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Living History in Film

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History Teacher

History is a collection of stories--stories that tell of events big and small.  In history class, we often look at the macro story, the big picture. We might look at WWI: the causes, the effects, the battles, and the political, social, and economic costs and gains. However, what is frequently lost is the story of the 18-year-old boy, aching with homesickness and overwhelmed by his first steps outside of his small hometown, sent to fight a war that no one really understands. Or the story of the women who sat in the back offices of a cold and nondescript building, calculating some of the world's most important mathematical computations. At the heart of history is, and should be, the close study of the individuals. A great way to learn about these individuals is by watching historical films. Highlighted here are several films that illustrate the lives of ordinary Americans who made a difference in the world.

One important subject in U.S. History that was often overlooked in the past is the role of women.   The fight for suffrage is of great importance.  Iron-Jawed Angels is a 2004 movie about Alice Paul, who took part in the fight for woman to have the right to vote.  This HBO film provides students with a chance to learn about the movement in an entertaining way.

Another subject of importance is the African-American struggle to obtain their civil rights.  The 1989 Oscar-winning film Glory (starring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington) details the often overlooked but important contributions of black soldiers in the Union army during the Civil War.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures chronicles the largely unknown story of African-American female mathematicians who played a part in the success of the NASA space program in the 1960s. The film illustrates the limitations imposed by society on black women during that period and how these particular women overcame those limitations.

Under the Blood Red Sun (2014) is a powerful film about the Japanese-American experience during World War II.  The movie (based on the book by Graham Salisbury) details the struggles of a young man growing up in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbor, torn by his Japanese roots and a desire to be accepted as an American.

Take some time to watch these films. Questions to consider while watching them are: Who are the most important people? How does the filmmaker portray them? What is the setting of the film? Think about the historical context, time and place. Do you think the filmmaker accurately depicts the time period? Jot down your observations and questions! This is a great way to be an active learner!