Moving Past Historical Accuracy

Welcome to this week’s Labragirl Film Project classroom film literacy discussion. Last week we talked about a classroom exercise to introduce K-16 students to film reading. This week we are going to return to our conversation about incorporating film analysis into history classes. This week’s exercise can be used in middle school, high school, and college classes.



Classroom Exercise: Historical Movies = A Product of Their Time

Grade Level: Middle school, high school, and college level classes

Goals & Objectives: 

  • Introduce students to film analysis
  • Incorporate film analysis into history discussions
  • Help students understand that films are primary sources
  • Enable students to participate in discussions about the fluidity of history
  • Encourage students to navigate critical thinking discussions about film & historical images

Exercise Philosophy:

Some of the more popular uses of film in history classes include showing movies or movie clips to:

  • illustrate an abstract idea
  • provide a visual image of a past time or concept
  • start a discussion about what is “true” or “not true” in a particular film

The above approaches certainly have their place in the classroom. And, we’ll talk more about these as we move forward with our blog.

However, here at Labragirl, we believe that shifting from film watching to film analysis provides additional important educational opportunities for students. History classes, in particular, provide opportunities for students to engage with history and film in ways that develop advanced critical thinking skills.

This week’s exercise is designed to help develop the following skill sets:

  • The ability to talk about how visual images shape our individual and collective understanding of the past.
  • The ability to understand that films—even historical movies—provide a window into the time periods in which the movies were produced versus the time periods that the films depict.

It has been reported that after seeing The Birth of a Nation President Wilson commented, “It’s like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true.” {Click on image for source information.}

For example, for a modern audience, Glory may be a more “accurate” representation of the Civil War than The Birth of A Nation.

However, which movie was more accurate to 1920s society?

What representations in modern films that we consider “true” or “more accurate” will be considered “inaccurate” or “not true” in the future?

It’s important that our discussions about historical films move past historical “accuracy” and “inaccuracy”.  Using film analysis to illustrate to students that our perceptions of the past are both fluid and also shaped by moving images will help them to engage with the concept of history in a more dynamic manner. 

Exercise Activities & Process:

This week’s exercise will:

  • Reinforce the idea that films are primary sources 
  • Help students discuss what we can learn about a time period based on how a film represents the past
  • Illustrate how popular culture portrayals of history are created
  • Discuss how cinematic portrayals of history shape our academic discussions

In my experience, students readily grasped the concept of viewing historical films as primary sources. However, in practice, many students still had a difficult time. It was much easier for them to discuss how a film illustrates the past and what about the depiction was “true” or “not true.”

I’ve found that taking a half or full class period to discuss films as primary sources sets a good foundation for future ‘film and history’ discussions.

1) Explain to your students that films are a primary source from the time period in which they were produced.

  • Discuss what this means
  • Discuss what we can learn from conversations like this

2) Select a film that you believe is appropriate for your students. 

Depending on time, you can screen the film in class or have students watch the film at home.

Either way, we suggest watching selected clips together as a class. This will allow you to concentrate your discussion on particular clips before discussing the film in its entirety.

3) Discuss.

What can we learn about the time period in which this film was made?

Why would audiences have resonated with this historical portrayal?

What type of society would relate to and understand this historical representation?

Suggested Movies:

Any historical movie that you think is appropriate for your class can be used for the “Historical Movies = A Product of Their Time” exercise.

Some ideas for movies and discussion include:


{Click on image for source information.}

In this movie, a significant amount of time is dedicated to Hoover’s homosexual relationship. We even see a scene suggesting that Hoover was a cross-dresser.

What does this say about the time period in which this film was made?

How does this society feel about the government?

How do these images shape the way we look at the past? Change the way we look at the past?

Apollo 13

{Click on image for source information.}

How does this film portray the past? What does that tell us about the 1990s?

What does this society think about the space program? The government? 

What can we learn about 1995 audiences based on the way the past was portrayed? 

Discussion Example:

Here’s an example of a possible discussion using the movie Glory. For those of you who are using our American Civil War lesson plan, this is an opportunity to build upon your class discussions from that lesson.

Captain Trip played by Denzel Washington in the 1989 film, Glory. {Click on image for source information.}

In the clip below, Private Trip (played by Denzel Washington) jokes that he was running for President. (~4.40) Part of the humor in this joke is that the idea of an African-American running for President during the Civil War is preposterous. Still today, we understand that the idea of an African-American running for President during the Civil War was unthinkable. Yet, this joke is not included in all Civil War films.

What does it mean that the screenwriters and filmmakers used this joke?

{Warning: this clip contains graphic images and explicit language }

Would this scene resonate with audiences today in the same way that it did in 1989/1990?

Would it be perceived as a joke?

What can we learn about 1989/1990 from this film?  

What can we learn about the belief system of 1989/1990 society based on this portrayal of the Civil War?

Did you use any of these movies in your class? How were your discussions? Do you have any related questions or issues you’d like to discuss? Did you use another movie in class?  

Comment below or discuss with us on .

Let’s talk film images,


*Disclaimer: All movie clips are suggestions for class use, only. All instructors should screen clips to determine if they are appropriate to use in their classrooms. 


UP NEXT 2/11: Film Watching v. Film Analysis

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Previous Blog Entries

Images Telling Stories

Film Shaping History

Think Film Images


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