Introducing Historical Thinking with a Movie

Reviewing Amistad made me realize how useful it could be as a teaching tool, and I can envision showing it in a class on the history of slavery and/or abolition as well as one on representations and memories of slavery (or history in general).

I’m particularly interested to use Amistad as a jumping-off point for students to reflect on how they’ve learned to think about slavery by first showing the film and then having a discussion with students about their immediate response to it. What parts of the film did they think reflect historical reality and what parts were embellished or possibly untrue? In this initial exercise, I hope to encourage students to critically reflect on how cultural representations, education about slavery, and their experiences influence their reception of the film’s depiction of the Amistad events. I also want to push students to consider how these factors influence other depictions of slavery.

After our initial discussion of Amistad, I would assign students a short, open-ended research project based on the movie. I would give them a few days or a week to research some aspect of the film and prepare a brief presentation to the class about it. If students had trouble coming up with their own topics, I would suggest looking at topics such as how events portrayed in the film were portrayed in the contemporary press, possibly in a specific city such as New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, or Charleston. They might only look into whether the Amistad Africans had as much trouble communicating with their legal team as the movie suggested or where the self-freed people came from. They could also look into the background of the film’s leading historic white characters, Roger Sherman Baldwin and John Quincy Adams, and research their positions on slavery. I want students to come away from this exercise with the tools to investigate the history behind fictional accounts.

My goal for both parts of this exercise is to encourage students to reflect on what they know about a specific historical event when they see a fictional portrayal and then help them build the tools to examine such a portrayal’s claims about the event through historical research. Encouraging students to consider their own perspectives about portrayals of history and teaching them to research them will, I hope, help them build historical thinking skills related to evidence, historical significance, and historical empathy, and I think any historical film could be used in a similar way to engage students about their background with a historical event and show them how they can learn more about any media they encounter.