New public education laws threaten to make certain films taboo in the classroom. It’s a huge loss.
American educators agreed: A few months after Strauss wrote his column, the National School Boards Association announced that “12 Years a Slave” would be sent to high schools nationwide, along with a study guide and memoirs by Northup of 1853. It was a looping moment for McQueen, who noted that ever since he first read “12 Years a Slave”, “I have dreamed of this book being taught in the schools”.
Today, McQueen’s dream has turned into a sort of Orwellian nightmare. According to the Chalkbeat website, at least 36 states have introduced or passed laws prohibiting teachers from presenting materials to their students that would induce guilt or discomfort around issues of racism or other “dividing concepts.” . Never mind that black students and other marginalized students have felt uneasy for decades; now that there is a chance that white children will question what they have been taught (or not) about history, privilege and prejudice, it is not only acceptable but mandatory to put feelings in the foreground.
Known as ‘anti-critical racial theory’ or ‘don’t say gay’ laws, the new measures are just vague enough to put teachers on the defensive lest they clash with the notion of a principal, school board, or parent about what is pedagogically correct. “It’s caused us to be exceptionally careful because we don’t want to risk our livelihoods when we don’t know what the rules are,” grade 10 teacher Jen Given told Washington Post reporters Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson last month, speaking about a New Hampshire law that allows anybody unhappy with a teacher to file a complaint with the state.
Of course, teachers are currently facing more pressing issues than movies, between ditching mask mandates and addressing learning loss during the pandemic. But they will weigh ever more carefully than ever which books to assign, which ideas to cover in their classes and — perhaps most crucially for generations of students steeped in visual language — which films to show.
Films about history and social issues often come out with some sort of agenda, whether created by the studio, consultants, or enterprising teachers who have found a particular title useful. Recent films such as “Harriet”, “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “The Hate U Give”, as well as study guides, were made available to students, along with documentaries such as “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Horsemen of Freedom” by Stanley Nelson. Nelson’s most recent film, Oscar-nominated “Attica,” about the 1971 prison uprising, is unlikely to stand a chance in states where anti-CRT laws have taken hold.
Jackie Bazan, whose company BazanED specializes in helping educators use film, observes that a new generation of filmmakers offers a much-needed antidote to conventional—and blind—storytelling. In many cases, she notes, “the history books were written by the oppressors.” Movies, she says, offer valuable alternatives. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or your background,” Bazan says. “If you don’t think about everything from a multidimensional perspective, then you’re doing our children a disservice.”
Educational consultant Sara Wicht, who helped create a study guide for the 2014 drama “Selma,” about the 1965 civil rights march, notes that films have always been a challenge for classroom use: Daily school timetables do not correspond to feature film times, and even when teachers decide to use clips, they must be aware of violent, sexual or profane content. The advent of social media – where a moment can be taken out of context and go viral – has added another career-threatening trap.
Still, says Wicht, films can be a valuable tool for bringing otherwise abstract ideas or distant events to life. In the case of “Selma,” students saw such figures as Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Diane Nash not as names in an index but as real people “who witnessed this epic period of our history”. The result was an understanding of the mid-century civil rights movement that was immediate, visceral, and relatable.
“Students don’t realize how close we are to the modern civil rights movement,” says Wicht, “and it has a lot to do with the perception of images.” Learning about Selma’s walk in color film that “looks like it is now”, rather than grainy black-and-white photographs or archival newsreels, she says, convinced the young learners that “it wasn’t it. years and years ago. [They made the connection to] our democracy today.
Cinema is not only a visual or sound medium. It’s also an emotion, sinking into viewers’ consciousness – even into their bodies – in a way that can permanently change their perception and their lives. This is what makes it so powerful and so threatening to those who would prefer uncomfortable truths and difficult information to be ignored in favor of triumphant and comforting myths.
With these powerful screen stories now inaccessible to millions of students, a singularly effective way to enliven history and encourage critical thinking has been denied – to young people as well as to their communities and to the country as a whole. together. It’s a dark time, but there’s at least one silver lining: you know who even more gifted storytellers, audience engagement experts, and creative problem solvers are than Hollywood filmmakers? Teachers. And they are already thinking about the next act.