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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 19th, 2015

Theme: Discussion

Keynote Address
2:00 p.m. - 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.

Theme: Screening

Screening: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, Ron Howard (2015)
7:00 p.m. - 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 20th, 2015

Theme: Discussion

Discussion: Diversity in History Film
2:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

Scholars, filmmakers, artists and journalists discuss how the lack of diversity in Hollywood filmmaking affects how and what history is presented on the screen. The session will feature the debut of several new history-based projects by Every Single Word.

Theme: Screening

Screening: THE PILGRIMS, Ric Burns (2015)
7:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

A screening of the latest film by Ric Burns, one of America’s preeminent documentary filmmakers. THE PILGRIMS will premiere on November 24, 2015, on PBS’ renowned series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, the longest running history series on television. The film explores 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. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Ric Burns.

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Theme: Workshop

Workshop: Teaching History with the Movies
10:00 a.m. - 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.

Theme: Screening

Screening: MISSISSPPI INFERNO: SEEDS OF REVOLT, Smithsonian Channel (2015)
12:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

They poured into Mississippi a thousand strong, activists and volunteers, intent on ending racial repression through the Freedom Summer Project. The effort's success relied on local black landowners, families who offered shelter and a degree of economic independence in the form of dirt and deeds. In part one of this two-part series, Danny Glover narrates this untold chapter of American civil rights history, chronicled through archival footage and interviews with the men and women who literally stood their ground against injustice. A discussion follows the screening featuring Dion T. Diamond, former Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee activist and Larry Rubin, former Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee Mississippi Field Secretary.

Theme: Screening

Screening: UNIQUELY NASTY: THE U.S. GOVERNMENT’S WAR ON GAYS, Michael Isikoff (2015)
2:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

A Yahoo News documentary, reported and narrated by Michael Isikoff, explores a dark and little-known chapter of America’s recent political past when gays and lesbians were barred from employment in the federal government and the FBI, through its “sex deviates” program, secretly collected hundreds of thousands of files on the sex lives of American citizens.

Theme: Discussion

Discussion: THE FREE STATE OF JONES, Gary Ross, (2016)
7:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

A discussion with writer/director Gary Ross (Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) along with scholars David Blight and Steven Hahn on Ross's latest project THE FREE STATE OF JONES, a Civil War story about a relatively unknown figure, Newt Knight(Matthew McConaughey), who led a rebellion in Jones County, Mississippi, against the Confederacy. The program features exclusive footage from the film.

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

Theme: Screening

Screening: MOBY DICK: HEART OF A WHALE, Smithsonian Channel (2016)
12:00 p.m. - Warner Bros Theater

Herman Melville's epic ocean adventure "Moby Dick" is an American masterpiece. But was this stirring tale of violence and revenge simply an allegory, or were there real giants of the deep deliberately attacking whaling ships? With the help of centuries old witness accounts and modern day science, we explain how the legend of the great white whale came to be. Then we determine if the multiple sperm whale assaults on ships in the 19th century were indeed premeditated and coordinated.

Theme: Screening

2:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION is the first feature length documentary to explore the Black Panther Party, its significance to the broader American culture, its cultural and political awakening for black people, and the painful lessons wrought when a movement derails. Master documentarian Stanley Nelson goes straight to the source, weaving a treasure trove of rare archival footage with the voices of the people who were there: police, FBI informants, journalists, white supporters and detractors, and Black Panthers who remained loyal to the party and those who left it. Featuring Kathleen Cleaver, Jamal Joseph, and many others, THE BLACK PANTHERS: VANGUARD OF THE REVOLUTION is an essential history and a vibrant chronicle of this pivotal movement that birthed a new revolutionary culture in America.

Theme: Discussion

Live BackStory Show: THE BIRTH OF A NATION at 100
5:00 p.m. - Warner Bros. Theater

This year marks the 100th anniversary of D.W. Griffith's controversial and monumental work, THE BIRTH OF A NATION. As perhaps the best example of the power of history film to affect public understanding of the past, the Forum will examine the film and what it means a century later as well as what lessons we can draw for the creation of history film today. The discussion will be hosted by Backstory with the American History Guys, a weekly, national public radio program and podcast produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in discussion with artists, scholars, and the live audience.