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Black History Month

Celebrating black history

Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate black culture and its contribution to British society. There are many film narratives about black people’s lives that focus strongly on the oppression and suffering experienced as the result of individual and institutional racism. Whilst some of these films can offer students stimulating source material to explore the motivations and consequences of racism, there is a danger that teachers can perpetuate stereotype images of black people as passive victims rather than agents of change if this is how the filmmaker has portrayed the narrative.

For this reason, it is important to consider carefully which films to choose and why.

Key concepts to consider when using feature film to teach about black history are representation, interpretation and significance. The use of film in history teaching is covered in more detail elsewhere, but during Black History Month all teachers – not just historians - may engage with teaching about history, heritage and representations of the past.

Students should be made aware that some films offer very simplified views of the past that can be used to learn about historical interpretations in an accessible way; these fictional elements, however, can also be problematic. Use the following questions to provide a framework for discussion when considering the value of film as a historical source:

  • Does the inclusion of fictional characters reduce the usefulness of historical films?
  • Many historical films are ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ a true story – does this matter?
  • Scriptwriters, directors and producers sometimes change the order of events, or the outcome of them, to fit the ‘narrative’ of the film – does this make a difference to how useful a film is to a historian trying to understand the past?
  • What kind of research did the people involved in making the film conduct? How does this affect the usefulness of the film in learning about the past?
  • How accurate is the film’s portrayal of the period in which it is set? Is anything missed out? Does this matter?
  • What is the message of the film? Does it tell us something about the time it was made or the time it was set? Or both?
  • What is the purpose of the film? Is it to reflect on the present? Is it political? How does this affect its usefulness as a historical source?