April 3, 2017

Getting To Truth At The Smithsonian’s History Film Forum

Cast and showrunners of NBC's Timeless

photo by: History Film Forum, Smithsonian Institution

The cast and showrunners for NBC's “Timeless” at the History Film Forum panel on March 9, 2017. Pictured (left to right): Malcolm Barrett, Matt Lanter, Abigail Spencer, Eric Kripke, Shawn Ryan, Georgetown University historian Brian Taylor, and moderator Thomas Roberts from MSNBC.

At any given moment, someone, somewhere in the United States is settling back in a darkened theater, surrounded by the smells of warm buttered popcorn and the gentle swell of surround sound, ready to experience the magic that is the movies.

The odds of that movie being about history? Pretty high. Since the dawn of the movie industry, television, narrative film, and documentaries have all interpreted the past. Some movies stray far from historical fact, while others look to tease out little-known stories during wars, social movements, and fights for equality.

But how does a viewer figure out the difference between fact and fiction? How do we know what is real and what is “reel?” And just as important, how do we make sure that these films are telling the full American story?

A few years ago, Christopher Wilson, the director of experience and program design at the National Museum of American History, was asked to develop a series of programs related to film and American history. What came out of it was a partnership with the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) to create a four-day forum where filmmakers, public historians, and producers could gather to talk about how history is presented on the screen.

Critical to the Forum’s success is a discussion of inclusivity and diversity—echoing the 1965 law that founded the NEH and states that “the arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation's rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups.”

Films featured included a look at the Chinese Exclusion Act, the documentary The Loving Story (which includes rare 16mm footage of Mildred and Richard Loving), and Sam Pollard’s Slavery by Another Name.

Following each screening, attendees were presented with a discussion that examined the role of historically oriented films as pieces of public history, and how who is behind the camera affects much of what goes on in front of the camera. Filmmaker Melissa Haizilip, who premiered segments of her film Mr. Soul, said, "I like to use the word ‘inclusion’ rather than diversity because that’s what it’s about: including everyone."

This year, the History Film Forum also looked at the African-American films and shows from 2016, which was followed by a discussion that included April Reign of Broadway Black (and the creator of #oscarssowhite) to talk about the role historical films play in community engagement and representation.

Amid all these conversations about inclusion and representation the History Film Forum also hit upon the always overarching discussion about historical truth. Wilson describes how historical truth in film is an art form, citing Ric Burns’ 2015 Film Forum keynote, “The inevitable moral responsibility of the filmmaker is not to get at the truth and certainly not the whole truth, but to get at a truth.”

As with most pieces of art, it is difficult to ever fully represent the reality of a historical period, but you can get to the emotions and spirit of the events being depicted. Wilson gave two specific examples: Argo, where a car chase scene at the end did not occur; and the HBO television show Deadwood, which used language from the modern era rather than the language of the Old West. In both cases, the intent of the filmmakers was to connect audiences with what characters were feeling at that particular moment in time but within the viewer’s modern frame of reference using the tools of the medium.

This point was brought home during the panel featuring the cast and crew of the NBC television show Timeless. After screening an episode set on the day Abraham Lincoln was killed, panelist and Georgetown University historian Brian Taylor explained at length that the day the Civil War ended was not actually the day that slavery was abolished from the United States (as the episode indicates).

But he acknowledged to showrunners Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan, who were onstage with him, “One of the struggles everyone who does history has is how do you balance making history interesting and keeping people’s attention with doing justice to the time-period and the complexity and nuance of the past. I think your point is well-taken that sometimes sort of small inaccuracies can serve larger thematic purposes.”

For Wilson, these types of conversations illustrate why it’s critical for a program like the History Film Forum to exist—to dig deep into the public engagement of history, and to work with filmmakers and producers on the value of history on the big, small, and digital screen.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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