Film and Perspectives on History Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

The newsreels are a successful thematic device as they are used to guide the viewer through the details of the events. It was the decision more so of the studio executives to leave some things out as they only used what would drive the story of the horse. Only upon further investigation of the history does one gain a fuller knowledge. Still the filmmaker's intention of getting the story to the forefront of the American consciousness was successful and met critical review.

Malcolm X

In the film Malcolm X, Spike Lee misleads the viewer about the full nature of racism held by the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam characters in the movie say that whites are "blue-eyed devils," but never revealed to viewers is the doctrine about whites being eliminated in racial Armageddon. Furthermore, Lee did not limit the film's context to historical accounts; instead he chose to put in messages that push for revolution today. For example, while the movie begins with Denzel Washington, in the role of Malcolm X, speaking in which he denounces whites as "the number one murderer," the images of the 1990s; in particular, images of Rodney King being beaten are shown. This juxtaposition creates a tension for the viewer and its view of race relations. In other words, these images distort reality to the point of feeling discomfort. Also at the beginning, in between images of the King beating and of the Malcolm X character speaking; there are images of an American flag burning. By the end of the film, the viewer knows the meaning and cinematic purpose behind this powerful image. After the bulk of the film ends, it having shown a historical account of the black Muslim's life, Nelson Mandela comes on as himself to speak about the need of blacks to be treated like human beings and when Mandela says that "we intend to bring [such rights] into existence," Lee edits the image of the real Malcolm X speaking and giving the following conclusion: "by any means necessary."

The use of music and more specifically the Arrested Development song "Revolution" also builds the tension of Lee's overall message of dislike toward 1990s race relations. It is obvious he is passionate and emotional about the subject. His choices directly influence the viewer's point-of-view and the historical account of Malcolm X's life. In particular, Arrested Development momentarily offers "it's either the Ballot or the Bullet," but then reveals the group is that the artists have chosen the latter option when they follow up with the following: "come now, revolution." This goes along the same premise of Malcolm X that if progress is not made then other tactics must be taken so that the Black man no longer needs to be alienated by Whites.

It is significant to note that many media today follow the notion that Malcolm X became a non-racist after his pilgrimage to Mecca in the summer of 1964. What is evident from his speeches that came after his pilgrimage is that he no longer propounded Nation of Islam's doctrine about racial Armageddon. What many in the major media do not seem to consider, however, is that he continued threatening a race war, even after pilgrimage, if progress was not made. Additionally it should be notes that although Malcolm X did see, after his pilgrimage, the possibility of working together with some whites, he threatened a race war with those white not sympathetic to his cause. Lee does not go into this detail. He hopes to create an economic divide by creating a racial divide when all he really expresses is anger and injustice toward his people. This, at the time, made many liberal minded Whites uncomfortable and disheartened.


In some ways movies are not just entertainment but also catalysts for thought outside of the story. An historical event and its portrayal on film can inspire the viewer to seek out more information while questioning the elements of the event. One will wonder what really happened and was the event accurate or just another Hollywood hit meant to make millions? Is it possible to change the event enough to profit at the box office? What is the intent of the director and the producer or even the studio executive? Does the portrayal suffer because of artistic expression or the influence of the Hollywood political machine? Tompkins reflects, "What really happened in such a case is that the subject of debate has changed from the question of what happened in a particular instance to the question of how knowledge is arrived at. The absence of pressure to decide what happened creates the possibility for this change of venue" (733).

Filmmakers use the medium of film as a means of expressing their ideas and view of the world whether it is an original story or an historical event. The trouble with filmmakers using history as a genre to appeal to the mass audience is that most times the view of history is skewed to fit the status quo perception of the event. As the paragraphs below will examine with the three films of The Best Years of Our Lives, Seabiscuit and Malcolm X, these filmmakers worked to bring the stories of historical events to light and used different film techniques to accomplish this feat. However, the trouble with such history in the movies is that many people belief the filmmaker over the historical account. This is troubling as much as filmmakers try to bring the truth to the screen; most times they are presenting their own opinion.

This paper will explore the truth and fiction of the above-mentioned films and look at the different techniques in which the filmmakers chose to tell these stories to the public. In this day and age the real danger is that people will actually believe the fiction as truth. This paper works to establish a foundation for people to discover not only the value of history but to look beyond the images found in film's historical portrayal.

Works Cited

Malcolm X Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1992.

Seabiscuit. Dir. Gary Ross. Perf. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper.

DreamWorks Pictures, 2003.

The Best Years of Our Lives. Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Myrna Loy and Fredric March.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1946.

Tompkins, Jane. "Indians':…

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