EVENT Mar 11
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History on Screen: American Historical Fiction Films and TV Shows (NeMLA 52nd annual convention)

Philadelphia, PA
Organization: Northeast Modern Language Association
Event: NeMLA 52nd annual convention
Categories: American, Genre & Form, African-American, Colonial, Revolution & Early National, Transcendentalists, 1865-1914, 20th & 21st Century, Adventure & Travel Writing, Children's Literature, Comics & Graphic Novels, Drama, Narratology, Poetry
Event Date: 2021-03-11 to 2021-03-14 Abstract Due: 2020-09-30 Submit Abstract

Historical fiction film and television productions present a life that today’s viewers cannot experience, offering a unique escape. The growing trend revived what Leger Grindon observed in Shadows on the Past (1994), that “[f]rom the earliest days of their artistic practice, filmmakers have engaged in the centuries-old tradition of grappling with the present by writing about the past” (1). But I ask: Why do studios continue to spend the money and effort to look backward? Why is the viewing audience’s attention (and entertainment dollars) captured again and again?

Films such as Forrest Gump (1995) re-popularized the genre, displaying cultural upheavals from times that defined the American experience. More recently, Brooklyn (2015) displays immigration during the 1950s and Bad Times at the el Royale (2018) recalls 1970s segregation, anarchy, and greed. Streaming services air originals like Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (2017). These works do not report how things really were, though they appear to, but rather “make claims to a persuasive representation of the past, that arise out of historical scholarship… [and] interpret and comment on significant past events” (Grindon 2). When educators examine those significant events in conjunction with film representations in this storytelling genre, their insights enlighten our current world and therefore enrich classrooms.

Presenters would investigate an interesting piece of on-screen historical fiction and examine how the production techniques or goals, the stories themselves, characters’ challenges and growth impact its viewers. We can illuminate how the genre is shaping our perceptions of the time period depicted and how the production reflects our current culture. We can share those discoveries in our humanities literature and film-study courses to help students understand, internalize, or connect to the content.



Lisa V. Mazey