Publication Date

February 1, 1992

Perspectives Section



Visual Culture

Everything changes in television, and nothing changes. New docudramas emerge every season, and every season they are attacked as sacrificing accuracy for the sake of entertainment. It is a complex problem, and one that has been pondered at great length—but there may yet be a solution.

The discussion reached a boiling point of sorts in the summer of 1979 when fifty docudrama producers, writers, network executives, critics, and scholars faced one another rather tensely in an Ojai, California hotel for a meeting sponsored by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Hour after hour the conferees anguished over indictments of the docudrama—that it distorted history, fabricated events, reflected hidden political biases, was ultimately irresponsible to its “captive audiences.”

The group concluded that docudrama, with all its warts, was “a viable program technique and should continue.” Reforms were agreed upon, among them the determination that better use should be made of historians’ expertise.

Ten years later docudrama was still in disrepute in some quarters. Yet 1989 brought some especially impressive offerings: The Final Days (ABC), Roe vs. Wade (NBC), Day One (CBS). Producers and writers were trying valiantly to carry out the suggested reforms.

Still no good. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear,” Walter Goodman of the New York Times said about The Final Days. “The only good docudrama is an unproduced docudrama—even if it’s about Richard M. Nixon.”

Over the whole debate has hung a central issue—how to gain both authenticity and ratings. On the matter of ratings these old pros needed little guidance. But as for historical accuracy they tended to turn to professional historians, a sensible idea except that scholars face a key dilemma after years of debate. Happily, the solution to the historians’ dilemma can help provide an answer to that of the television writers and producers.

During the last century most American historians took a “great man” approach that emphasized the crucial roles of presidents, generals, and other statesmen. During this century many historians have leaned more toward a “great men and women” concept as they have come to see the complexities of leadership, the large number of men and women involved, the intricacies and subtleties of decision making.

Both approaches have long been under attack, but during the last two or three decades a new breed—”social historians”—have criticized even the more sophisticated concepts of the traditional historian. They contend that the collective roles of men and women in families and neighborhoods and communities, in unions and P.T.A.s and town meetings, are still grossly underplayed in the stories of great feats and derring-do in the White House, the Pentagon, and Wall Street.

Social historians themselves take a variety of approaches, some emphasizing geography and demography, others local attitudes and movements, others how people actually lived—the utensils in their kitchens, and the furnishings in their bedrooms, their sexual and parental doings and problems. This approach in turn has been criticized by more conventional historians.

While the debate rages, television writers and producers can at least exploit the wide variety and superb sources of social history. The class relationships between black field hands and black house servants on an antebellum plantation, the day-to-day sufferings and achievements of homesteaders out West, street life in Newark or Brooklyn or Watts—these are there for the dramatization.

So how to proceed?

First we must break out of the intellectual gridlock between social history and “great leaders” history. Students of leadership take the common-sense view that it is the interaction among leaders at all levels that generates decision and action, that it is the divisions among these leaders that form the stuff of historical events.

What could better illustrate this than the Persian Gulf crisis? Action in Washington occurred within a context of debate within millions of families and communities, to which the politicians listened and reacted, but the key decisions were made in the White House and Congress.

Once they transcend this sterile debate between top-dog and bottom-dog history, writers can get on to the really daunting question—what can best serve as the nexus between great historical events and everyday lives? My answer is the family—granted, the oldest and best-known dramatic device but one that, I fear, has been insufficiently tapped for its potential to illuminate history both accurately and theatrically.

The family is where we act out the great dramas of our personal lives, where we developed our loyalties, rivalries, hopes, neuroses. The family is small enough to nourish feelings both subtle and explosive, both unique to that family but symptomatic of millions of other families—so much so that viewers can easily translate the doings on the screen to their own home.

Where these dramas come alive with meaning and relevance—at least for those of us interested in history—is where a family conflict or undertaking hooks into a great historical event.

Consider Upstairs, Downstairs—which indeed we can these days, thanks to its re-offering on videocassette. The relationship between upstairs and downstairs is endlessly entertaining. But the film truly educates only when it connects with the events dominating Britain—when a son, James, goes off to war, when the mother goes down with the Titanic. The stock market crash and the victimization of a female servant who has entrusted her life savings to James to invest make world events come alive more graphically in the home of an aristocratic family in London than they do in history books.

There is one other purpose the family can serve as the venue of enlightenment—the loftiest purpose of all, and the most difficult to realize. This is to give some sense of the continuity, the interconnectedness, of American history.

The viewer of documentaries—even those that superbly and accurately capture the drama of famous events, like Ken Burns’s The Civil War, can hardly be blamed for ending up with a view of American history as a string of battles and other calamities. What happened between all these wars? Settlement, immigration, slavery and abolitionism, public education, women’s movements, industrialization, westward expansion, inventions, populist parties and movements, depressions, recoveries, economic interventionism abroad. And these great mass actions were not autonomous, but were knitted together to form the warp and woof of American history.

We need coherent and comprehensive historical writing because it is these movements and mutations, not the single dramatic event presented on the screen as a “turning point in history,” that have formed and transformed America. The recent ABC four-hour movie, Separate but Equal, which dramatized the seeds of the process of school desegregation, is an example of how that can be done. Although the film focused on the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, argued by Thurgood Marshall (played by Sidney Poitier), much of the drama was provided by its depiction of the fabric of people’s lives and how they would change.

By understanding the nature of such movements we see the real causes of the events that today appear to lead our leaders instead of being led by them. Even more, through this kind of history we can discern the moral issues that have confronted Americans from the start, values such as liberty, equality, and justice.

How can this kind of history be captured on the screen? One answer is to create a family thrown into internal conflict by the impact of national and world events. Creating a television family might appear to ignore the claims of authenticity. It need not if rigorous standards are followed.

Viewers must, of course, be informed that this is not a real family. The characters must validly represent their historical time and place, family status and social class; and above all family members must react to the great political and social conflicts of the day and reflect those conflicts in their attitudes and arguments. All this requires social historians, with their access to diaries, letters, artifacts, memoirs, newspapers. It also requires a measure of historical imagination.

The question of whether this kind of docudrama would reach wider audiences was also on the practical minds of producers and network heads those years ago in Ojai. One proposal made there was for related readings to complement the docudrama, and the idea was followed up to some degree but with only moderate success.

A reading program of the quality and scope worthy of the finest docudrama would reach deep into the public-school systems, especially high schools, perhaps tied in with videocassettes. As a teacher, I can imagine few finer occasions for communication between generations than students going home after class discussions in history to join their parents in watching the docudrama.

I say “docudrama.” Presumably the Ojai alumni still loathe the word. What about, simply, “social drama?”

James MacGregor Burns is a professor of political science at Williams College. He served as co-chair for Project '87, a joint undertaking of the American Historical Association and the American Political Science Association.