Film as Historical Source: Some Very Brief Notes

Unfortunately, film–as text, as cultural artifact, as legitimate and rigorous primary source–remains undervalued and looked down upon.

Historians in general remain too wedded to the archive. Archives, however, do not provide unmediated or unbiased reservoirs of untainted, pure knowledge. Archives privilege those papers that have survived  and those people who were able to and chose to record their thoughts on paper.

What about those who record their thoughts via other mediums? What about their voice? What about their mark on History? What about all of the valuable History that is never going to be found in the safety of an archive (I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, when, because she is a Woman, she is not allowed to just enter the library.)? What about the historical memory that went into play in creating the archive?

And on the note of film, one film is not equivalent to one primary source per se. Books can be written about one film, while a book could not very easily be written about one letter or one traditional historical document.  

The necessity and urgency of greater attention to films (and film studies and cultural studies) by historians and historically-minded people becomes more apparent every day. 

Films perpetuate White Savior/Mighty Whitey figures. They perpetuate (and are manifestations of) bell hooks’s notion of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy. They are part of larger historical and cultural forces to which the author is blind, making it necessary to ignore their stated intents

When my dissertation is finished, a study designed and approved to be a study of films as the primary sources, it might help correct this large gap at some point! 

Once the dissertation is finished, be ready for even more blog articles about teaching and film and culture! I sure am fortunate to have the ability to focus on my two loves–teaching and research–virtually all of the time. And on the note of teaching: the use of clips from fictional film results in some wonderful classroom teaching experiences for the students and for me. They are also a wonderful way to introduce notions of historical memory.



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. “Archives privilege those papers that have survived and those people who were able to and chose to record their thoughts on paper.”

    …And archivists who determined that these documents were important enough to preserve in their institutions.

    I agree that film is a powerful source worthy of interpretation that can tell us much about how we remember the past and how we view our world today. I look forward to reading more (and getting a copy of your dissertation when it’s completed?).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Nick!

      Your note about archivists makes me think that we frequently recognize and discuss the bias of historians/writers BUT NOT of the collections from which we get sources and the archivists/etc.

      For sure, I’ll send you a copy when it’s complete! If you have some extra time sometime, I’d love any ideas or feedback you have, too, if you don’t mind. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes to both thoughts! Even thought the Civil Rights Era isn’t my specialty, I’d love to read whatever you’re willing to share with me. Archivists are definitely interpreters of the past. Canadian Archivist Terry Cook estimated in an article a few years ago that roughly 95-99% of all archival items are eventually destroyed for lack of space, money, etc. etc. So in a sense what gets saved is what is determined to be important by the archivist as much as the academic historian who writes a book using that archival material.

      Liked by 1 person

    • With archives I always wonder about their categorization, too. Computers have helped us realize how many ways in which ONE file can be categorized. For instance, my MA was all archival research about desegregation at UH. Whoever categorized the documents had a few folders called “desegregation” but I found many more papers about “desegregation” by looking in folders for various administrators during those years. All of these papers could have easily been in at least two or three different folders. Lots of chance involved. A good book that explores some of these topics is Everything is Miscellaneous. Part of it is free here: – Nothing to spend much time reading IMO but it has interesting ideas about the categorization and structure of knowledge.

      Awesome! Thank you. I have some major edits to make on the chapter about The Help based on feedback from someone else, but I’ll send something soon. Really look forward to your insights. Or if you are interested, I can send the working intro that lays out some of my methods and perspectives for the work.


  2. I love this topic. Any suggestions on teenage-appropriate history films for American history? Even, The Crossing and HBO’s John Adams is questionable for 13yr olds..but I can pick out clips.
    Thanks, Andrew!

    I will be showing them the musical, 1776..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jenn. Thanks for your comment!
      Gold Diggers of 1933 would for sure be good for 13 year olds. It’s a musical – tie in all kinds of issues about the Great Depression. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) has Cold War themes and would be a good choice. Any specific areas you are interested in, and I’ll see what I can think of.


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