Movies in the classroom -- teaching tool or lazy way out?


By Sean Scally

As students and teachers, we have all been there before. A short preamble, the classroom lights are dimmed, and the movie begins. Ten minutes pass. One by one, smartphone screens slowly begin to glow; tweets are tweeted, candies crushed. The movie is supposed to be related to a topic we have been discussing for some weeks now; occasionally it is. As every semester draws to a close a period of fatigue can set in, and 50 minutes of Daniel Day Lewis in full Lincoln gear may offer respite to teachers and students alike. However, as someone who meets both of these criteria, I sometimes question the usefulness of this approach; does film offer us a useful way to discuss important historical questions, or is it simply a desperate refuge for an overworked teaching assistant? 

I was an unexceptional history student in high school. For this I partially blame myself, though it must be said that a few of my teachers left much to be desired. In particular, there was an overreliance on a certain VHS cassette. As a respectful and diligent – though, to reiterate, unexceptional – student, it was my duty to go to the storage cupboard to collect and carefully wheel-in to the classroom the TV and VHS equipment. Thereafter, on many occasions, we would sit together as a class and endure the 5-time (Five!) Oscar winning Mel Gibson picture, Braveheart. As an enthusiastic Scot, my teacher loved Braveheart; even then, I was not a fan. While the sight of an incoherent and bloodied man screaming at people in a field does resonate to some degree with my experience as a Scottish person, in hindsight I struggle to see the benefit of this as a pedagogical tool. Aside from the numerous (too many) historical inaccuracies, the film manages to both condescend and pander to its audience. From a historian’s point of view, it should do neither of these things. 

There are certainly benefits to screening a movie at the end of the semester. To be sure, we can all use a bit of a break. Moreover, certain movies can also help students to form a clearer picture of historical settings and events; the aforementioned portrayal of President Lincoln, for example, reflects (in my opinion) a realistic portrayal of the style, language, and character of Civil War era American politics. Similarly, in spite of its obvious lack of historical verisimilitude, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds offers a believable portrayal of Nazi oppression. In his portrayal as an SS investigator, Christoph Waltz accurately conveys the quietly menacing nature of Nazi interrogation, without resorting to cartoonish tropes. Both of these examples can arguably offer students another way to think about ideas and themes discussed during lectures in a way that is both engaging and informative. Further, movies can allow us as TAs to connect with students on a level that the normal teacher-student relationship sometimes does not allow. One of the better historical movies released this year – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman– was effective in its portrayal of a remarkably true story, and Lee also used this story to offer commentary on current issues in American life. As a former TA for an African American history class, this struck me as a prescient way in which to use historical narratives in a discussion of important current events; the historical material in the movie can fill students in on some of the background information, and the message of the film itself can facilitate conversation between teacher and class.

I suppose then that films can be a useful pedagogical tool when properly implemented. If the movie itself is properly researched and informative to its audience, we shouldn’t feel too bad about letting Spielberg take the reins for a few hours of the semester. However, there is often a fine line between relevant material and historical flights of fantasy. Perhaps the point is that credible historical movies make for credible historical discussion.