The American Historian

History in Twenty-Four Frames per Second

Christopher W. Wilson

Films are incredibly powerful. In his 1962 interview with French director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said he considered film the most powerful medium in human history. It’s no wonder, then, that history films offer an extraordinary ability to cement memorable impressions of the past upon viewers, for good or ill. Filmmakers’ frequent predilection for exploring historical subjects and the public popularity of these films is the reason I, along with my colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Humanities, decided to launch the History Film Forum, the inaugural installment of which I curated in November 2015. The Forum will annually explore history on the screen and the state of film, analyzing narrative, documentary, television, and YouTube videos as public history. After all, while the research, writing, and exhibitions of historians and curators shed new light on the past and engage many people every year, countless more connect with and learn about the past through movies.

The discussion and debate that arose during the History Film Forum at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History were interesting and provoking. It bodes well for the future of this new program that there was no shortage of topics to explore and an unmistakable enthusiasm in the audiences. A prevalent topic was the responsibilities of filmmakers when wielding their powerful tool either in support of or with the unintended consequence of affecting historical understanding of a topic. At our teachers workshop, about fifty middle and high school teachers registered to talk with two respected filmmakers representing the worlds of Hollywood and historical documentaries: Gary Ross, director of The Hunger Games and the recent Civil War film The Free State of Jones, and respected documentarian Laurens Grant, producer of Freedom Riders, Jesse Owens, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Participants were well aware of the potential pitfalls of teaching with the movies. Teachers echoed the findings of a 2009 study at Washington University in St. Louis that found using reading assignments along side showing history movies in the classroom was a double-edged sword. The study found that watching film clips increased students’ correct recall of information by about 50 percent relative to reading alone, but when the film contradicted the text, nearly half of the time students gave preference to the factually incorrect information shown in the film.

The keynote speaker for the History Film Forum, award-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns, agreed that the incredibly powerful medium of film has hazards imposed on it by both the emotional influence of the format and the structures of the form itself. “History and film obviously have a few things in common,” Burns said. “They both unfold in time, for example; both are subject to the iron law of temporal sequence—the law of before and after, of first one thing happening, and then another—in that order and not the reverse. Having said that, of course, the process and real-time unfolding of any film is rigidly linear and uni-vocal in a way that history itself never is. Film renders simultaneity, multiple things happening at once, impossible; whereas history itself is always intrinsically multiple and multifarious: always many things happening at once.” Burns continued, stating that a huge problem with history film is “the danger of reduction and simplification: the rendering of things that are intrinsically multiple and complex singular, linear, single stranded—in a way that things in history never are.”

Still, even professional historians and history educators are drawn to history movies. In a 2014 survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the Smithsonian, history professionals primarily affiliated with the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History overwhelmingly valued historical accuracy in filmmaking, a third of respondents admitting that they had stopped watching films part way through because of inaccuracies. While almost 70 percent of respondents said they were bothered by the addition of incidents, scenes, or characters that were not documented history, however, the same number stated that movies increase understanding and appreciation of history. Furthermore, over 80 percent believed that a historical feature film that contains factual inaccuracies can have social or educational value if it makes more people interested in history.

Perhaps the reasons for our conflicting feelings about the extent to which film and history make good bedfellows lay in Burns’s definition of the responsibility of the history filmmaker, whether working on a nonfiction or a feature film. Burns said “the obligation of any film using history as its source . . . is not to get at the truth, and certainly not at the whole truth, but to get at a truth.” In an artistic form like filmmaking, “truth” may not be and perhaps shouldn’t be defined simply as getting the facts right. After spending three decades as a public historian often using live theatrical performances to explore history and educated audiences, I’ve learned to use theater for what it’s good at doing. Other formats of presenting information and engaging audiences are better at facts, while theater and film, which are in Burns’ words “waking dreams,” excel at illuminating deep emotional truth, particularly from “moments when the forces of history and the power of the imagination collide in spectacular, transforming ways.” Burns continued, “when you traffic in film and history, fiction or nonfiction, you are borrowing the authority and power and majesty of the real, and counting on its potency to lift your tale. You therefore have a contract with the audience whether you know it or not: you’re going to take them as close to a truth as you can, no matter what the limitations are that get in your way. That truth will be the truth of something real in the outer world, and the truth of something real in the hearts and minds and imagination of the audience.”

Summing up his thoughts on history and film at the History Film Forum, Burns concluded: “Whether feature film or documentary film—the power of film is so strong not because of its encyclopedic quality but because of its ability to narrow the gap to almost zero between the audience—in the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds—and a reality beyond the screen. If a film works on that level and does not betray the confidence of the audience it can provide something really electrifying and important.”

Film transports us to another time and place. When that time and place actually existed in our past, we take away an altered understanding of history. Sometimes the powerful images and emotions at work in film offer new understanding of history, other times the power of the medium works to reinforce or create myths. Because film is so elemental to the way the public understands and experiences history, I am so pleased that we will continue to explore film as a tool for interpreting and learning history in our History Film Forum. The next History Film Forum will take place March 9–12, 2017, in Washington, D.C., featuring brand new documentary and narrative films, offering support for emerging filmmakers, and exploring the theme of “the nation we build together.”


Christopher W. Wilson is Director of the African American History Program and Experience and Program Design at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  He has created several major program series at the Smithsonian Institution including the award-winning educational theater program History Alive!, the National Youth Summit, which engages high school students in conversation about history, and the History Film Forum.