The American Historian

Historians At The Movies and Bridging Gaps between the Academic Community

Jason Herbert

No, Adam, we cannot do Highlander right now. It’s decision time for #HATM and Adam Domby (@AdamHDomby), Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston, has been pressuring me for over a year to show the film. And while a movie about men and women traveling across space and time to decapitate one another might mimic the current academic job market, there’s just one problem—it’s not available on Netflix.
 
Time for Plan B. Let’s do 300.
 
I spend the rest of the week promoting the upcoming night on twitter with an assortment of memes and gifs (THIS. IS. #HATM!!!) before settling down to watch the movie with an untold number of my virtual friends. The night is another tremendous success as scholars, teachers, doctors, dentists, and others debate the merits of Greek memory, Persian representation, and, of course, Gerard Butler’s abs. It’s an evening of deep introspection about empire, race, sexuality, and power. It’s also a time of wisecracks, chuckles, and camaraderie over the course of two and a half hours. Our movie over, we adjourn for the evening with a promise of returning in seven days to do it again. I know we will. Tonight was our sixty-third week together.
 
#HATM is Historians At The Movies. Each Sunday, scholars and the general public convene at 8:30pm Eastern to watch a film on Netflix. We laugh, we cry, we historicize. But we do it as a community. We are changing the ways in which historians engage with the general public and with one another. And it’s good.
 
I created #HATM on a lark in mid-July 2018. National Treasure was available on Netflix, causing me to remember a conversation I’d previously had about how despite its admitted silliness, historians just loved the film. There’s something central to the idea of Treasure’s casting that always hit home to historians. After all, archaeologists get Harrison Ford; we have Nicolas Cage. We should watch this.
 
And we did. Our first night featured historians and film fans, along with two of National Treasure’s screenwriters, Marianne Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley (@dottiehudson), all watching and live-tweeting in unison. The night was a tremendous success, punctuated by the reaction of first-time National Treasure viewer Joanne Freeman (@jbf1755) to the application of lemon juice to the back of the Declaration of Independence.
 
I had not immediately planned for another film, but the requests came as the credits rolled. We therefore agreed to get together the following week for Lincoln. And then again for Marie Antoinette. Trading Places. Mudbound. Coco. The African Queen. And so on. Each week growing as more and more people became aware of our community.
 
I choose each week’s film based on a variety of factors, though my primary goal in mind is diversity. I want the cast to be as diverse as possible so that our viewers can see in our selections stories that matter to their lives. We have to balance drama with comedy. Similarly, while our audience and Hollywood’s productions skews towards American history, we need to look beyond the United States. Not every film can be a biography or a “history movie.” Trading Places, our fourth film, opened up a range of questions about how films reflect society’s values during specific points and times. In other words, Trading Places is not about history; it is history. We can also use these films to address larger issues that loom in our lives at this very moment. Coco was chosen because of its obvious critiques of immigration and belonging. Black Panther became a way to talk about the African diaspora. Spotlight, unfortunately, remains relevant for other reasons.
 
Film selection itself has become a reflection of our current historical era. While Netflix is far and away the most popular streaming platform, the service’s film library places certain limitations on the films we engage. Simply put, we are limited both by what’s on Netflix and what is being produced in Hollywood. Finding films focusing on Indigenous peoples or English-language films about African and Asian history has at times proven difficult. This has resulted in thinking beyond the frame in offering films that represent the interests of our audience. Animated films have become a surprising mainstay with Historians At The Movies. In addition to Coco, we have looked to Mulan, An American Tale, Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse, and The Princess and the Frog to diversify our selections and maintain an inclusive community.
 
Historians At The Movies works because it connects scholars to the general public in ways we have not seen before. The tradition format of scholarship publication will probably always be the mainstay of our profession but has severe limitations in engaging a wide audience. The first obstacle for scholars is that books published by university presses are often not either targeted to or carried by retailers easily accessible to the general public. Online retailers like Amazon have helped open some of that market, but still requires a search on the part of consumers to find new works. Book tours and speaking circuits help to close the gap between scholars and others by allowing a question and answer portion of the presentation or perhaps a brief personal engagement during a book signing. Of course, repeated talks outside a scholar’s home area are usually rare and do not offer a continued engagement with a historian’s thoughts and work. The options in connecting academics and their prospective audiences, then, are limited.
 
Increasingly scholars are doing important work presenting their work to the public in the name of podcasts, such as Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World or Daniel Gullotta’s The Age of Jackson Podcast. Blogs such as NursingClio.org and AgeOfRevolutions.com continue to challenge the paradigm of how scholars are writing, publishing, and engaging their audience. Historians At The Movies varies from these formats in that it offers a real-time engagement between scholars and the public.
 
#HATM takes advantage of extant social media to offer a platform in which scholars can close the gap between themselves and the general public in a welcoming space. This can not only connect us to our audience but help to inform them (and one another) about how history is produced. For instance, Victoria E. Bynum (@vikki_bynum) spent the evening of October 14, 2018 engaging audiences about Free State of Jones, adapted in part from her 2003 publication. Over the course of two and a half hours, Bynum engaged the twittersphere by explaining her process of discovery in the archives and how she crafted her manuscript. She fielded questions from community members who wanted to understand both her academic journey and the lives of the Knight family portrayed on film. She also, however, lamented choices producers made with the film’s narrative, and the ways in which it informed viewers of Civil War-era Mississippi. In doing so, Bynum reached beyond the book to an audience eager to devour her work in a way that probably would not have otherwise occurred. These engagements not only provided an opportunity for others to learn about her work, but they helped to demystify the processes of archival inquiry and historical construction.
 
Historians At The Movies furthers the collaborative process between researchers and teachers. Each Sunday night historians across higher education, secondary, and primary levels exchange ideas not only about how history is produced but how it is taught, often with high school teachers leading the discussion. We have long lamented a disconnect across the pedagogical spectrum. #HATM creates a connection allowing educators to speak to one another. An example of this may have been our most powerful night yet—August 18, 2019. On that night Historians At The Movies showcased 13th, Ava Duvernay’s documentary about how loopholes in the Thirteenth Amendment have been used to perpetuate a system of racial inequality in the United States. Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), a contributor to the film, joined us for a night dedicated to talking about how the movie could be used in high school classrooms. This approach is paying dividends. Says Steven Smith (@historysmith), a high school US history, government, and economics teacher in San Jose, California, “One of the valuable aspects for me is gaining access to actual historians and getting to learn from them in an informal setting.” This is echoed by Ariella Baker-Archer (@AriellaArcher), a Texas educator, who claims that conversations with historians during these films has changed the ways she teaches and the questions she asks of her students.
 
Further, public historian Lisa Withers (@witherskid3) reminds us that watching films in and out of the classrooms allows for conversations about how events and themes are interpreted by audiences inside and outside of academia. As a result, #HATM watch parties have emerged in classrooms, such as those of Amber Batura (@bermonkey1096) at Texas Tech University and Robert Voss (@rvoss) at Northwest Missouri State University.
 
One of the best aspects of Historians At The Movies is how it has been used as a platform for emerging scholars to connect with others inside the profession while publicizing their work beyond it. #HATM has proven especially popular for graduate students and early-career historians. Lindsay Stallones Marshall (@lindstorian), a Postdoctoral Fellow in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, cohosted during the showing of Secretariat in March 2019. While the film itself did not directly relate to Marshall’s area of study, she, along with Katrin Boniface (@katboniface) filled in audience members with information related to their passions: horses. Kelly Morgan (@arkelval), a doctoral candidate at Drew University, led the community through the Disneyfication of history and myths during Mulan. In doing so, they made themselves familiar to audience members while opening their scholarship to new spectators. As I write, Jazmine Contreras (@jazzydomenique), a doctorate candidate and Holocaust scholar at the University of Minnesota, is preparing to cohost the first film of October 2019: Inglourious Basterds.
 
This communication over a shared love of film has served to break down barriers between members of the academic community. “I follow you on twitter,” is an often-heard refrain at history conferences nationwide. #HATM is responsible for more than a fair share of that, inviting discourse and friendship across levels. Conferences, then, are not only about intellectual engagement or seeing old friends, but in the cast of #HATM, meeting them for the first time. In doing so, we are creating a cohort of friends and scholars charged to take our conversations online and into a larger community.
 
Ultimately, what makes the study of history important is its ability to reach beyond time to connect generations. Historians At The Movies works in the same way, creating professional and personal connections between educators and students, faculty and junior scholars, historians and the general public. #HATM is not a concept, it is a community. It is safe, it is welcoming, it is joyous. And you’re invited. We might even watch Highlander.
 

Author

Jason Herbert is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota focusing on the transformation of Indigenous Florida during the 16th-19th centuries. In addition, he is also an instructor at The Pine School in Hobe Sound, Florida. You can find him on twitter at @herberthistory or at herbe195@umn.edu.