1.1 Statement of Context
Metropolitan Business Academy, an interdistrict magnet high school, has a history with the Regional Educational Support Center, the Center for 21st Century Skills. Although I do not teach courses that culminate with the Student Innovation Expo, I have developed and teach an introductory film course. Introduction to Film is an elective that is open only to juniors and seniors. I also teach senior level English. It is my aim that students who complete this unit through either of my courses, although my primary purpose and method of delivery will be Introduction to Film, will have a deeper understanding of American democracy and the struggles that different groups have endured in their attempts to attain power and voice in the face of oppression throughout the “long 20
century,” a term I shall attribute to Yale Professor Matthew Frye Jacobson to mean the late 1800s to present. Students will critically assess three major movements in which “Americans” have both struggled against and acted as forces of oppression: the early labor movement beginning roughly in the 1920s, the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and present day post-9/11 post-Katrina America.
It has been suggested that student engagement is flagging at alarming rates and that more traditional teaching methods and delivery systems are largely to blame. I began teaching film in the 2011-2012 academic year. At that time I had one section of approximately twenty-seven students, few of whom came to the class with any academic interest in the subject. I soon discovered that introducing too many technical film terms and too much industry jargon was counterproductive. Compelling storytelling and a surfeit of text-dependent questions proved to be more fruitful. Students began to produce more and better quality writing. By the end the course most students grasped that Introduction to Film was neither VOD (Video on Demand) nor a crip course in which they just sat around and watched movies.
In the final months of the school year I began booking time in a computer lab and started a class blog; although the blog didn’t really takeoff this first year, I received student feedback that it should be incorporated in the future. I am glad I listened, two years later both the quality of the posts and the traffic on the site have improved. At the time of this writing the site has exceeded 7,000 page views.
Building on research and curriculum writing I have completed through my involvement in past Yale New Haven Teacher Institute seminars led by the likes of Annabel Patterson, Pericles Lewis, Mary Liu, and Kathy Dudley et al, my aim is to give my students insight into America’s recent past and present and to have them think critically about such concepts as democracy and oppression.
1.2 Descriptive Overview
When I began preparing this unit my initial research questions revolved around surveillance culture (SC); is SC a byproduct of the post-9/11 era or a carryover from the Cold War or does it goes as far back as the Pinkerton and Baldwin-Felts agencies? Where can I find out more about COINTELPRO, and how do I make the material relevant to my students? Although I experienced a measure of success by reading through released FBI files in the age of FOIA, I eventually came to the conclusion that SC was too narrow a frame and that students would benefit more from a unit that parallels, at least in part, the structure of the seminar itself.
I was looking to incorporate texts from the “long 20
century,” particularly those reflecting American culture post 9/11 and Katrina; however, I began to call into question my choices. Upon further reflection I have decided that my “long 20
century” will not only be the dovetail of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but will look to include film art that represents the early 1900s to present. In effect, rather than starting with oppression in the post 9/11 era, I have determined to start students exploration of “democracy” through a critical viewing of John Sayles’ film
, a story of early labor organizing efforts in the coal fields of Appalachia. Next, students will study the Civil Rights era through the lens of Spike Lee’s biopic,
Stephen Apkon in his book
The Age of the Image
makes the claim that before being able to graduate from our public high schools students should have mastered the following: script writing for a short video segment; the shooting of a coherent narrative film that correctly incorporates literate elements of expression; the editing of raw footage into a persuasive argument; the accessing of audience appropriate channels of distribution including the Internet; the critical deconstruction and demonstration of understanding of visual media. Not only do I agree with Apkon’s assertions, but I also find it interesting how they relate to the ideas of John Howard Lawson that found their in way into print half of a century ago. Lawson stated, “The problems of film today are problems of world communication. Human survival is a global question- it relates to the nature of man, his creative will, his ability to face the future.” Lawson goes on to question the relation between the film image and reality. He questions whether or not the documentary film is closer to the truth than the narrative film, the connection between film and other arts, especially theatre and literature, and how the moving image is able to express psychological truths and states of feeling.
Professor Matthew Jacobson’s analogy, which he made at the Institute’s annual Open House, between cultural history and geology really struck a chord with me and my pedagogical aims, especially with relation to my film studies courses. Over the past three years as a teacher of film, I have tried to impress upon students how contemporary films are in conversation with the great works of the medium that precede them. It also occurs to me, that both I and my students need to think more deeply about how films reflect not only the times that they depict but also the prevailing cultural values of the times in which are created.
According to Cullen, “Sometimes forms and formats get conflated- people refer to ‘films’ when they really mean movies they watched on videotape [this is dated; no really does this anymore. It is all blu-ray, DVDs, and streaming] but the distinction is real and can be helpful when you’re trying to map popular culture and get a sense of the big picture” (6). Although Cullen may have a valid point, I personally use the term “film” in class to denote scale of production and to possibly disambiguate popcorn movies from “high art”, examples of the media that potentially deal with weightier topics.
“For another, popular culture, like other institutions in society, is afflicted with evils like racism, which belie the fondest principles of those who profess to believe in representative democracy” (7). Examples of this cropping up in my film courses and the after school film society I run are as follows: during a brief study of film noir students critically view director Orson Welles 1958 genre classic
Touch of Evil
that ironically deals with themes of anti-Mexican attitudes and police corruption on the border while starring Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas, a Mexican law enforcement officer (something akin to a district attorney); although it has been years since I have screened
West Side Story
with students, while studying Nicholas Ray’s
Rebel without a Cause
we discuss how actor Natalie Wood and not the uber-talented Rita Moreno landed the leading role of Maria; MetroCinematek, my after school film society, screened its first-ever martial arts film this year,
Enter the Dragon,
pre-viewing discussion included how Bruce Lee had been relegated to sidekick in American prime-time television before losing out on a starring role in a series he himself had developed when producers chose to put David Carradine in the part of Cain, a shaolin monk wandering through the American West. More recently the misogyny (this may be too strong a term to describe the anti-woman sentiments) of the 1933 version of
led to a lengthy discussion.
Interestingly enough, when I google “Fascism in Macbeth,” what pops up but Michael Denning’s
The Cultural Front
. Although I was thinking of the semi-recent (2010) Rupert Goold directed version featuring Patrick Stewart, reminiscent of and paradoxically the antithesis of Eisenstein’s
Ivan the Terrible
(1945) [Eisenstein’s film uses historical events from 16th century to reflect the goings-on in then contemporary Stalinist Soviet Union, whereas the Goold
transposes Shakespeare’s original text, which is a 16th century representation of 11th century Scotland, to a mid-20th century fascist state a la Stalin’s Soviet Union] the chapter presented is all about Orson Wells.
These are all examples of how films act both as narratives, hopefully compelling storytelling, and as documents of the prevailing cultural values of the time periods in which they are created.
It is for this very reason that I have selected the non print texts that my students will examine. Director John Sayles
, the story of early labor organizing efforts and the beginning of the “coal wars” of the 1920s was made in the same time period that President Ronald Reagan was pushing a top-down economic agenda, it was also right around this time that Michael Moore gained recognition with his documentary
Roger and Me
that chronicles the devastating effects of General Motors’ decision to move manufacturing operations from Flint, Michigan to Mexico.
Similarly, director Spike Lee’s watershed biopic of
dating from 1992, not only looks to shed light upon the oft misunderstood Civil Rights leader’s life and times, but also points out that 1990s America has a long row to hoe before truly becoming a “post-racial” society. As will be discussed in greater detail in later sections, Lee chooses to comment on present-day societal ills by opening with a montage
that includes actual footage of the Rodney King beating which precipitates the LA riots.
Rodney King is the subject of Roger Guenveur Smith’s most recent one man show that saw its world premiere at New Haven’s historic Long Wharf Theatre as part as this year’s annual Arts and Ideas Festival, a New Haven non-profit staple. As reported by
The New Haven Independent
’s Aliyya Swaby, he closes out the King performance with the lines, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” This is not only significant because King was a second-generation drowning victim, but also because they echo the last words of Eric Garner. Guenveur Smith is a longtime Lee collaborator; in addition to appearing in many of Lee’s films, including
, he had Lee direct the film version of his Obie Award-winning one man show
A Huey P. Newton Story
Before one shares
A Huey P. Newton Story
with students in whole or in part, it may be advisable to screen a clip or clips from the
e episode “How Does It Go with the Black Movement?” Recorded in January of 1973 and currently available on Amazon Prime, it features Newton verbally sparring with the show’s host conservative idealogue William F. Buckley. This is suggested so that students may appreciate Gueveur Smith’s nuanced embodiment of the founding father of the Black Panther Party.
A Huey P. Newton Story
not only receives high marks on the Tomatometer from critics and audiences alike but also does an excellent job connecting the past and present. As Newton, Guevenur Smith references both Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo (1997 and 1999 respectively). The Diallo shooting is also the subject of the Bruce Springsteen song “American Skin (41 Shots).”