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History Film Forum
2015 Forum

The History Film Forum is a four-day exploration of history on the screen. Millions of people learn history from movies but history as entertainment brings up important questions for artists and scholars alike. A collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Forum brings together experts and audiences to examine the state of both narrative and documentary history film as vehicles for teaching and interpreting history.

The Forum is unique in its connection of audiences, historians, filmmakers, journalists, and policy leaders at our National Museum.

When do films offer “good” history? What can films reveal to us about the nature of historical characters and events, and what are their limitations? How do films reflect the social, political, and cultural concerns of the times in which they were made? These and other questions were tackled at the inaugural History Film Forum, November 19-22, 2015.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Keynote Address
2pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ric Burns delivered the Keynote Address to open the inaugural History Film Forum. In a 45min. speech, Burns explored how history onscreen can prove "powerful and compelling, emotionally and intellectually" even as the nature of the medium itself can distort a viewer's experience of time, causation, and drama.

Screening: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, Ron Howard (2015)
7 pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Ron Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s’ National Book Award winning work about the tragic story of the New England whaling ship Essex. Before the film, NMAH Maritime History Curator Paul F. Johnston interviewed Philbrick about the history of the Essex, how Herman Melville drew inspiration from the story for his Moby Dick, and how Hollywood’s interpretation differed from the reality. 230 people turned out to see In the Heart of the Sea at the History Film Forum before it hit theaters nationwide on December 11.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Discussion: Diversity in History Film
2pm, Warner Bros. Theater

For Every Single Word, actor and project creator Dylan Marron "focused on films that told universal stories but just cast white people as default," editing down those popular films to only the lines spoken by people of color. For the Diversity in History Film discussion at the History Film Forum, Marron premiered several new Every Single Word pieces and demonstrated how even Academy Award Best Picture winners have historically been strikingly white. Marron was joined onstage by filmmaker Laurens Grant, Buzzfeed's Senior Entertainment Editor Kelley L. Carter, Director of Public History at Howard University Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, and journalist and producer Soledad O’Brien to discuss how the lack of diversity in Hollywood filmmaking affects how and what history is presented on the screen.

Screening: THE PILGRIMS, Ric Burns (2015)
7 pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Ric Burns’ latest documentary, The Pilgrims, premiered on November 24, 2015 as part of PBS’s renowned series American Experience. Over 200 people turned out to see an advance screening at the History Film Forum. A conversation between Burns and Jeff Bieber (Vice President, News & Public Affairs, WETA) prior to the film explored the reasons why, despite the risks, a group of men and women crossed the Atlantic to settle in America in 1620 and how this seemingly inconsequential story in American history became the nation’s birth myth.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Workshop, Teaching History with the Movies
10 am, S.C. Johnson Conference Center

History films, both non-fiction and Hollywood features, are a popular tool history teachers use to engage their students. In fact, historian Douglas Brinkley has argued that Tom Hanks “has become American history’s highest-profile professor, bringing a nuanced view of the past into the homes and lives of countless millions.” This workshop for middle and high school teachers will offer tools and tips for more effectively incorporating movies in the study of history.

Screening, MISSISSIPPI INFERNO: SEEDS OF REVOLT, Smithsonian Channel (2015)
12 pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Smithsonian Channel’s Mississippi Inferno: Seeds of Revolt, part one of a two part series and narrated by Danny Glover, shines a spotlight on the struggle to end racial repression by focusing on the relationship between activists, volunteers and the local black farmers who hosted them during the Freedom Summer Project. Following the screening, 1964 Freedom Summer activists Dion Diamond and Larry Rubin, expressed their admiration for the local Mississippians they met and worked with and felt were the unsung heroes of the movement.

Screening, UNIQUELY NASTY: THE U.S. GOVERNMENT’S WAR ON GAYS, Michael Isikoff (2015)
2 pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Uniquely Nasty , a Yahoo News documentary reported and nar- rated by the Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News, Michael Isikoff, explored the United States’ systematic persecution of gay Americans. .After the screening, NAMH’s political history curator Harry Rubinstein interviewed Isikoff, Charles Francis, the president of the Medici Society of Washington DC, and Lisa Linsky, partner in McDermott, Will & Emery. The panel further explored the dark and extensive his- tory of the “sex deviates” program. Francis concluded the talk by thanking the Forum for screening the film in Washington, stating that “the mere fact that we were selected is a big deal because we’ve been invisible here.”

Discussion: THE FREE STATE OF JONES, Gary Ross, (2016)
7 pm, Warner Bros. Theater

The Forum presented a frank and far-ranging discussion with screenwriter and director Gary Ross along with scholars David Blight of Yale University and Steve Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania on Ross’s latest project The Free State of Jones. The Forum audience was the first in the world to see footage from the film centered on the untold story of Newt Knight who led a rebellion in Jones County, Mississippi, against the Confederacy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Screening, MOBY DICK: HEART OF A WHALE, Smithsonian Channel (2016)
12 pm, Warner Bros Theater

The Smithsonian Channel film Moby Dick: Heart of a Whale utilizes century old witness accounts and modern day science to determine if whale assaults on ships in the 19th century were premeditated. Following the screening, the audience engaged in an enthu- siastic talkback session with English and Maritime Studies professor, Mary Bercaw Edwards, and the film’s scriptwriter Nathan Antila.

Screening, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION, Stanley Nelson, (2015)
2pm, Warner Bros. Theater

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, a Stanley Nelson film, was screened and followed by a discussion with producer, Laurens Grant. Grant stated that the film told the story of the Panthers in a new light by focusing on the day to day routine of the Panthers. They impacted civil rights and the changing American culture in the late 1960s with their controversial tactics such as “policing the police.”

Live BackStory Show: THE BIRTH OF A NATION at 100
5pm, Warner Bros. Theater

Wrapping up the first History Film Forum, a live discussion on C-SPAN hosted by Backstory with the American History Guys examined The Birth of a Nation (1915) and its mean- ing upon its centennial. The famously controversial film incited a resurgence in Ku Klux Klan membership and violence and was used by the Klan, “as a recruiting technique well into the 1970s.” It is perhaps the best example of the power of history film to affect the public understanding of the past.