I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:

  • The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
  • Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
  • Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
  • A Cast of Thousands vs. the Bio-pic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) marching from Selma to Montgomery in the movie Selma. (Paramount)

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An animatronic exhibit based on the infamous hillbilly intruders, at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.

An animatronic exhibit based on the infamous hillbilly intruders, at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.

“A Christmas Story” (1983) has achieved iconic status that belies its initially modest critical and commercial reception: selection to the National Film Registry, a cottage industry of gifts based on products in the movie, a house museum for its external set, and–most significantly–an annual 24-hour broadcasting block. Much of the film’s popularity comes from a plot steeped in nostalgia. And like all nostalgic cultural products, “A Christmas Story” contains subtle yet profound themes related to social and economic history. The most obvious of these themes is Ralphie’s struggle to fulfill expectations of masculine behavior through consumption. However, as someone who recently gave a conference presentation about the enlistment of ‘exotic’ folk culture into the pursuit of modern urban desires (“Chicken Teriyaki and a Blind Woodcarver with a Fake Southern Accent”), I’m most interested in the film’s depiction of the ‘urban hillbilly’ menace. The specter of the Bumpus hounds–and the Parker family’s subsequent retreat into exotic orientalism at the movie’s conclusion–show how the white, urban middle class selected certain pre-modern pasts while rejecting others, all in the context of consumption.

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A Lincoln statue, on Lincoln Avenue, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, in the Land of Lincoln. (Flickr/Brad Heird)

Originally posted at The Lakefront Historian, as part of a five-part series of reviews of Lincoln.

Like all texts, Steven  Spielberg’s Lincoln should be critiqued on several levels. Film scholars will analyze the script and cinematography, while popular press movie critics will judge the work as both a creative and commercial product. Being a historical film, Lincoln has also attracted the attention of academic scholars. But what about Lincoln as a piece of public history? And what are its implications for public historians? These are no easy questions–and their answers can easily morph into an unwieldy meta-narrative of aesthetics, commercial production, and speculation on reception. Here, I offer a just an introduction to the public history context of Lincoln and encourage any expansion or complications of these impressions in comments below.

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