Worth Watching? Documentary Films in the US History Survey

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Recently I attended a conference session where a moderator asked audience members to share suggestions for documentary films that have worked particularly well in humanities classes. The lively conversation that followed got me thinking about what I use and why. A cursory look through my syllabi reveals that I really like showing films. Truth be told, I have a difficult time limiting the amount of class time I allot to film viewing because there are so many fabulous documentaries available. A great story, told effectively through documentary film, can move even a quiet student to participate in discussion  This week I thought I would offer suggestions of films I use in my United States History to 1877 course in hopes that other history professors will share their favorites as well.

Slavery and the Making of America (PBS) This four-part series chronicles the history of slavery in the United States from seventeenth-century Dutch New Amsterdam until the era of Reconstruction. I introduce my students to slavery by showing Episode 1: The Downward Spiral early in the semester in conjunction with a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade during which we use primary sources from the web site The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record. The film is particularly effective in helping the students to see the way in which the institution of slavery evolved over time and how regional concerns (weather, soil, crops, etc) influenced the characteristics of slavery in different parts of the colonies. Students are particularly struck by the story of John Punch and remember it long after we have moved on from discussing the colonial era.

We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes (PBS) is a five-part series that examines the history of the United States through the perspectives of people native to North America. Although each episode is lengthy (approximately 90 minutes) I have shown segments of the film with great success. In particular I use Episode 2: Tecumseh’s Vision to examine the grave challenges faced by native people in the wake of the American victory in the Revolutionary War. This film forces students to consider the consequences of the war for people on the frontier and to evaluate the condition of native tribes at the start of the nineteenth century. For an historian such as myself with no formal training in Native American history, the series is extremely valuable as a supplement to lectures and discussion.

African-American Lives (PBS)  This Henry Louis Gates, Jr., series originally aired in 2006 and was expanded in subsequent iterations. I like the 2006 episodes in particular because they demonstrate the historical process. In the episode Searching for Our Names students are introduced to the concepts of genealogical and archival research. They learn about “slave schedules” and the role that wills, marriage, birth and death records can play in helping us to recover history. Concrete examples of human beings as property are profoundly illustrated as the series’ subjects (Oprah Winfrey and astronaut Mae Jemison, among others) learn of their families’ direct connections to slavery.

I have show segments of many other documentary films in United States to 1877 but these are the three films that I feel add the greatest value to my teaching of the first-half of the survey. What are you showing your students? What has worked and why?


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.