“Hamilton” the Movie Will Hit the Big Screen on October 15, 2021


Here is Sharon Eberson at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Hamilton” will soon be available for all to see, for all time. The Walt Disney Co. movie version of the hit musical is coming to the big screen on Oct. 15, 2021…

“The film of the original Broadway cast performing ‘Hamilton’ is a leap forward in the art of ‘live capture,’” according to a Disney press release sent Monday. “Combining the best elements of live theater and film, the result is a cinematic stage performance that is a wholly new way to experience ‘Hamilton.’”

The cast includes Miranda as Alexander Hamilton; Daveed Diggs as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Jackson as George Washington, Jonathan Groff as King George, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton and two Carnegie Mellon alums, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom Jr.

Read the entire piece here.

Abdul-Jabbar: Are Slavery Movies Good for African Americans?


NBA Hall of Famer and public intellectual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wonders if movies like Harrietthe new movie about Harriet Tubman–“risk defining African American participation in U.S. history primarily as victims.”  Here is a taste of his recent piece at The Hollywood Reporter:

On the one hand, these films are necessary to correct the misperceptions many Americans have about slavery as a result of inaccurate school textbooks, ill-informed teachers and conservative propaganda. Because many of them are prestigious enough to garner critical acclaim (12 Years a Slavealone won 32 awards, including three Oscars), they bring a gravitas to their message that people are more likely to take seriously. Such movies have the potential of raising awareness among white audiences about the horrific past so that they’re more sympathetic to the current economic and social plight of marginalized minorities, the cause of which is the domino effect directly from slavery.

On the other hand, some may see these films as snowflake overkill that desensitizes white audiences, putting them on the defensive about being blamed for something in which they had no part. That resentment could cause them to turn a blind eye to the current state of racial inequity.

I also worry that so many movies about slavery risk defining African Americans’ participation in American history primarily as victims rather than as victors in a continuous battle for economic and social freedom. The thousands of black soldiers who died fighting on behalf of the country, the martyred civil rights leaders, even our many scientific innovations and inventions that transformed American society — from refrigeration to blood banks — get dismissed, diminished or ignored because all that some white Americans remember are angry black faces crying “Unfair!” This puts a heavy burden on blacks to continually have to prove how vigorously they support the country that once enslaved them. They are expected to ignore the current inequities and just be grateful the country unlocked the chains. We stopped beating, branding, raping and lynching you — isn’t that enough?

Read the entire piece here.

Movies About Women of Color in History CAN Make Money


Over at VOX, film critic and The Kings College (NYC) English professor Alyssa Wilkinson interviews Gregory Allen Howard, the writer of the screenplay for Harriet. Wilkinson writes: “it’s surprising that Harriet is the first biopic about such an important woman in American history, considering how this is an industry that loves making historical biopics — surprising, that is, until you remember that Hollywood has typically exhibited skepticism toward the idea that movies led by women and people of color can make money.”

Here is a taste of the interview:

Wilkinson: Hollywood has taken a really long time to accept the fact that movies about black people might be told on screen, and that audiences would embrace them. Were there any movies over the years that showed you what could happen if that ever changed?

Howard: Of course, and there are movies that proved that to my producers, too. For [producer] Debra [Martin Chase], it was Hidden Figures. Mine is 12 Years a Slave. See, what I had heard for all those years was, “Nobody’s going to pay to see the slave movie, Greg. Get out of my office.” But I said, “But it doesn’t matter. If the movie’s good, people will see it.”

“No, we don’t want it,” I’d hear back. “No one’s going to pay to see a slave story.” I swear to God, I heard that for over 20 years.

And then 12 Years a Slave came out and did massive business. It made almost $200 million worldwide. That’s when I took [Harriet]off the shelf again. And I said, “You can’t tell me what you’ve been telling me all this time.” And they said, “Yeah, but see, that was a different movie.” They came up with a different excuse.

But the truth was that the business was changing. If this movie has been made 10 years ago, it would’ve been an outlier, and no one in town wants to be an outlier. Fear drives our industry, and I don’t know that anybody’s ever gotten fired for passing on a movie.

But boy, if you say yes to something, or even go fight for it, you’re risking your career. You’re certainly risking your job.

Read the entire interview here.

Out of the Zoo: “We’re a union just by saying so!”


Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie writes about one of her favorite movies. –JF

Newsies might just be one of my all-time favorite movies. Starring a young Christian Bale as the fictional main character Jack Kelly, the nearly three-decade old film offers a musical retelling of the Newsboys’ strike of 1899. The said strike, which took place on the streets of New York City in protest of high newspaper prices, ended after two weeks when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst agreed to buy back unsold papers from the newsies at the end of each day. 

The movie, interwoven with a beautiful Alan Menken score and lively dance breaks, throws around a lot of terms like “union,” “demands,” and “scabs,” each of which could easily be heard inside a U.S. history classroom. However, as much as I love Newsies, I must admit that the film fails to explain these terms with any complexity; it does not place them in their broader historical context either. As a musical theatre geek in high school I found it easy to cheer when Jack Kelly and his chorus of newsboys triumphantly sang, “We’re a union just by saying so!” But as a student I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you much about what a union was, much less how or why it was formed.

Although Newsies might be entertaining, it remains a shadowy fictional representation of the issues that shaped the reality of the Gilded Age. There are far better ways for students to comprehend the complexities of labor disputes than watching Christian Bale dance across a television screen (sorry Disney). Mr. Anderson, one of the United States history teachers at Northern High School, showed me one such way last week when I got to sit in on his class for my Sophomore field observation. Anderson led his class through an exercise that not only helped his students gain a better understanding of unions, but also allowed them to relate the past to their lives in the present. 

Instead of lecturing for days about organized labor, Mr. Anderson provided the necessary historical context–fleshing out the themes and complexities that defined the Gilded Age–and let his students do the rest of the work. He briefly taught about the two prominent Gilded Age unions, but then let students form a union of their own, dubbed “The United Students of NHS.” First, students broke into small groups and listed all their grievances–issues ranged from passing time between classes to club funding. After narrowing down their complaints, the entire class circled up to decide which eight requests they would draw up and deliver to the school’s administration. 

While he raised his voice occasionally to direct attention to the task at hand, Mr. Anderson let his students take the lead in the entire process. When the whole class collaborated on the final eight grievances, students spoke up from around the circle suggesting a procedure or speaking out in defense of one of their demands. While his students engaged in discussion, Mr. Anderson told me that he thinks that students shouldn’t have everything planned out for them. Instead, educators should leave room for learners to experiment, take charge, and figure things out on their own–always taking time to reflect afterwards about what went well and what could have gone better.

I couldn’t have agreed with Mr. Anderson more. His students were passionate and eager to apply what they learned about unions and the Gilded Age to their everyday lives. They learned to cooperate with each other, compromise when necessary, and innovated if their process became inefficient. And all the while they gained an increasingly thorough and nuanced understanding of the past. It is this kind of history classroom, one where students are invested, engaged, and challenged, that I want to emulate someday.

What Do Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw Barack Obama, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, David Blight, and 25 Cent Wings Have in Common?


Former President Barack Obama was meeting with Steven Spielberg on Monday night, sources exclusively told Page Six, months after Obama’s production company with wife, Michelle, unveiled a slate of films with Netflix.

Obama and the Oscar-winner were at upscale seafood eatery Marea, spies said.

“Spielberg walked through the front and no one noticed,” said the source, while Obama arrived through a side entrance.

“They were with a group — with lots of Secret Service,” said the source. “But it was still pretty low-key with no disruptions to other diners.”

The Obamas have seven planned Netflix projects via their Higher Ground Productions, including an adaptation of David W. Blight’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” as well as a series called “Bloom,” set in the fashion world of New York after WWII.

In 2015, it was reported that Spielberg — whom Obama awarded a Medal of Freedom the same year — was helping the ex-pol create a “narrative” for post-presidential life….

On Monday, the director’s wife, Kate Capshaw, was spotted having 25-cent wings with Bruce Springsteen and wife, Patti Scialfa, at Henry at Life Hotel.

Read the whole story at Page Six


Historians At The Movies

National Treasure

Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Minnesota, is your host.  Learn more about #HATM in this piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Have you ever, while watching the movie Julie & Julia, drawn comparisons between Julia Child’s struggle to find the right publisher and the mercurial marketplace of academic publishing?

You probably haven’t. But historians have.

The comparison is one of many under the Twitter hashtag #HATM. The abbreviation stands for Historians At The Movies and was created by Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who now lives in Florida where he studies indigenous people and ecology.

Every Sunday at 8 p.m. EST, Herbert and other historians, plus people who just enjoy history, watch the same movie. They tweet along, sharing insight, tidbits, and punchlines. They prepared for the 2019 Oscars, by watching Roma, a Best Picture nominee. On Sunday, they’ll live-tweet the awards ceremony — which will be fun and a break from the norm, Herbert says.

Since the hashtag kicked off in July 2018, the weekly ritual has cultivated quite the following.

The Chronicle spoke with Herbert about what sparked the idea, how to forge scholarly camaraderie online, and why historians have a soft spot for Benjamin Franklin Gates, the historian/treasure hunter played by Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure.

Q. How did this idea come to you?

A. When I left Minnesota, I left behind a lot of my friends and colleagues who I saw on a day-to-day basis and would have these great conversations with. I needed to create a new network for myself where I could still be intellectually engaged with an academic community, even though I was physically removed. I got active on Twitter. I would talk to other historians. I had seen that National Treasure was going to be on Netflix. I just tweeted out, ‘We should all watch it.’ And someone said, ‘Yeah, we should do that.’

The running gag with historians is that the archeologists get Harrison Ford, but historians get Nicholas Cage. You laugh at it, but we all kind of love National Treasure. So why not? It’ll be fun and silly and a nice way to blow off steam on a Sunday night in the middle of the summer. We had a lot of people engage. Joanne Freeman, who’s a professor at Yale, jumped in. She studies early America and she just died when she saw them putting lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence.

Read the rest here.

Is “Hamilton” the New “1776?”


Watch this clip.  It will be stuck in your head all day:

Matthew Rozsa agrees with the title of this post.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at Salon:

It’s a great story, one that both I and many of my close friends ritualistically watch every 4th of July. Yet what about “1776” makes it so resonant? Why does this movie stand out when countless other patriotically themed motion pictures fade into the background?

It’s instructive to first look at another recent musical about our Founding Fathers, “Hamilton.” While it doesn’t pass a lot of tests when it comes to historical accuracy, “Hamilton” works so well because it brilliantly resurrects the philosophical debates that were at the core of America’s founding during the ratification of the Constitution and the administration of President George Washington.

“1776” does the same thing, only with a different moment from American history. It picks apart the debates that occurred between, on the one side, Adams and other revolutionaries who believed America needed to break free from the British Empire, and, on the other, the motley of factions who, for various reasons, felt we should remain loyal to Great Britain.

Read the entire piece here.

The Vatican Congratulates “Spotlight” on Winning Best Picture

Spotlight_(film)_posterOver at Religion News Service, Rosie Scammell is reporting that the Vatican has given “two thumbs up” to “Spotlight,” the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.  As most of you probably know, “Spotlight” is a movie about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

[“Spotlight”] manages to voice the shock and profound pain of the faithful confronting the discovery of these horrendous realities,” wrote journalist Lucetta Scaraffia of L’Osservatore Romano, a “semi-official” Vatican newspaper.

Here is a taste of Scammell’s piece:

In her column, Scaraffia praised the film for recounting the reality of how, within the Catholic Church, “some are more preoccupied with the image of the institution than of the seriousness of the act.”

Scaraffia also noted Sugar’s acceptance speech, arguing that his reference to the pontiff demonstrated there was still hope in the institution of the church.

“There is trust in a pope who is continuing the cleaning begun by his predecessor,” she wrote.

L’Osservatore Romano’s praise for the movie follows comments of a similar vein by Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, who said earlier this month that all bishops and cardinals should watch the film.

“The movie shows how the instinct — that unfortunately was present in the church — to protect a reputation was completely wrong,” Scicluna told an Italian newspaper.

Yolanda Pierce on Slavery, Religious Rhetoric, and "12 Years a Slave"

The commentary on the movie 12 Years a Slave continues.  The latest comes from The Christian Century website. Yolanda Piece of Princeton Theological Seminary discusses the role of religion in the film and the use of Christian rhetoric to support slavery in antebellum America.  Here is a taste:

The 1853 slave narrative Twelve Years a Slave is now a major motion picture directed by Steve McQueen.The film is a faithful rendering of the life of Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is sold into chattel bondage and brutally enslaved. Northup’s life story highlights one of the little-known facets of American slavery: the dangers that free black people faced during the antebellum era, with little legal recourse if they were cheated, harmed, brutalized or even sold into slavery.
Northup was eventually freed. But there were countless others whose names we cannot know, who never escaped the institution of slavery despite their legal status as “free” people of color. The film forces the observer to think about the various hypocrisies inherent in a system of chattel bondage—not the least of which was the religious justification used to support, sustain and reinforce American slavery.
In the film, slaveholders use Christian rhetoric and biblical passages to insist that slavery was ordained by God and consistent with being a “good” Christian. This is juxtaposed with scenes of enslaved men and women singing songs and hymns of the same Christian tradition, the very tradition used to justify their enslavement. It’s a fundamental religious question: how can the same scripture, the same songs and the same religious rhetoric be used both to justify slavery and to insist that it’s evil? The institution of slavery served as a religious battleground. Whose version of the divine and whose version of scriptural faithfulness would dominate public discourse?
There is no doubt that enslaved people were able to adapt and transform the very religious rhetoric used to enslave them. They did this largely by making a distinction between the “true” Christianity that was emblematic in the person of Jesus Christ and the “slaveholding religion” as practiced in the United States. The stories, symbols and messages of Christianity were adopted by enslaved people as polemical arguments against slavery. By using Christian rhetoric—essentially the language of early American political discourse—enslaved people vigorously participated in a theological and political conversation concerning slavery and freedom, thus undermining racist readings of the biblical text.

Annette Gordon-Reed on "12 Years a Slave"

12 Years a Slavethe fictional adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography by the same name, has been getting a lot of attention of late.  Northrup was a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.  For twelve years he was enslaved in Louisiana before he was set free.  The film is directed by Steve McQueen.

Over at The New Yorker, Annette Gordon-Reed, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, reflects on historians, slave narratives, and the film. Here is a taste:
Another problem hovers over the slave narrative as a literary genre: the role that race and status played in the reception of stories told by members of a disfavored—or despised—racial group. It is one thing for a Solomon Northup to speak about individuals who are, in historical terms, unimportant in order to indict a system that most people recognize as abhorrent. It is another thing when a narrative presents information that many whites might not wish to hear or to accept.
I wrote an entire book about this issue, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” examining in minute detail one historical controversy as it plays out in family letters and slave narratives. There was, I found, a double standard in the treatment of the recollections of a powerful slave-holding family, which were memorialized in their personal letters, and those of the people enslaved on their plantation, which were given to an interviewer. It would have been a simple matter to recognize the unique concerns raised by each item of evidence and then research around the dispute to determine which version was more likely. Instead, the power that the letter writers had in life, and the relative powerlessness of those who gave the interviews, was simply reconstituted in the pages of history.
With that said, the writing that has been done in the past sixty years on slavery is, I believe, the crown jewel of American historiography. But as much good work as has been done, there is even more to do. It will be wonderful if “12 Years a Slave” not only introduces millions to Solomon Northup but propels them into libraries and bookstores to read the stories that have been told about the institution that haunts us to this day.

Warner Brothers Buys Screen Rights to Philbrick’s *Bunker Hill*

In case you have not heard, Warner Brothers has shelled out close to a million dollars for the screen rights to Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, a Revolution.  And the book will not be published until April 30!

According to this article, Ben Affleck may be directing the film.  Here is a taste:

Philbrick is the author of Mayflower and the National Book Award-winning In The Heart Of The Sea, the real story beyond the white whale that informed Moby Dick, and the struggle of the whalers to survive after the giant whale split their ship in half. That book has long been at Warner Bros and looks like it is finally getting made later this year with Ron Howard directing and Thor’s Chris Hemsworth starring.

Resolution’s Rich Green brokered the movie deal for Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, and Pearl Street president Jennifer Todd moving aggressively to bring the book into the fold, with Sarah Schechter overseeing for the studio.

Affleck, who until Argo had directed movies in the Boston backdrop where he grew up, is going home again as Bunker Hill is hailed as the battle that lit the fuse for the American Revolution in 1775.

Why Movies About the American Revolution Are Always Bad

Mark Peterson, a historian at Cal-Berkeley, joins the “American History Guys” of Backstory fame to discuss films about the American Revolution. Peterson says that nearly every movie about the American Revolution is bad:

Hollywood has tended to stay away from the American Revolution and when it has made movies about that time period, they have not been big hits, they have not been great big box offices successes, they have never won Academy Awards, and in my own highly amateur judgment they are bad…

Why is this the case?  Peterson and Peter Onuf (18th-century guy) try to answer this question here, shortly after the 35-minute mark.  It has something to do with patricide.

"Birth of a Nation" is a Good Movie

Richard Brody thinks that the “worst thing” about D.W. Griffith’s film “Birth of a Nation” is “how good it is.”

I assigned parts of this 1915 feature film back when I taught the second half of the United States survey course.  It offered students a glimpse into American understandings of race in the early 20th century.

The film, of course, is D.W. Griffith’s interpretation of Reconstruction, the tumultuous decade (or so) that followed the end of the Civil War.  It depicts slavery in a positive light, glorifies the racial views of Southern whites and the Ku Klux Klan, and frowns upon the efforts of Radical Republicans who fought for Black equality.

While modern viewers of the film would find it offensive, most white people who lived in 1915 American loved it.  Brody, the movie editor at The New Yorker, calls it an “original work of art.”  Here is a taste of his review:

The worst thing about “Birth of a Nation” is how good it is. The merits of its grand and enduring aesthetic make it impossible to ignore and, despite its disgusting content, also make it hard not to love. And it’s that very conflict that renders the film all the more despicable, the experience of the film more of a torment—together with the acknowledgment that Griffith, whose short films for Biograph were already among the treasures of world cinema, yoked his mighty talent to the cause of hatred (which, still worse, he sincerely depicted as virtuous).

Griffith’s art offers humanly profound moments, whether graceful and delicate or grand and rhetorical, that detach themselves from their context to probe nearly universal circumstances, such as the blend of shame and pride in the face of a returning Confederate soldier when he comes home in tatters and finds his sister in tatters as well, or the stalwart antics of a Union girl (Lillian Gish) as she sends her brothers off to war before collapsing in tears when they’re just out of view. The breathtaking shot that starts close to a huddling mother and children, high on a hillside, and then moves to the advance of Sherman’s army, seen from the family’s elevated refuge, poignantly depicts the intimate ravages of war. The shot of a former slave-owner, under siege by a posse of freedmen for his son’s membership in the K.K.K., holding his grown daughter by the hair and raising his pistol above her head—he’s preparing to kill her if the blacks breach the door—has a harrowing and exalted grandeur that surpasses the film’s specific prejudices to achieve a classical moment of tragedy. The cavalry charges of the K.K.K., done with moving cameras that hurtle backward at the speed of the gallop, are visually exhilarating and viscerally thrilling, despite the hateful and bloodthirsty repression that they represent; it’s the kinetic model for a century of action scenes. 

Read the entire review here.

"Why Not Write About What ‘Lincoln’ Does Do Instead of What It Doesn’t"

Keith Harris of Cosmic America is angry about the way historians are criticizing Lincoln:

Time to vent. I have no need to name names – you’ve read the reviews and you know who they are. But I swear if I read one more historian’s erudite treatise attacking Spielberg’s Lincoln for not delivering a comprehensive history of the abolition movement I am going to light myself on fire and jump out a window into oncoming traffic. So instead of doing that I think I will take a long winter’s nap. It is an activity far less dangerous and far more interesting. Here’s an idea for all scholars of history, American studies, or anyone else who feels a burning desire to weigh in on this film. Why not write about what Lincoln does do instead of what it doesn’t .
Okay here I go…


Wake me up when this is all over.


So what does Lincoln do well?

Paul Harvey on "Lincoln," Race, and Civil Religion

Paul Harvey, historian of race and religion at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and blogmaster at Religion in American History, shares his thoughts on Spielberg’s Lincoln at Religious Dispatches.  Here is a taste:

But there is another level to consider here, as well—the civil religious myths that the film invokes, and the very limited growth in public understanding of those myths that the film ultimately suggests.

After the emotion evoked by the film subsides,  sober consideration begins here: why, in the supposedly “post-racial” age of Obama, is there no space in movies to imagine the historical story of African Americans creating the conditions of their own emancipation?

Is it because in the context of our civil religion of “great white men who end up doing the right thing,” we as a culture cannot yet imagine such a thing?

Historian Kate Masur, among others, has pointed out that the story historians have dug out of the archives—the story of African American actions which virtually forced enlistment in the army, emancipation, and reconstructing the Union with blacks in the polity—finds almost no place in the film.

The Passive African Americans of Spielberg’s "Lincoln"

Kate Masur a historian at Northwestern University, thinks that Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a “shoo-in” for an Oscar.  But the film teaches us very little about the African-American experience in Civil War America.  Here is a taste of her review of the movie in The New York Times:

…it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.
This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.