History on Screen: American Historical Fiction Films and TV Shows

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2020
full name / name of organization: 
Lisa V Mazey, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
contact email: 

Panel at NeMLA's 52nd Annual Convention in Philadelphia, PA

Update: NeMLA has secured a hybrid/virtual platform for the conference. If you wish to present virtually, you may do so.

Historical fiction film and television productions present a life that today’s viewers cannot experience, offering a unique escape. The growing trend revived what Leger Grindon observed in Shadows on the Past (1994), that “[f]rom the earliest days of their artistic practice, filmmakers have engaged in the centuries-old tradition of grappling with the present by writing about the past” (1). But I ask: Why do studios continue to spend the money and effort to look backward? Why is the viewing audience’s attention (and entertainment dollars) captured again and again?

Films such as Forrest Gump (1995) re-popularized the genre, displaying cultural upheavals from times that defined the American experience. More recently, Brooklyn (2015) displays immigration during the 1950s and Bad Times at the el Royale (2018) recalls 1970s segregation, anarchy, and greed. Streaming services air originals like Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (2017). These works do not report how things really were, though they appear to, but rather “make claims to a persuasive representation of the past, that arise out of historical scholarship… [and] interpret and comment on significant past events” (Grindon 2). When educators examine those significant events in conjunction with film representations in this storytelling genre, their insights enlighten our current world and therefore enrich classrooms.

Presenters would investigate an interesting piece of on-screen historical fiction and examine how the production techniques or goals, the stories themselves, characters’ challenges and growth impact its viewers. We can illuminate how the genre is shaping our perceptions of the time period depicted and how the production reflects our current culture. We can share those discoveries in our humanities literature and film-study courses to help students understand, internalize, or connect to the content. Submit your proposal by September 30, 2020, directly on NeMLA's website at: https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/18579