From the Film and Media column in the May/June 1991 Perspectives
PBS's The American Experience
AHA Staff, May 1991
Editor's Note: The following listings contain information about programs that will air this fall on PBS's The American Experience television series. Many of these shows contain useful material for history teachers. Please note that the titles of the shows are subject to change and that the shows do not appear in broadcast order.
The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry
This program examines the story of the first officially-formed regiment of northern black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. The 54th's roster included shopkeepers, musicians, clerks, cobblers, seamen, and other skilled hands, including Frederick Douglass' two sons and Sojourner Truth's grandson. The film documents the story of these and other black men who fought against oppression in the political arena and on Civil War battlefields.
While the shock of what happened on December 7, 1941, has made Pearl Harbor a synonym for deceit and unpreparedness, a closer examination of events reveals that the attack may have been foreseen. This episode presents facts about the Pearl Harbor attack, the events leading up to it, and the dangerously false stereotypes prevalent at the time. The program will be presented in "Rashamon" style—each segment from a different viewpoint, using not only interviews and archival footage but also home movies, propaganda films, feature movies, and even cartoons from the U.S. and Japan.
The Law of the Wild
This program examines how the struggles of three environmentalists—hiker Robert Marshall, author Aldo Leopold, and conservationist Howard Zahniser—resulted in the creation of a permanent system of federally protected wilderness through an Act of Congress in 1964. The legislation provided the shrinking United States wilderness from encroaching industry and tourism.
The Life and Times of LBJ
This four-hour special looks at the life of one of the most perplexing and astute politicians in modern American history. The story chronicles the ascent of a poor, largely uneducated Texan to the pinnacle of world power. Some of the events depicted include LBJ's campaign on his own style of Texas populism; his election to the U.S. Senate, where he was known to some as an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer; the beginning of his presidency, in which he set out to "out-Kennedy the Kennedys" by pushing through historic social legislation on a scale that rivalled FDR; his achievements in civil rights; and the decline of his popularity with increasing social unrest at home and the commitment of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
The Johnstown Flood
This expanded version of the Oscar-winning 1991 film explores the disastrous flood that killed over 2,000 people in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. The program examines what life was like in Johnstown before the flood, the creation of an exclusive retreat for affluent townspeople in a dry lake site by an abandoned dam in the nearby mountains, how and why the catastrophic flood occurred, and the urgent requests for medical assistance after the disaster.
This program recounts the little-known story of a remarkable independent film industry that produced close to 500 movies for African-American audiences between 1910 and 1948. These "race movies," which were produced by black and white companies and shown at segregated screenings, gave black moviegoers their only chance to see films that did not demean them and that reflected their aspirations and fantasies. The program documents the career of Oscar Micheaux, a resourceful producer and author who wrote, produced, and directed more than forty features, a tenth of all the race movies ever made. This story of the rise and fall of the race movie industry provides unique insight into African-American culture, race relations, and the movie industry.
James Michael Curley
The life of well-known Boston politician James Michael Curley, and how he rose from poverty to serve four terms as mayor, four terms as congressman, one as alderman, and one as governor, is recounted in this segment of The American Experience. The program depicts Curley's colorful, combative brand of politics; his willingness to exploit ethnic, religious, and class tensions for his own political ends; and his charismatic popularity which allowed him to run a winning campaign from jail.
Few of the alphabet agencies of the New Deal captured the public's imagination and loyalty like J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. This episode documents the story of Hoover, the FBI, the G(overnment) Men, and various public enemies during the years 1930–39.
In the White Man's Image
This program focuses on the history of the reservation boarding schools which were started by Captain Richard Pratt in 1875. Intended to "civilize" the "hostile" Native Americans, these schools were viewed as a liberal alternative to the Army's plan of simply wiping out the resisting tribes. The schools' suppression of their students' tribal languages and traditions, however, has been called cultural genocide. Native Americans who attended the schools help tell the story of a humanist experiment gone bad, and of its consequences for a generation of tribal people.
Quiz Show Scandals
The fraud and scandals associated with the popular television quiz shows of the 1950s are documented in this episode of The American Experience. The American fascination with the idea of "the common man as genius" was exploited by many quiz show producers, most notably by Twenty One producer Dan Enwright, who was accused by Congressional investigators of providing popular contestants with answers before air time. The film provides an overview of the formative years of television and its effects on the entertainment business and the American public.
The Dennis Family
This is a film portrait of an American family active in the American Communist Party during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. After traveling to Russia to advance the cause of communism, Peggy and Eugene Dennis were forced to abandon their oldest son in Russia under Stalin's rule. When they returned to the U.S. they experienced the persecution and witch hunts of the McCarthy era. Through interviews, archival materials, and Peggy Dennis's powerful autobiography, the film tells of a family's struggle to survive as communists in a country openly hostile to their beliefs.
This episode documents the life of legendary jazz artist Duke Ellington, whose music and performances helped to break down racial barriers in the music world and elsewhere. At a time when black and white musicians rarely performed or recorded together, Ellington organized one of the first black orchestras to tour Europe and the first to perform an original work in Carnegie Hall. Through interviews with those who knew and loved Ellington, the film offers a look at the life and legacy of one of America's most important composers.