Movies in the Classroom, History in the Making

By  · Published on February 15th, 2017

Why the future of America might begin with the films of Ava DuVernay.

Let’s begin with a story. In 2007, I volunteered with an organization called Citizen Schools to teach a group of middle school students the basics of film criticism. Once a week as a Citizen Teacher – the name given to volunteers who lead the non-profit’s after school programs – I would spend an hour showing kids video clips and walking them through a very abridged version of the college film courses I had just completed. I’ve often described my time with Citizen Schools as an early test of how serious I wanted to be about film education; if you love something, try and teach it to a group of middle school kids still stuck in a classroom past 3:00 PM. You’ll know right away what kind of writer you want to be.

And while the lesson plan I put together might not have resonated the way I hoped – despite my youthful enthusiasm, most of the class was more interested in talking about the trailer for 2008’s The Strangers than whatever film theory concept I’d written on the board – I can still remember snippets of classroom discussion where a few kids really connected with the material. My favorite moment of the semester was when I showed the class a lengthy tracking shot from one specific film and asked them why the director might chose to do that scene as a single take. A particularly shy kid raised his hand and suggested that maybe it was so audiences would know how all the rooms in the building fit together. For that moment, at least, that kid had stopped viewing movies as something to consume and instead seen them as a series of conscious and deliberate decisions, decisions you could pull apart to get at some concept of intent.

I don’t tell this story to tout my skill as a teacher – I was no great shakes there, believe me – but to show that I’ve experienced first-hand what happens when kids start to engage critically with the media. That’s why I was so excited to read yesterday that Netflix had decided to make Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-nominated documentary 13th available for free to educators across the country. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix vice president Lisa Nishimura described the decision as a response to overwhelming enthusiasm from their audiences. According to her, Netflix’s decision was in direct response to community members who wanted to use the film to “acknowledge the complex system they have inherited while simultaneously vowing to change it.”

This isn’t the first time that one of DuVernay’s films has been offered to schools for free. In January 2015, the Los Angeles Times spoke with Paramount Pictures about their decision to give away 275,000 free tickets to Selma so that middle and high school students would be able to experience one of the pivotal moments of the civil rights movement on the big screen. A few days prior to this, Variety had reported on a grassroots effort by African-American business leaders in New York City to show the film across the United States. “It surprised us how little teenagers knew about these events,” Infor CEO Charles Phillips explained. “For people my age, it was a very big deal. When it happened, it was transformative for us.”

What Paramount and Netflix have done is more than just drum up a little bit of free publicity for their films. By offering Selma and 13th to educators across the country, these studios are playing an important role in the media literacy of the next generation of Americans. Media literacy has become a hot-button issue in the aftermath of the presidential election. Last week, Slate’s Dana Goldstein tackled the toxic mixture of politics and history that often undermines attempts in the public school system to have students think critically about the media. In her conversations with leading educators, Goldstein found that media literacy programs must do more than just point out what media gets wrong; it must also celebrate the positive depictions that make their way out of the mainstream. “Skepticism toward sources is good,” Goldstein wrote, “but a blanket cynicism is counterproductive to the civic ends that media literacy theorists hope to achieve: a more informed and engaged public.”

This is the challenge of teaching kids how to engage with film and television. In a 2013 article in Live Science, for example, a Duke University researcher weighed in on the role that historical films can play in shaping our understanding of history. “People learn the correct material in films really, really well,” Sharda Umanath said, “but the problem is they also learn anything that’s false in a film.” Granted, not every film should be overly concerned with the burden of historical accuracy. Who cares if an entire generation of students grows up thinking that Chris McCandless, the subject of the popular 2007 film Into the Wild, was a sympathetic dreamer instead of the dangerously naïve individual that many Alaskans regard him as? But for important issues and historical events – events like the civil rights movement that take on an added political importance in the modern era – there needs to be a blended approach. Students must be encouraged to think critically about the things they see on screen while also being provided with a positive portrayal of how people can shape their own story in the media.

Ava DuVernay is Basically Owning 2016

And this very idea is what makes the films of Ava DuVernay such a powerful educational tool. While Hollywood has produced plenty of works of art that speak to the legacy of men like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., DuVernay’s films offer a different version of history that encourages students to rethink some of the historical facts that may take for granted. More importantly, her films root this criticism in a modern context. 13th locates the events of 1800s and 1900s as part of a casual chain leading to this moment in time, reminding students that history is a living, breathing organism. Thus, when students watch 13th, they are hitting on both sides of Goldstein’s formula for powerful media literacy: they are being taught to be skeptical of the pre-existing historical narratives and being given examples of how the media – and modern African-American community leaders – were able to use the media to get their stories told.

As we continue to feel out the era of fake news and alternate facts, how we teach our children to navigate media messages will play a key role in the state of our union. We are constantly bombarded with soundbites and images that not only contradict each other, they blatantly accuse the other side of fabricating reality around them. This can be dangerous waters for an adult to navigate; it can be flat-out impossible for children to do so without a little bit of guidance. Here’s hoping that more films follow in the footsteps of Selma and 13th and give kids a chance to engage with history on their own terms and in their own time.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)