since then, from how history on film works, to how it could work better, how scholars can objectively evaluate historical films, and how they can collaborate with filmmakers more effectively.

"We spent a long time figuring out conventions for writing history," said Natalie Davis, professor at Princeton University. In the 16th and 17th centuries, she said, historians would recreate the debates of ancient Rome by putting words in the mouths of princes of the time--an equivalent of the liberties that some modern-day filmmakers take.

So it's not surprising that today's historians often have a hard time swallowing film representations of the past. "We don't have a wide repertoire of conventions--we've only been working on sound films for 50 years," Davis said.

Wake of the War

Perhaps that's why The Civil War, almost two years after its public TV debut, still serves as a lightning rod in the historical profession.

"I had no idea that I was going to make this film, or that it would have this kind of impact," Ken Burns told participants. In a discussion about the series, he fittingly illustrated the viewers' great response to The Civil War by reading from their letters.

The film raised scholars' concerns about how filmmakers represent the past, which stories of history get to be told, and who gets to tell them.

The Civil War made a "tremendous positive impact," said Robert Toplin, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, a panelist in the discussion of Burns' series. "[W]hat we're all trying to do is reach the public, get them excited about history and make them want to explore and even debate the issues. That clearly is what has happened in the wake of The Civil War."

Some 39 million people tuned in when film debuted on PBS in September 1990, and rebroadcasts continue to draw large audiences. Home video sales topped 1 million nationwide, and attendance at Civil War battlefields increased markedly.

"Superbly produced" but limited

Despite the series' unprecedented popularity, historian/filmmakers Leon Litwack and Daniel Walkowitz offered stinging criticisms for its failures to address or convey the difficult historical questions raised by the Civil War, and called for new approaches to telling history's stories on the screen.

Burns' 11-part series was a "superbly produced history of war, not of the social revolution which the Civil War helped to unleash," said Litwack, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley who won a Pulitzer for his book, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

By relying on conventional interpretations of the war, the film "failed to reflect the profound changes in the way history is recorded." Scholars today seek to discover lost histories by including the voices of ethnic minorities and women who did not have the leisure to keep diaries, Litwack said.

The Civil War was "safe, risk-free, upbeat and reassuring," Litwack added. It portrayed the "essential passivity of blacks and women," "perpetuated the notion that 'This need not have happened at all,'" and "celebrated the reconciliation of North and South while ignoring the brutal and violent racial repression on which that reconciliation rested."

"As Confederate and Union veterans were embracing and socializing at their reunion--underneath all that marvelous newsreel footage--the white South was winning [through] terrorism and murder, legal repression, what it had lost on the battlefield--footage that's not so nice," said Litwack.

Reminding the audience that many historians share Litwack's views, Daniel Walkowitz, a filmmaker and professor of history at New York University, contrasted reviews of The Civil War in the general press with critical evaluations published in several scholarly journals.

"Insistence on beauty"

Historical reviews of The Civil War--unlike the praiseful write-ups of TV critics--were "at best, mixed, and on balance critical," said Walkowitz. He quoted historians who praised Burns' technique but faulted his reliance on "vintage 19th Century interpretation," who found the series "luxuriant on military detail, thin on political context," and who criticized Burns' "insistence on retaining visual beauty rather than tackling difficult questions."

"The reviews raise important points about history-telling," said Walkowitz, and he sought to contrast "substantial divergence" between the values of historians and of the press, public TV and such underwriters as General Motors and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

That divergence "raised questions for all of us about who is in fact to speak for the past, who is to be constituted as the public, who is to define what we're told is called the 'American Experience,' and who will define, through often-politicized funding decisions, who will be represented."

"The descriptions of the film that I heard bore no resemblence to the films that I've actually seen," said Prof. Simon Schama of Harvard University, the appointed moderator of session about the impact of The Civil War. "If I'm not very much mistaken," Schama continued, "Frederick Douglass makes more than a trivial and fleeting appearance in the film. The history of the African-American experience, however one wanted to judge its presentation, was an overwhelmingly central part of the story." He also defended the series' "vintage 19th Century interpretation" by adding, "Quite good history was written in the 19th Century."

"One thing that we haven't really said is how much history has been murdered by people who are professionally employed as historians," responded Ken Burns. "[W]hat we were trying to produce is not a piece of academic paper. We were trying to speak to a very large audience ... and excite them and not be the last word or the first word."

When he produced the series, Burns said, he thought his editorial decision to say that slavery caused the war was "pretty radical."

Film can't be wallpaper

"I trusted my audience to make much greater leaps and intellectual connections than most documentary films," Burns said. "I'm not hitting them over the head with the superficial demand for balance--which says, 'Well, there was slavery, and then there was states' rights,'... There are arguments later on by people who felt slavery was fine."

"Film is not really comprehensive," said Toplin, who tried to strike a balance in commending and criticizing the series. "It can't be wallpaper history; it cannot cover everything."

Nonetheless, drawing on historical issues that The Civil War did not explore, Toplin suggested that filmmakers invite the public to "see historical interpretation as debate," to show that "the study of history is really about making judgments concerning conflicting interpretations of facts...that have a great deal of meaning for the way we see the world today."

That is a big challenge, Toplin acknowledged, because filmmakers must reach a public that "has a rather simplistic notion of history."

It's not just facts

"I think a lot of people out there believe that history involves a simple, tidy operation of gathering the facts, laying out the chronology, and what is out there in the way of the story is all so obvious," Toplin elaborated. "Yet we know that the facts are not neutral and the pictures are not so objective."

"Can films give us a sense of how partisan this whole notion of interpretation really is?" Toplin asked. Critics of The Civil War also alluded to this question.

Litwack called on filmmakers and historians to "explore alternative ways to convey the past," and "engage the public in the social complexities and diversity of the past...We need to produce dialogue from experiences long repressed from restrictive, unimaginative scholarship. We need to overcome cultural illiteracy."

History is a "contested story," agreed Walkowitz. Each film should speak to the different stories that fit in the past; stories that are "told by historians and the people of the time, but with different power and authority."

While calling on historians to "assume greater responsibility for visual history" and producers to "recognize history as conception and process, not as as a series of discreet facts, but a constructive argument," Walkowitz also recommended that funding decisions be "taken out of the hands of politicians and broadcasters," and "collaboration be stripped of its binary division between filmmakers and historians. They must become one and the same person."

Pushing the boundaries

Independent media are responding to historians' calls for innovation and "pushing the boundaries" of historical films, according to Barbara Abrash, an independent producer who specializes in historical films. Independents have "sought out lost and repressed histories" and their research "contributes to the historical record," she said. Abrash moderated a session in which several independents discussed the challenges of developing projects that tell the untold stories of history.

With academic training as a historian, Lynn Goldfarb became interested in filmmaking as "a way to make history accessible to people." She produced "With Babies and Banners," to make women's role in a 1937 strike "real and inspirational to working people."

This film was not a historical documentary."It had the distinct point-of-view of the women involved," who had "been denied their history for years," said Goldfarb.

Goldfarb encountered this particular challenge in producing "We Have a Plan" for Blackside Inc.'s upcoming series, The Great Depression. The film tells the story of Upton Sinclair, a socialist who became "frustrated by the government's efforts to end the Depression" and ran for governor of California. Not only was there very little footage of Sinclair's campaign, said Goldfarb, but the state's newspapers agreed to a blackout of positive or neutral reports on his run.

Controlling their own image

Adding to filmmakers' challenges, minority communities that are underrepresented in archival footage also seek to protect the images that films present about their culture. Filmmaker Louis Massiah recalled an incident early in his career, at WNET, New York.

He was asked to screen the independent film "Street Corner Stories," in which black men talk disparagingly about black women. African-American employees at WNET were "outraged" when the station scheduled the film, and confronted Massiah, also an African-American, for not objecting to "Street Corner Stories." Their concern, Massiah said, was that "this is a horrible image."

That self-protective tendency prevailed until Marlon Riggs' "Tongues Untied" aired on PTV stations, said Massiah. Riggs' film "totally blew everything open, showing gay male relationships." Now young videomakers are looking at issues that, in the past, Massiah himself would have been nervous about, such as black male and female relationships, and conflicts between the African- and Korean-American communities.

Massiah, who also directs the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, advocates that filmmakers let people tell their own stories, because then "they define the limits of what's acceptable and unacceptable."

"As well intentioned as you may be in telling someone else's story, that's not your story, and there's always a chance of it not being true and not being responsible," Massiah said.

Native Americans have been particularly victimized by filmmakers, according to Victor Masayesva, an independent producer and member of the Hopi tribe.

"We're dealing with representations happening right now that we will be burdened with," said Masayesva, "Cliches that our people have accepted and redelivered to the camera."

Native American involvement in productions about their communities is limited to the role of consultants, and that is "not enough," said Masayesva. "We need to get involved with the representation, not just the content, with how the images are presented."

Masayesva described efforts to protect Native Americans from distorted representations on film. He is active in the Native American Producers Alliance, which seeks to build accountability into film representations of Native Americans. He said the alliance has had "no success."

Masayesva, who recently completed his first feature film, "Imagining Indians," has never applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, because filmmakers who receive NEH funds are required to work with expert historians. "The bottleneck is still the white man," he said.



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