Mosaic America on Film: Fact Versus Fiction
is designed to allow the students and teacher to examine how minorities, ethnic groups and history are portrayed in film. The potential difficulties of intercultural and historical communications can be reduced if students recognize what they view in films as either fact or fiction.
Using this curriculum unit, seventh grade students will become more aware of the values and struggles of minorities and ethnic groups in the United States. American films and written works, fictional and non-fictional will be used as tools to open the eyes of students and allow them to gain greater understanding and awareness of these cultures in the United States. Through films that portray different ethnic groups and historical events, student will explore the customs and beliefs of their own culture as well as those of others and examine significant events that have contributed to the history of the United States.
In 1994, 22,500 students from the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades participated in a battery of history tests given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which was established by Congress in the 1980s). Most students failed to put into historical context the Civil Rights Movement or the government’s historical role in trying to subjugate Native Americans. If students are foggy about the broad strands in American history, like what motivated the Puritans to come to America or exactly who did what to whom, then the finer points of who we are as a nation of diverse people are sure to be misunderstood. Without teaching history from a multicultural perspective, a pattern of confusion about people and events will continue to be apparent and many students will be participating in our society with misrepresentations (stereotypes), tenseness, and resentment. Students need the skills to form critical judgments of what they see in films depicting different groups of people or events.
This curriculum unit is not about entertainers, studio politics, innovative film techniques, or even the art of film. Rather, this is a unit about the social substance and meaning of American film, particularly a comparison between Hollywood’s versions of history with that of historical events.
As students view select films, they will be asked to develop a portfolio that demonstrates skills in writing, creative thinking and the ability to differentiate between fact and fiction. The students will examine the origins, development and significance of ethnic representations in American film. They will explore the various ways films helped to shape people’s perceptions of themselves and the world about them.
Since films serve many functions—a form of art, entertainment, an instrument of propaganda, a medium of social change, and a transmitter of cultural values and events—the students will research facts shown in certain films (
) through written materials (print and electronic print) and the INTERNET. Hopefully, students will develop a systematic way to view films and distinguish what is fact and what is fiction.
Films are products of collective efforts, representations that are partially borrowed from history and literature. The images portrayed are combinations of fact, fiction, commerce and art. Given the need to attract and engage mass audiences, popular attitudes are represented on film more than in novels and paintings. Filmmakers often choose to ignore reality in depicting et hnic groups or history. By portraying only parts of life , they often misrepresent the complexity of history and ethnic groups. Popular film stereotypes of Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, Jews, and European immigrants infer negative beliefs and prejudices about these people as groups not as individuals.
American films play an influential part in fixing images of ethnic groups and history in the minds of viewers. Despite years of research, it is impossible to find out the actual effect that films have on audiences. The adoption of dress styles, language, and mannerisms of films by the public has consequences. Not all negative. On the other hand, Hollywood has made victims of some ethnic groups. In 1915, D.W.
Griffith’s Birth of a Nation
depicted African Americans as lewd and brutal. When large numbers of European Americans rejoiced as the Ku Klux Klan rescued a white girl from the hands of an African American in a scene near the end of the film, many African Americans knew that their people would suffer in real life as a consequence of the negative representation (stereotype). Even though African American groups, notably the NAACP, protested the showing of
Birth of a Nation
their success was limited. Although they raised the awareness of stereotyping in film, their protests also increased public interest in Griffith’s film.
Films often serve as handbooks of social behavior. They introduce many audiences to people, places and events that they would otherwise never know. Therefore, films often establish basic identity of those peopl e, places or events. The negative representation of African American males as oversexed beings like Melvin van Peebles’ role in
Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song
sometimes reinforces false assumptions about other African American males. As the social places of ethnic groups change in American life, the representations of ethnic images should also change to adjust to new conditions. Filmmakers at times do alter negative representations (stereotypes) to maintain truisms with social data or they lose their credibility with viewers, thus profit. Ethnic groups themselves often choose misrepresentations as a strategy to draw attention to achievements or goals. Recent films that include John Shaft giving the finger to an irate driver in the title sequence of
(1996) pushing for African Americans to take back their communities.
Historians often argue against how films distort the past. Using non-fictional written documents and comparing them to films with historical events or people represented, historians and even the average viewer can prove misrepresentations. In the
Double Life of Pocahontas
(Jean Fritz, page 67),
marries John Rolfe, not John Smith as represented in the Walt Disney production of
The entire population—Native American and non-Native American—is affected by the misrepresentation of Native Americans in film. Berry Brewton (The Education of the American Indian: A Survey of Literature, 1968) states that Native American children need positive images true images of themselves, and that non-Native Americans need more appreciation and awareness of the Native American so that their image of the group might improve. It is very necessary that damaging ethnic or historical myths be exposed and eliminated concludes Jack Forbes (Education of the Culturally Different: A Multi-Cultural Approach, 1969). When confronted with their own ignorance, whites (film producers) either deny responsibility, accept guilt, or adopt a r omantic view of the Native American. These responses have been transformed into film (
What is the story of the Native American? Is it the Indian princess
with roots in Jamestown, the drunken Indian, the store cigar vendor, or the chief with secrets? The film industry avails itself to portray these representations of the Native American. Films have distorted, represented, misrepresented almost every ethnic and religious group. The Native American seems to suspended in time. Native Americans on the film reside between the Pilgrims’s landing and the late 1800s when Native Americans were trying to keep control of their land. In order to justify what is called progress and be accepted by mainstream America, white producers portrayed Native Americans as illiterate savages. Only a few, Squanto,
, and Chingacgook have been immortalized as “good” Indians similar to Tonto who knew his role in American society.
The images of early writers and historians are still perpetuated in the twentieth century. Tonto, noble sidekick of the
( radio and television series) and the Indians unable to handle alcohol of
(comedy television show ) continue to misrepresent the Native American. It is difficult to know how much distorted images on film have influenced viewers. As a part of a study on Indian Education, a Senate Special Subcommittee interviewed Americans from all sectors of the United States in 1994. The results indicate that we still have a long way to go toward understanding Native Americans (
Report 501 of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, U.S.Senate, 91st Congress, 1st Session
To thousands of Americans, the American Indian is and always will be dirty, lazy, and drunk. That’s the way they picture him; that’s the way they treat him.
. . . The basis for these stereotypes goes back into history—a history created by the white man to justify his exploitation of the Indian, a history the Indian is constantly reminded of at school, on television, in books, and at the movies.
If the past is a predictor, Native Americans will be represented in a new image that is sympathetic and contains minimal elements of historical truth (as does Walt Disney’s production,
) similar to how African Americans have been represented in
(Civil war dramatization) and
( Civil Rights Movement dramatization). In both of these films, the past is shaped and limited by the conventions of the story, the notion of progress, the emphasis on individuals, the script writer’s interpretation, and the drive to make a huge profit. These conventions mean that the history of people, places and events on film will be somewhat different from the history in print format. To obtain the full be nefits of the film, that is to use film’s power to the fullest, changes in the way we think of the past occur in the dramatic story, character, emotional intensity and settings of the people, places and events being depicted by filmmakers. It must be remembered that history on film is not an area which historians are allowed to censor. History on film may be criticized and misrepresentations pointed out, but not controlled.
The misrepresentations of history on film and our lack of control over these representations makes it necessary that many audiences including students learn how to research and judge films. Among the issues to address in judging people, places and events from the past on film is the liberty of invention used by filmmakers. If we can find a way to accept and judge the inventions (alterations, omissions and conflation) that filmmakers use in the production of dramas relating to history, controversies such as the one initiated by Walt Disney”s film,
, will be reduced.
History as drama on film is saturated with fiction and invention from small details such as a style of dress to large discrepancy such as whom
loved. Take the furnishings in a room where a historical person, Robert Gould Shaw, sits in
(Edward Zwick, 1989). Or examine the battle scenes in the same film. The room and scenes are approximate rather than true representations. That which we see in
is necessitated by the camera’s need to complete the specifics of a historical event. Despite limited records to draw upon, the flow of the drama is kept intact.
The same is true of character: all films will include fictional people or invented elements of character (
’ singing ability). Also, events will be altered to keep the story moving, to encourage intense feelings, and to reduce the complexity of events to correlate with time limitations.
The difference between history and history on film is that they both tell stories, but the former tells a true story. History in film can never be an exact duplication of a person, place or event. It can only be a portrayal. History can not be repeated. What is on film is only an approximation of who, what, and where as interpreted by actors, costume and set designers, script writers, producers, and the drive to make money. Viewers must recognize that films will always include representation that are invented in some degree that can be argued as not true.
(Alan Parker, 1988) is as inventive as
. The Freedom Summer of 1964 is portrayed in
using the killing of three civil rights workers, two whites and on black. Two FBI agents are depicted as heroes while blacks as victims of racism who ha &d little to do with the voting rights drive. The message visualized by the film is that the government protected African Americans and the government also played a major role in the voter registration drive. This drama does not include what actually occurred. The federal government was reluctant to protect those involved in the registration drive and was also slow in solving the murder of the civil rights workers. The fact that African Americans worked together as a community in 1964 is omitted, thus false representation is reinforced.
It is not hard to get students interested in certain kinds of public issues. They are especially responsive when discussing matters close to them—for example, students will talk for hours about the ban on students in malls at certain times, city-wide mandated curfews, First Amendment rights, or a lack of recreational opportunities. Students are also willing to debate with little encouragement emotional issues such as the death penalty, violence on television, gun control, or racial prejudice. This curriculum unit has lessons designed to motivate students to explore and reexamine what they view on film and identify areas in which filmmakers represented ethnic groups or events askew from what is or actually was.
The lessons will help to enhance writing, reading comprehension, listening and visual observation, critical thinking, research, cooperative learning, creativity, and appreciation for the diversity of the United States as well as more awareness of the contributions credited to different groups.Working collaboratively with a media specialist, students will utilize electronic and printed resources. Each lesson allows flexibility to use any or all of its components separately or in concert. However, these elements are used, the results will foster a new awareness for the way people and history are represented on film and open discussion of the Mosaic America.
This unit will be more successful if the classroom environment has established respect for all its members. Therefore, the unit should be u sed after the first marking period .