Film and Media

Telling the Story: The Media, the Public, and American History

Daniel J. Walkowitz, October 1993

"Amazing!" exclaimed Robert Rosenstone, California Institute of Technology film historian, gazing out at the standing-room only throng at the plenary session of a conference on film and history this past April 23–24. The conference, organized by the New England Foundation for the Humanities, brought together over eight hundred historians, filmmakers, producers, funders, museum directors, and the general public at Boston's Park Plaza Hotel.

Calling the conference "an historic occasion," Rosenstone added that he hoped it was "a celebration of an idea whose time has come, a recognition of the importance of the visual media as a conveyor and carrier of historical consciousness."1

The conference may be remembered as a sign of the coming-of-age of filmed history both for the profession and the public at large. As JoAnna Baldwin Mallory, executive director of the foundation, noted in her introductory remarks, the past decade has "witnessed a remarkable evanescence of history on film" in series such as The Civil War, The American Experience, and Eyes on the Prize. Organizers of the NEH-funded conference had planned to build on that growth. Originally expecting no more than 350 attendees, the conference suddenly mushroomed "beyond our wildest dreams," Mallory said. Whatever the organizers' conception, in response to the varied and sometimes conflicting agendas of participants, the conference took on a life of its own.

Although series such as Eyes on the Prize and Roots had helped stimulate interest in history in television, the centerpiece of this conference was The Civil War. The series had become a lightning rod for current hopes and concerns. It was watched by an estimated fourteen million people, the largest public television audience ever, and received extraordinarily favorable notices in the commercial press. Undoubtedly, many public television executives came to the conference to celebrate the series, while other filmmakers and independent producers hoped to learn how to win NEH and corporate support and reproduce the winning "look." Some historians apparently came with similar intentions. Indeed, some had been enlisted to advise The Civil War and other programs, and many in the mainstream of the profession genuinely liked the series.

Other participants, however, considered the commercial success of The Civil War to be symptomatic of the problem of historical representation in the media, not its solution. In fairness, I should note that I was one of them. We critics regarded the series as illustrative of the problematic way that history has been conceptualized in broadcast television and commercial film (in this case, the series' conception of the Civil War and its meanings). We also worried about the canonization of the narrative strategies embedded in the production of such programs. All could agree that The Civil War was a commercial success and that its enthusiastic reception in the national press encouraged potential funders, broadcasters, and many filmmakers and historians to regard it as a model of how history should be told in the media. Some of us, however, were deeply troubled by that prospect.

The most cogent critique of media representations of American history came in the opening plenary session from Berkeley historian Leon Litwack, who produced the pioneering film To Look for America: From Hiroshima to Woodstock in 1971. Most history in film today, Litwack argued, is "skillfully created, [and] technically innovative," but it ignores profound changes that have occurred in historical scholarship over the past thirty years. Historians have not merely given voice to a wide range of previously unheard historical actors, but—and this is crucial—they have used these sources to conceptualize a different account of the past. History in film today may be visually brilliant and emotionally seductive, noted Litwack, but "the history imparted is by and large traditional, conventional history, and it is usually safe, risk free, upbeat, reassuring, comforting history, . . . exercises in self-congratulation."

The Civil War, for Litwack, was a prime example of this problem. While he acknowledged its "mesmerizing score" and "effective use of documents," he worried that "to use the series in the classroom. . . would be to perpetuate an essentially conventional and sometimes distorted view of the war." Litwack focused on the series' conception of the Civil War as a history of war, "not of the social revolution the war unleashed." Three of his criticisms went to the core of the series: first, the series ignored new voices and portrayed blacks and women as essentially passive; second, it perpetrated "the pernicious notion that once dominated historiography that it [the war] need not have happened at all if only calmer, more responsible, less radical, and extreme heads had prevailed"; third, and "most appalling, the series celebrated the reconciliation of the North and South, ignoring the brutal and violent oppression on which that reconciliation rested."

Litwack reminded his audience of the breakthroughs associated with the social and cultural history of the last three decades which brought "to historical consciousness people ordinarily left outside the framework of the American experience." New forms of evidence in photographs, folklore, humor, and the like, have provided "new experiences" of the past. At least as important, they have offered "new voices" that have "profoundly transformed how we think and how we talk about American history." The Civil War, like much of the history in the media during the past two decades, used oral histories, diaries, letters, and the like. But there is no simple equation between new methods and new thinking about the past, especially when such sources continue to privilege male, white, elite voices. The issue, for Litwack, extends beyond new sources or the "look" of a film to how historians and filmmakers use new materials and film to construct their arguments.

Historical conception was clearly at the heart of the matter for Litwack and other critics. As Rosenstone would note, "history is never neutral." It is not enough to use new sources, if they serve only to tell old stories, comfortable tales that recreate old myths. Litwack emphasized that history has wide-ranging political and social consequences when he reminded his audience that "history portrayed on the screen does have consequences." As Judy Richardson, one of the producers who worked on Eyes on the Prize, would later observe, citing as an example the problematic history of the civil rights movement in the Hollywood film Mississippi Burning: "It is never just a movie." And Litwack implicated historians in the failure to educate generations of Americans properly; historians, like filmmakers, did "not simply reinforce prevailing racial and ethnic biases, they helped to create and shape them." Litwack cited, for example, the stereotyped account of Sambo in the slave South in Morrison and Commager's widely used textbook and the account's convergence with the version of Reconstruction presented in Birth of a Nation. These were historical tales told through elite sources, stories devoid of the voices of common people.

Litwack was not alone in his criticism, as I followed his presentation with an account of the wide divergence between the enthusiastic reception of The Civil War in the national press and the more mixed and, on balance, critical reviews in the major historical journals. I also suggested the political consequences of contemporary media, noting that General Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made The Civil War required viewing by the troops preparing for war in the Persian Gulf. Like Litwack, I too directed my remarks at questions apart from The Civil War series, about who was to speak for history in the media (i.e., funders, popular critics, filmmakers, television executives, historians), what was to be celebrated or produced as the American experience, and what were to be its "production values." The conference, however, was primed for an afternoon rebuttal from the filmmaker, Ken Burns, in a session entitled "The Impact of The Civil War."

Discussion of The Civil War was to come, but as discourse it was a bloodless encounter, one that I would guess was generally unsatisfactory to all concerned. In large part the problem was structural. Plenary sessions with huge audiences reduced presentations more to performance art than to discussion and debate. Compounding this difficulty, not only was Burns noticeably absent from the morning session, but unlike other conferences, this one found disputants on separate panels. Still, both in what was said and shown—and in what was omitted—the sessions taken together illuminated a good deal of the profound differences in opinion concerning problems in the representations of the past in media generally and in The Civil War more specifically. These differences exist within the historical profession and within the film community, and between some historians and filmmakers.

Simon Schama, the moderator of the afternoon session on the impact of The Civil War, tried to defuse the morning's criticisms, asserting that they "bore no resemblance to the films I've actually seen." As evidence, Schama cited the "more than. . . trivial and fleeting" appearance of Frederick Douglass in the series and the centrality of "African American experience, however one wanted to judge its presentation." Schama responded to historical reviewers who had claimed the series was "vintage nineteenth-century interpretation," with the quip, "Quite good history was written in the nineteenth century." Against those who claimed that Shelby Foote, an on-screen narrator of The Civil War, was an anecdotal raconteur rather than "a good historian," Schama suggested anecdotes could be quite useful.

Schama's tack was not unlike that which Burns would subsequently take: rather than addressing the overall "presentation," with the predominant historical conception and argument of the series, Burns focused on moments in the film that could be cited as responses to putative omissions. For his presentation, he screened the opening minutes of the first episode, which establish slavery as a political context for the coming war. Later, in response to my suggestion that he might have given extended treatment to, for example, the draft riots, he noted that the series contained a few minutes on them, and that one could not do everything. In response to the questions about the focus on battles and the series' overriding conception, Burns would later explain that "only" 40 percent of the eleven hours depicted battles.

Underlying the differences between Burns and his critics was a more fundamental and familiar debate that historians have carried on among themselves. The debate has involved disputed-over history as science versus media as art (sometimes posed as a conflict between the demands of history versus those of drama) and over what Peter Novik has called the objectivity question. A rigid demarcation between the crafts of the historian and the filmmaker was most vividly articulated by the screenwriter and producer Elsa Rassbach. Historians, she noted, trained in an empirical tradition, tend to speak of "evaluation of sources," while dramatists (a group she felt extended to documentarians) talk of "suspension of belief." Screenwriting conventions dictated the creation of protagonists and antagonists, taking the audience through a "ritual experience" of catharsis, sacrifice, climax, and resolution in a structured 120-page script. "True history" within this context, she argued, demanded what she called "responsible imagining," a work ethic that she defended as the property of media rather than of history.

Remarks by other filmmakers such as Ken Burns followed in the same vein. Dismissing his critics as "rear-guard Stalinists and those committed to political correctness," Burns insisted on the neutrality of his films as art. While acknowledging that he made "personal films," Burns described his collaborative process whereby consultants provided information and he "took facts in" and created "certain feelings." Similarly, I noted that Shelby Foote attributed the success of the series to the fact that "Burns didn't have a thesis [about the war] and I think it's important not to have one." Indeed, Burns constantly likened his program to making music, implying, much like Rassbach, that it contrasted with writing history. The measure of their "truthfulness," if you will, is their ability to excite emotion, to hold an audience.

Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis challenged this opposition, urging that we drop the assumption that there is an inevitable tension between drama and history. Drama need not mean distortion, nor history boredom. Deeper historical understanding, she insisted, increases dramatic tension. Other participants, including the historian and filmmaker Robert Brent Toplin, debunked the fiction of neutrality. After defending Burns's series for its depiction of the horrors of war and slavery and for its respectful treatment of the South, Toplin placed the onus on the public, rather than on historians or filmmakers exclusively. "[A] lot of people out there," argued Toplin, "believe history involves a simple, tidy operation of gathering the facts." But, Toplin reminded the audience, "facts are not neutral and the pictures are not so objective."

Other participants agreed with Toplin, but placed the problem squarely at the feet of both the historical profession and the media industry. Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley noted that the "objectivity crisis" complicated issues of "truth" today. Still, he continued, while historians "must seek truth and avoid untruth," the criteria he urged were "something fundamentally true in the history outside the literal truth." The difficulty, argued Robert Rosenstone, is that traditional training as "dragnet historians"—"just the facts, ma'am"—has reinforced public and professional suspicions about the trustworthiness of history on the screen: "Is it costume drama?" "Can we verify what it tells us?"

Not only did participants disagree on The Civil War as "good" history, but the presentations exposed two fundamentally different versions of history—history as an assemblage of "facts" versus history as an argument about the meaning of the facts selected. The inability to confront this difference formally frustrated the discussion. Thus, critics could complain about conception in The Civil War, and its advocates would refer to a piece of footage, a "fact," as evidence the issue was discussed, or point to fan letters, testimonials to the commercial "success" of the series as measured in its broad, emotional appeal. Burns, for instance, contrasted the success of his series to the work of historians who produce "academic paper"; "history," he chided his critics, "has been murdered by people who are professionally employed as historians."

But Burns's critics were only too willing to acknowledge that historians have too often not written readable prose and have forsaken their audience. Litwack, for example, bemoaned the "proliferating analytic jargon" that litters the discipline today. Alan Brinkley also complained that historians have abnegated their obligation to communicate with a broader public. And many others have long pressed historians to adopt a more engaged voice as public intellectuals. At issue was how one engages one's audience and the way one envisions the past. Again, was drama (filmmaking) something apart from historical work? What was to be the measure of good history in the media?

One clue to the problem, noted Alan Brinkley, was in the mistitling of the conference "Telling the Story: The Media, the Public, and American History." For there is not one story, nor a single public: historians have a "commitment to critical inquiry of the past, into exposing its contested qualities, its multiple voices, its many layers." Moreover, I suggested, this multiplicity requires sensitivity to power and authority. That is, historical accounts reflect many voices—both of historians and historical actors—but not all voices have had the ability to be heard with equal authority. Thus Litwack's final challenge to historical media makers was to embrace the dissonance of critical inquiry. In the hope the filmmakers would catch up with the historiography of the last thirty years, he urged them to allow alternative voices to be heard and to find new ways of viewing the past. Against comforting Nielsen ratings, grantsmanship, and popular praise that greets "feel-good" movies, he urged them to "take risks," to conceptualize anew: "the best history, the best films, deepen sensibility; they make a difference in how people conceptualize, think about, feel, and even act on the past."

Litwack's call for new voices and new forms suggests three related problems that other conferees also raised. First, there is a need to rethink collaboration with filmmakers so that it involves more than sitting in on a rough cut, or handing over one's historical research to a filmmaker. Historians would never hand their notes to an editor to write their book for them. Moreover, history is embedded in every stage of media production, and consequently, if the filmmaker and the historian cannot become one and the same person, the two must at least more fully educate themselves to the other's craft.

Second, historians need to develop conventions for telling stories in images. As Natalie Davis argued, historians have a serious responsibility to develop ways of informing their audience of the "truth" status of the film, to delineate where uncertainties lie. In broader terms, this means historians must teach their audiences visual literacy. All images, I noted, indeed all stories, are constructed by authors and reconstructed by writers, camera operators, actors, and editors, much as historians find constructed stories in documents that they in turn fashion in selecting among them and in their writing. Not only screenwriting, I argued, requires "responsible imagining." However, the media producer's traditional effort to make the program a seamless web that directs attention to the story rather than the storyteller complicates the critical assessment of this construction. This problem, then, calls for new styles and forms of historical media that raise critical thinking rather than mute it, and for new conventions of both viewing and telling stories.

The third conference concern in relation to the call for new voices and new forms—that of developing alternative strategies for telling stories for many different publics—dominated much of the second day of the conference. In my own presentation I had posed the problem as "who is in fact to speak for the past, who is to be constituted as the public, who is to define what we are told is called The American Experience, and who will define, through often politicized funding decisions, who will be represented." As one answer, Steve Brier, director of the American Social History Project at Hunter College, urged the establishment of a wide range of alternatives to commercial outlets and production styles. Reminding his audience that there is "life after PBS," Brier recommended that media makers and historians take advantage of the opportunities for innovative programming and new audiences increasingly available through cable and interactive television. Classroom use and community video, he gently chided his audience, should not be forsaken for the brass commercial ring. Both constitute vital educational arenas with relatively fewer budgetary, stylistic, or production constraints than the high-priced, high-status alternatives.

A rich collection of film and video excerpts screened some of the alternatives to commercial programming that independent filmmakers and videographers are already providing. Two clips, one by Brier's project team called Heaven Will Protect the Working Girl and another produced by New York University's Barbara Abrash, Margaret Sanger: A Public Nuisance, transgressed the boundary that has traditionally divided so-called "fiction" film from "actuality" footage. In so doing, these videos revealed both visual and intellectual possibilities, raising questions for viewers about what constitutes the "real" when one's historical identity is constructed in the press and in "documents." Abrash also moderated a session that showcased the work of three independent filmmakers: Lyn Goldfarb, Louis Massiah, and Victor Masayesva, Jr. Each had created alternative visions in their films, respectively, on wives of the 1937 Flint strikers, Philadelphia grassroots housing activists, and Hopi Indians, demonstrating how one could harness a personal political commitment and social vision to create an alternative style and to empower new voices. Independent producers often have to fight for effective distribution of their work, yet when the work of these filmmakers has won a place on PBS, it has helped to broaden the range of broadcast media.

While the range of topics raised by the conference compelled most participants, some from museums and local history societies voiced dissatisfaction at its limitations. Media, they complained, is more than film and television; it is also museums, oral history, public programming, and the like. Because the conference was already overburdened with the controversies over film and video, participants accorded the other sites and practices scant attention. Nor did the problem of audience receive careful attention until the closing sessions. In his presentation "Making Your Own History," SUNY, Buffalo, oral historian Michael Frisch observed how the binary division between historians and filmmakers becomes "triangulated by audience" in applied history. In oral history, for instance, subjects tell their own stories, with their own rhythms, renditions, and selectivity, often with the historian as audience shaping their telling.

If no film or book can "do everything," neither can a conference. Rather, the New England Foundation for the Humanities and its staff deserve our heartfelt thanks and congratulations for offering an occasion for airing debates that have heretofore been muted. Indeed, it may be a propitious moment to capitalize on the energy generated by this conference. Donald Gibson, then acting chair of NEH, allowed that the agency had "kept a light burning for the last 12 years," and now would be more open, would take more risks.

We should take Gibson at his word! But, as the opening moderator Robert Rosenstone noted, we should remember that "History is never neutral." It is "always tactical, ideological, from a point of view." And so, we are responsible for our point of view—for our conception of the past and its political impact on audiences. The challenge of the next years will be to turn the commercial success of recent historical series into programming the entire historical profession can take pride in as well, stories for various publics with multiple voices that speak to the varieties of the American experience.

Note

1. For another account of this conference, from which I have borrowed some quotes, please see Karen Everhart Bedford, "History on the Screen: Who Speaks for the Past?" Current xii, no. 8 (May 3, 1993): 1, 14–15. I also wish to thank Gerald Herman for covering one of the sessions for me.

Daniel J. Walkowitz is professor of history and director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at New York University.