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From the Masters at the Movies column of the February 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Masters at the Movies, Take 16: Jacqueline Jones on Two Mining-Town Films

Robert Brent Toplin, February 2011

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue Jacqueline Jones of the University of Texas at Austin discusses two films that deal with problems in small mining communities. Both stories involve conflicts between unions and management and tensions within families. Also, both films reveal the limitations of small-town living.

John Ford, one of the premier artists of mid-twentieth-century Hollywood, directed How Green Was My Valley, the first movie Jones considers. Ford’s 1941 production about hardship in the Welsh coalfields won five Academy Awards. It topped Citizen Kane for Best Picture, and Ford received the award for Best Director. The Library of Congress has selected How Green Was My Valley for preservation in the National Film Registry because it is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The second movie, Billy Elliot (2000) is a British production set in a fictional coal mining town of northern England. While this film, too, deals with community and family tensions, its story is ultimately more cheerful and uplifting than John Ford’s classic. An inspiring musical based on the movie (with a score by Elton John) became an international hit. The Broadway production of Billy Elliot received 10 Tony Awards.

Jacqueline Jones is the Mastin Gentry White Professor of Southern History in the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also holds the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among Jacqueline Jones’s books are: Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present; Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War; The Dispossessed: America’s Underclasses, from the Civil War to the Present; and Creek Walking: Growing Up in Delaware in the 1950s. In January 2011, she started her three-year term as the vice president of the AHA’s Professional Division.

Robert Brent Toplin (Univ. of North Carolina at Wilmington), a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board, edits and coordinates the Masters at the Movies series, which he created.