As part of my freshman seminar on Confederate symbols in American life, I required my students to watch and analyze any Hollywood-produced movie about antebellum America, or more especially, the Civil War. The instructions were fairly straightforward: "Watch a movie about the Civil War Era, looking specifically for the ways in which the film attempts to explain or portray history. How does Hollywood shape contemporary perceptions about the Confederate/southern/antebellum American past, as well as their memorialized positions in modern America? Using reading material from previous weeks, explain how present-day neo-Confederate, Lost Cause, national, or emancipationist narratives are disseminated or challenged through film." I offered my students a long list of potential films from which to choose, or they could pick their own. I also encouraged them to view 12 Years a Slave.
This semester I have had the great fortune of teaching very motivated, curious students; I suspected that they would write great papers. And my suspicions were confirmed. Here are merely a few of the topics. One student watched both Gone with the Wind and 12 Years a Slave to explain Hollywood's evolving interpretations of slavery. Another student wrote about the reasons for which Gone with the Wind is permissible, and very popular, in North Korea, using various scholarly sources to buttress her claims. Another student demonstrated how Glory, after more than a century, answered Frederick Douglass's calls for popular Civil War memory to encompass an African American narrative. Some students related films to the stories and vignettes in Confederates in the Attic, while others discussed how certain films about the Civil War Era reflect current political dialogues. (Lincoln comes to mind).
This was a fairly simple assignment, but it really captured the essence of my course. My students realized that the shaping of history and memory is all around them, even when they least expect it, such as when watching a movie. They unanimously agreed that they had rarely before considered the power of film, especially when related to controversial historical topics. And, most wrote about the absolute power that media have on shaping perceptions of the past and present.
Although I plan to teach a future course dedicated exclusively to the Civil War Era on film and in literature, I also plan to employ similar assignments in future courses. It seemed that students appreciated the academic readings so much more, once they could apply the arguments through a tangible medium. I encourage you all to pursue these methods in other specialized courses.