[This week, as Chanukah begins and Christmas and Kwanzaa get ever closer, I’ll be blogging about my AmericanStudies holiday list: my requests (to the AmericanStudies Elves, of course) for five changes I’d love to see in our national narratives and conversations. This is the second in that series.]
AmericanStudies Elves, I would like to see some of our most talented filmmakers tackle some of our greatest historical stories.
In 2009, to celebrate ESPN’s thirtieth anniversary, sportswriter Bill Simmons and the network’s films division produced a series of thirty documentary films. Entitled 30 for 30, the series featured thirty talented contemporary filmmakers, with each asked to help create a film focused on one interesting and compelling sports story from over those three decades. As would inevitably be the case, some of the films were more successful than others, both in gaining popular attention and in portraying their focal points and questions (and it’s fair to say that the two kinds of success didn’t always match up); but throughout its run (which is of course all available on DVD and thus can be a part of sports culture from now on) the series represented a really unique and engaging way to return to and reimagine some very compelling and often largely forgotten stories.
When it comes to American histories in general, we’ve already got a very clear piece of evidence for how film can bring similarly compelling and forgotten stories back into our popular consciousness and narratives: maybe I can’t claim that Glory (1989) single-handedly brought the stories of African American soldiers during the Civil War back into our collective memories, but it sure contributed mightily to those efforts (which are ongoing, to be sure). And so, Elves, I propose the concept of a 30 for 30-like American historical series—the History Channel would seem like a logical home, but I’m not picky as long as it stays way away from cable news networks—in which talented American filmmakers focus their creative attentions on particular, compelling, and relatively unremembered or oversimplified events, figures, stories, and the like. The filmmakers and their scholarly advisors would have in each case to decide through what genre and style (and at what length and depth) to tell their stories, among many other open and significant questions; in any case the films would certainly inspire further conversation about and research into these historical subjects.
As it happens, we’ve already got a recent candidate for the first entry in the series: John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo (2011), which tells the complex and ultimately tragic story of America’s post-Spanish American War imperialist efforts in (and guerrilla warfare with) the Philippines. Fits every part of my proposal for sure: one of our greatest filmmakers tackles one of the histories with which all Americans should be more familiar, and does so (from what I can tell—the film has so far been in very limited release, which only amplifies the need for this kind of series to better distribute and share such works) in the style and voice and perspective that define his cinematic vision. Next up: Scorcese on the Red Scare and the Sacco and Vanzetti case? Ang Lee on the Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island? Chris Eyre on the cross-cultural, historically revealing, and inspirational life of Ely Parker? Spike Lee on the Wilmington Coup and Massacre? The possibilities are endless, and endlessly important.
A compelling series of films from compelling artists on some of our most compelling American histories? Sound like a pretty great present to me, Elves. An AmericanStudier can dream, anyway. Next wish list item tomorrow,
PS. Any suggestions for film topics, filmmakers, or the series in other ways? Anybody with Hollywood connections you’d like to utilize to make it happen??
12/20 Memory Day nominee: Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers owner whose bold and progressive vision helped make Jackie Robinson the inspiring American figure and story he became.
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