We often look to the our past to see what was in style, what everyday experiences were like, what people cared about in any particular era. We look back to see how we have changed. Or how we haven’t. Yet in the digital age, we are all too willing to let the next trending topic on Twitter or limited tv series do the leg work for us.
Retellings—or, honestly, first tellings for many viewers because of the penchant of the American educational system to deliberately overlook the lengthy list of historical events that illuminate the atrocities committed to minority groups throughout our country’s lifetime—of history through film have seen a huge uptick recently. Let’s just look at a handful of the films that garnered Oscar nominations this year: Judas and the Black Messiah, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, The United States v. Billie Holiday, One Night in Miami…, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. All of these movies are based on real people and events, and largely on stories that have long been hidden from the public eye. 2020 was a year of reckoning for many facets of American society, and that same sense of reckoning bled into entertainment media.
What do we have to gain from seeing history on the big (well, in the age of COVID-19, likely smaller) screen?
Media’s framing of history is not a new concept. Controlling public perception around a topic is paramount to exercising and maintaining power. The attack on the U.S. Capitol proved that thousands of red hats over. But when done through the more artistic lens of a film or television show, this framing grows more layered. The piece is becomes reflective of the time it’s created in as well as the time it’s depicting.
Stills from the The Trial of the Chicago 7, which centers around the anti-Vietnam war protests that escalated into violent clashes between protestors and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, look as though they could have been taken straight from coverage of the protests last summer following George Floyd’s murder. The similarities are as chilling as they are unsurprising.
Now, these retellings aren’t an exact history. The degree to which a film takes liberties with a story is entirely up to the creative team, even if the subject matter has been extensively researched. After all, the goal of film is to elicit an emotional reaction from a viewer, which means any amount of a narrative can be sensationalized. But if the traumatic events of the past year have taught us one thing, it’s that sensation is a powerful catalyst to action. In a similar way, these films provide vignettes of a painful past that lead directly to the just as painful present.
Also set in Chicago, Judas and the Black Messiah follows revolutionary Fred Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) through his leadership of the Illinois Black Panther Party to his eventual assassination by the FBI, a raid which was aided by the pressured undercover work of FBI informant William O’Neal (played by Lakeith Stanfield). Hampton is a prime example of a figure that was largely misrepresented in mainstream media during his life—and in history books after his death—due to the vilification of the Black Panther Party. Now that white Americans have taken the long-delayed step of interrogating our past and having conversations about what we can to do make our society truly safe and equitable for everyone, movies like this are a worthy part of those conversations.
Anything “based on real events” inspires viewers to subsequently look into said events and learn more about the real history. Or, it should. This is especially imperative in relation to stories that surround racial inequality, as so much of the non-white American experience is just not taught. Until drastic changes are made to how we learn about and interact with the diverse history of our country, the bare minimum white Americans can do is to listen, view, and absorb narratives that don’t match their own. Movies and television are a simple way to ease into this historical education, a jumping-off point for learning that will ideally lead to a rising tide of action to incite change.