Historians at the Movies (October 2020)

Dr. Walter D. Greason

Social media has changed the ways scholars approach the creation and distribution of knowledge in profound ways.  Facebook pages for new monographs reach thousands of readers within a few days. Instagram posts generate questions about content and methods across disciplinary boundaries. LinkedIn searches help new institutions find promising candidates faster than anyone considered possible. However, Twitter has been singular in its impact on academic discussion in the public sphere. In 2012, few serious scholars used the platform to communicate about scholarly research. Historians, as a profession, prefer books and journals. Even the use of vital tools like JSTOR and Project Muse was controversial at first. If television and films are risky resources because of their tendency to omit details or emphasize the dramatic, how much less reliable would Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram be? The brevity of these formats alone reject any pretense of objectivity, rendering any possibility of scholarly value unlikely. Unless the participants possess skills in computer science or media studies that are less common or valued in the profession, these criticisms might have prevailed. Instead, over the next two years, initiatives like Saturday School produced a regular following and even attracted the attention of the Washington Post. Still, online use of social media by academics was uneven, at best. Indeed, in many institutions, it was actively discouraged. In 2014, a group of intellectual historians began to explore the possibilities of daily engagement in academic conversations. These discussions led to the creation of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).  Led by Christopher Cameron, Keisha Blain, and Ibram Kendi, this society attracted a few dozen scholars who actively used social media as part of their research agendas.  Their initial blogs created a frenzy of demand by 2016, as the public responded to the chance to participate in informal conversations about scholarly topics.

T. Thomas Fortune, c. 1900

A turning point came in August 2017 when the “Unite the Right” rally caused social unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. The killing of Heather Heyer by a rally participant ignited an international outcry against white supremacy. Social media amplified the sense of injustice and unity against the threat of fascism around the world. The AAIHS formula of publishing online syllabi about controversial topics was immediately employed to force a global confrontation with racial violence in American history. Millions of people around the world responded and a ‘racial violence syllabus’ was translated into seven languages in two weeks. Professional organizations took note of the increased public engagement as both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians embraced AAIHS and several other social media networks of emerging scholars. Within two years, Ibram Kendi and Keisha Blain had emerged as the leaders of a new generation of academics whose work transformed the culture of academic journals, popular journalism, and multimedia platforms for mass audiences. Since 2018, social media has become one of the required areas of engagement for academics in every discipline.

The immediacy of production, especially in retaining the rigor of peer review, has opened the doors to vast new areas of intellectual collaboration.  Jason Herbert, tweeting from his @herberthistory handle, is one of the leading authorities on the power of these media as he created a massive online community of scholars around the concept of “Historians at the Movies.” These weekly conversations give scholars and teachers time to explore the successes and failures of historical research through the lens of popular media, especially film. Over the last two years, these exchanges have inspired countless hours of laughter and collaboration in a staid profession in dire need of both. Herbert innovated a format that had emerged among educators in elementary and secondary schools – the online chat. By choosing a popular film, then identifying a hashtag to share the conversation, scholars could exchange ideas and jokes in real time. These conversations would build a strong sense of community that many academics do not enjoy in their daily work. As a result, a core audience developed around the HATM tag. Herbert could host every week, but also invite specialists to discuss particular thematic aspects of almost any film. 

Four themes shaped the reflection on the success of the concept – pedagogy, specialization, reach/sustainability, and streaming. The foundation of the social media community is a group of teachers and instructors who value the spontaneity of knowledgeable engagement through an informal window of cinema. So often, they focus on the primary and secondary sources that rightly shape student knowledge of historical content. Film brings sound and motion into the experience in ways that written text cannot. Even the power of still images fall short of the ability of a Hollywood production to create a new memory that might inspire a lifetime of learning. The power of this initial connection is reinforced with the range of specializations that the experts bring to each session. Every professional organization struggles to invite a broad cohort of new participants to stay vital. In HATM, rare insights from the edges of multiple fields spark new questions and insights every minute of the time shared together. Perhaps most importantly, the silent witnesses of these exchanges are far larger on social media than they could be in a conference room or convention center. The HATM viewing of the Marvel Studios’ film, Black Panther, reached over 180 million viral interactions on September 6, 2020. The digital crowd represented almost half of the population of the United States. Few traditional scholarly products have this level of success in reaching mass audiences. As a result, public engagement with historical topics increases. The nature of a streaming service, like Netflix or Amazon Prime, allows for powerful resonances to develop among vast audiences, so that the quality of historical analysis can inspire people who never had a chance to appreciate the joy of the “life of the mind” in other parts of their lives.

Herbert’s skill in drawing informed participants is unmatched. In his discussion about the utility of counterfactuals in historical analysis, he moved quickly to the heart of the profession in North America – the Civil War. His desire to engage in the contingencies that shaped the outcomes, as well as the possibilities of small changes yielding massive historical differences, revealed a deep, abiding energy that defines a true historian. Take, for example, the film “Confederate States of America.” It begins with the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War. Then, the process of civil rights reforms was delayed a full century until the John F. Kennedy administration. This conceptual rift between history (as millions understand it) and the fictional timeline invites a suspension of disbelief that allows both exploration and entertainment. The artistic process of filmmaking also invites historical scrutiny through the process of oversimplifying the complexity of individual and collective decision-making across time. HATM goes further.  By historicizing fiction, it enables a form of literary criticism that challenges the audience to find the remnants of fact that shape narrative.  Where CSA distorted history for entertainment purposes, HATM grounds the entertainment experience in the rigorous application of historical analysis.  The debates around how we confront the most difficult questions about past human experiences drives a hunger for knowledge that touches every field of inquiry. This shared determination across every voice in the HATM conversations helps to shape a warm and affirming community, especially through the expression of disagreement. In the end, Herbert offers his audiences a form of historiography through media. PBS explored this line of inquiry in an older film titled “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.” The entire project focused on the questions that Herbert raises every week through social media.  The filmmaker challenged an historian to examine the telling and re-telling of Turner’s revolt over time and across contexts. As a result, as the historian explained the shifting use of language and storytelling as the authors and audience remembered (and forgot) details, the filmmaker captured the process of historical analysis as a visual product. The contradictions and the clarity stand together on film. Unlike a singular narrative that rejects pieces of evidence in order to convince an audience about its objective truth, the PBS film also allows the tensions of ambiguity to persist. It leaves the audience to struggle with the layers of truth that historians constantly encounter through the archives.

HATM negotiates this terrain every week, moment by moment, as historians encounter scholars from different disciplines who share resources and analysis that rarely appear in history classrooms.  The openness and spontaneity of the conversations are entirely unpredictable, and the learning that occurs as a result is deeper – and, in some cases, more enduring.  As multiple stories are told from multiple perspectives, a broader grasp of historical truth emerges. It is never complete, but it is fuller, richer, and more inspirational through platforms like “Historians at the Movies.”