LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)
In 2013, shortly after the release of Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning drama “12 Years a Slave,” my colleague, Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss, wrote an impassioned story calling for the film to be required viewing in high schools across the country.
Based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, “12 Years a Slave” offered just the kind of uncompromising depiction of the physical and psychological violence of slavery that could cut through fact-laden lectures or dry textbooks. “Americans, who are still confronting the deep legacy of slavery, should understand what really happened,” Strauss wrote, “and great films, with their visual explanatory power, can be part of that learning experience.”
American educators agreed: A few months after Strauss wrote her column, the National School Boards Association announced that “12 Years a Slave” would be sent to the nation’s high schools, along with a study guide and Northup’s 1853 memoir. It was a full-circle moment for McQueen, who noted that since he first read “12 Years a Slave,” “it has been my dream that this book be taught in schools.”
Today, McQueen’s dream has curdled into some kind of Orwellian nightmare. According to the website Chalkbeat, at least 36 states have introduced or passed laws making it illegal for teachers to present materials to their students that would induce guilt or discomfort around issues of racism or other “divisive concepts.” No matter that Black and other marginalized students have been made to feel uncomfortable for decades; now that there’s a chance White kids might question what they’ve been taught (or not taught) about history, privilege and bias, it’s not just OK but mandatory to put feelings front and center.
Known as “anti-critical race theory” or “don’t say gay” laws, the new measures are just vague enough to put teachers on the defensive, lest they run afoul of a principal, school board or parent’s notion of what’s pedagogically correct. “It led us to be exceptionally cautious because we don’t want to risk our livelihoods when we’re not sure what the rules are,” 10th-grade teacher Jen Given told Washington Post reporters Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson last month, speaking of a New Hampshire law that allows anyone unhappy with a teacher to make a complaint to the state.
Of course, teachers are facing more pressing issues than movies right now, between the dropping of mask mandates and addressing learning loss during the pandemic. But they will increasingly be weighing more carefully than ever what books to assign, what ideas to address in their lectures and – perhaps most crucially for generations of students steeped in visual language – what movies to show.
Films about history and social issues are frequently released with some kind of curriculum, whether it’s created by the studio, consultants or enterprising teachers who have found a particular title useful. Such recent films as “Harriet,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Hate U Give,” along with study guides, were made available to show to students, as well as such documentaries as “I Am Not Your Negro” and Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Riders.” It’s doubtful that Nelson’s most recent film, the Oscar-nominated “Attica,” about the 1971 prison uprising, will stand a chance in states where anti-CRT laws have taken hold.
Jackie Bazan, whose company BazanED specializes in helping educators use cinema, observes that a new generation of filmmakers is offering a much-needed antidote to conventional – and blinkered – histories. In many cases, she notes, “history books were written by the oppressors.” Movies, she says, provide valuable alternatives. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what background you have,” says Bazan. “If you’re not thinking about everything from a multidimensional perspective, then you’re doing a disservice to our kids.”
Educational consultant Sara Wicht, who helped create a study guide for the 2014 drama “Selma,” about the 1965 civil rights march, notes that films have always been a challenge for classroom use: Daily school schedules don’t hew to feature-length running times, and even when teachers decide to use clips, they must be mindful of violent, sexual or profane content. The onset of social media – wherein a moment can be pulled out of context and go viral – has added another career-threatening pitfall.
Still, Wicht says, movies can be a valuable tool in bringing otherwise abstract ideas or distant events to vivid life. In the case of “Selma,” students saw figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Diane Nash not as names in an index but as real-life people “who witnessed this epic time in our history.” The result was an understanding of the mid-century civil rights movement that was immediate, visceral and relatable.
“Students don’t realize how proximate we are to the modern civil rights movement,” Wicht says, “and a lot of that has to do with the perception of images.” Learning about the Selma march in a color film that “looks like now,” rather than in grainy black-and-white photographs or archival newsreels, she says, convinced young learners that “this isn’t years and years ago. [They made the connection to] our democracy today.”
Cinema isn’t just a visual or aural medium. It’s also an emotional one, burrowing into viewers’ consciousness – even their bodies – in a way that can permanently change their perception and lives. That’s what makes it so powerful, and so threatening to those who would prefer that uncomfortable truths and challenging information be ignored in favor of triumphalist, feel-good myths.
With these potent screen stories now unavailable to millions of students, a singularly effective means of animating history and encouraging critical thought has been withheld – from young people as well as their communities and the country at large. It’s a dark time, but there’s at least one bright spot: You know who are even more gifted storytellers, audience engagement experts and creative problem solvers than Hollywood filmmakers? Teachers. And they’re already figuring out the next act.
This content was originally published here.