AHA Annual Meeting

History on Celluloid: Film Screenings at the Annual Meeting

Laura E. Nym Mayhall | Nov 1, 2017

James Baldwin in <span style="font-style: normal;">I Am Not Your Negro</span>, winner of this year’s John E. O’Connor Film Award in the documentary category. Dan Budnik/Courtesy Magnolia PicturesOne of the most disturbing scenes in the film Free State of Jones comes close to the end, when a group of formerly enslaved men vote in the first election in Mississippi following the Civil War. A number of grinning, gun-toting white men sit watching while the black men cast their votes. The menace in that moment is palpable, culminating in a tragic climax viewers anticipate all too readily, and one the film suggests was not inevitable.

At this year’s annual meeting film festival, attendees may view this and a number of other compelling historical interpretations, many of which complement and expand on this year’s theme, “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective.” The films address issues relevant to historians as global citizens, with an emphasis on the legacies of slavery and racism. The screenings will be followed by moderated discussions among historians, activists, and the audience.

Two of the films are recipients of this year’s John E. O’Connor Film Award. Since 1993, the award has recognized excellence in the interpretation of historical events through the medium of film and video. This year’s committee—Steve Ross (Univ. of Southern California), Theresa Runstedtler (American Univ.), and I—viewed 14 documentary and dramatic feature films and selected one in each category that we agreed analyzed historical subjects most effectively and used the medium imaginatively. (Selections were based on merit, and the films’ engagement with the annual meeting theme was a welcome coincidence.)

The Oscar-nominated I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck), winner of the documentary award, is an eloquent portrayal of the life and words of James Baldwin. Visually stunning, the film engages issues of race and inequality. Based on an unpublished script written by Baldwin and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film illustrates the history of racism in the United States through the lives and deaths of three major figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that Baldwin’s critique of American society remains relevant to the racial injustices of today. The documentary will be screened on Friday, January 5, 2018, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

The winner in the dramatic narrative category, Free State of Jones (Gary Ross), tells the true story of Newton Knight’s journey from Confederate soldier to leader of a group of white and black Mississippians who band together in the midst of the US Civil War to form the Free State of Jones—counties in Mississippi that declare independence from the Confederacy. Immersing the audience in the violence and urgency of the era, the film reveals a lost opportunity to achieve true Reconstruction in the South. A parallel storyline takes the legacy of Knight’s battles into the late 1940s, when his great-grandson, who is one-eighth black, is arrested and tried for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell, Free State of Jones will be screened on Friday, January 5, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m.

The annual meeting’s theme resonates throughout the other six films of the festival. On Thursday, January 4, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., In Our Son’s Name: A Family Responds to 9/11 (Gayla Jamison) will be screened in a joint session with the Peace History Society. The film presents an intimate portrait of Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez, whose son, Greg, died in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. The bereaved parents chose reconciliation over vengeance—a path that both confirmed and challenged their convictions. Panelists will make short presentations following the film screening and host a Q&A session with the audience.

On Friday, January 5, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno (Laurie Coyle) will be shown. It documents the effort to find an unsung heroine, Maria Moreno, a migrant worker who fought for farm worker justice in the 1950s.

Four additional films will be screened on Saturday, January 6:

From 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (Bennett Singer and Nancy Kates) illuminates the life and work of Bayard Rustin (1912–87), a civil rights activist who dared to live as an openly gay man in the fiercely homophobic 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.

From 12:00 to 2:00 p.m., Through Chinatown’s Eyes: April 1968 (Penny Lee and Lisa Mao) examines the impact of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on the residents of Washington, DC’s Chinatown as they were caught between the black and white struggle.

From 3:30 to 5:00 p.m., An Outrage (Hannah Ayres and Lance Warren) documents the history of lynching in the American South on location at lynching sites in six states.

From 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities (Stanley Nelson) chronicles the history of historically black colleges and universities and the pivotal role they have played in American history, culture, and national identity. The filmmakers have created a digital storytelling project, #HBCURisingYearbook, which they will discuss after the screening. Audience members will have the option to contribute their own stories to the project.

All films will be screened in Congressional Room A (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby). We hope to see you there!

Laura E. Nym Mayhall is associate professor of history at the Catholic University of America.

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