Recently we watched the movie “The Conspirator” which is based on the retailing of the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination. Just like other events in history there are only aspects that “we” like to talk about, discuss, and teach. The assassination of President Lincoln is often left up to a textbook to cover within a few paragraphs but after watching this movie, there is a whole world of material that can be used to teach students. There has been some push back with the movie, as there is with every film, that challenges the historical weight of the movie as well as the focus. In an interview with NPR, film critic David Edelstein discusses the fact that this movie is simply one that fits right in with the other theatrical performing movies rather than a “great and timeless drama”. In his blog, “Historians and The Conspirator: Usingns Film to Ask Big Questio” by James Grossman, we read his take on the movie which focuses on whether or not the subject of slavery should have been part of the movie. He discusses his shifting opinion from being critical of the exclusion of the topic, to his understanding of the distraction it would have created from the original purpose.
As a class we have been reading the book, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery which is all about presenting historical events as a mystery to students. Both Edelstein and Grossman bring up great arguments about this movie. I understand Edelstein’s point of view but I think that depending on the context that the movie is used in during a lesson will determine the message sent to the students. If students are presented this event and are already in the process of thinking about it critically and at a higher level, then I think the movie, or parts of it are acceptable to show because it will bring a “real life” component to it. Grossman brings up an argument that I think can create issues within a lesson. His first argument about the subject of slavery not being included is reasonable but it is not the focus of this event. Yes the assassination happened in a time where slavery was a major focus point in the world but it was not the focus of the assassination and trial itself. I would agree more so with Grossman’s second argument about the distraction that it is on the actual issue at hand. Because the movie focused more on the aftermath of the events, it opens up the possibility for conversations and questions about the judicial system then.
Ultimately, I think that movies, whether completely accurate or not can be a great tool to use in the classroom. They should not be used as “teachers” in a class but after higher level thinking has taken place, I think it is acceptable to use and a great conversation piece. The movie itself brings a different perspective to an event in history that does not get covered like it should.