Historians at the Movies mixes fun and fact-checking for your favorite films

What do Steel Magnolias, The Godfather, and Jaws all have in common? All three movies say something about the time in which they were made, and all three were part of Historians at the Movies. Every Sunday, historians and movie fans all watch the same film and tweet their reactions — and research — with the #HATM hashtag. The result is a mix of snark and scholarship.

“All of this is a complete accident,” Jason Herbert told Digital Trends. He’s the doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Minnesota who started the trend. Naturally, everything kicked off with National Treasure, a film starring Nicolas Cage as a treasure-hunting historian. That was in July 2018. The second time they watched, a year later, Yale history professor Dr. Joanne Freeman and two of the movie’s screenwriters, Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, tweeted along. Monmouth University’s Dr. Walter Greason co-hosted the week HATM watched Malcom X.

National Treasure Movie PosterTwitter watch parties are nothing new. Pretty Little Liars consistently had some of the most-tweeted about episodes during its run. What makes HATM unique is that when you follow its hashtag, you’re more likely to see tweets from a historian who studies Antarctica, Medieval scholar, and food expert than your average Bachelor episode. (No disrespect to the thriving #Bachelor Twitter community.)

Herbert chooses the movies the group will watch, with input from the crowd. Because he always chooses something on Netflix, for convenience sake, participants are generally from the U.S., though people from Canada, Ecuador, and Australia tune in as well. “Diversifying the films is super, super important to me so that everyone feels like they’re included,” said Herbert. It would be easy to become a war-movie-of-the-week project. To avoid that, he tries to find movies with female, LGBTQ, and non-white leads, to round out the 300s, Lincolns, and Rockys. Heathers, Mulan, and Now and Then have all made the list.

When is history?

Recently, writer Tim Urban noted that The Wonder Years, which debuted in 1988, was set only 20 years earlier, in 1968. Yet it felt like a historical show. “We tend to think of history as guys in suits of armor or something like that,” said Herbert. “And that’s just not necessarily the case. And that really became apparent when we did Trading Places in our fourth week.”

In the 1983 comedy, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy play a wealthy broker and a man who’s homeless. Thanks to an elaborate bet, the two change lives. Herbert said it’s also a snapshot of when it was made. “And all of a sudden we look at Trading Places, and that’s a primary source,” he said. “Is it an indictment of the capitalist system in the early ‘80s, or is it an endorsement, because those guys end up getting rich?”

Mulan Animated Disney Movie PosterAnother movie that’s on his watchlist wishlist is the ‘90s flick Singles. “Just because it’s recent doesn’t mean it’s any less historically important,” he said. “In fact, maybe even more so because we are more directly affected in our lives, I think, by the people who were wearing Doc Martens and flannel and having long hair and listening to Pearl Jam in Seattle, right, then we were worrying about people who were about to go to the guillotine in France, you know, a few hundred years ago.”

Getting schooled

Because it started as a lark and the primary goal is to have fun and connect people, Herbert isn’t too worried about retaining an archive of everything that gets tweeted on HATM nights. Some teachers are giving participation points to students who watch, though, and using some of the articles historians link to for class discussions.

Herbert said he thinks attitudes are changing since when he was in school and his teacher would wheel in a TV on a AV cart. “Movies are not a get-off-easy-day for learning,” he said. “It is a really effective teaching tool to understand the past or to understand the ways that we understand the past, or just the ways we understand ourselves.” That can especially be true with movies like Mudbound or Spotlight. Watching heavy films in the HATM format can add context and sources for further research. Dr. Eric Gonzaba, an assistant professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, tweeted, “Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaigns in 1977-1978 galvanized the gay rights movement nationwide, more so than the Stonewall Riots did almost a decade prior. Here, common t-shirts mocking Bryant’s homophobia. You can explore more of them at WearingGayHistory.com,” during the HATM viewing of Milk, for example.

As its two-year anniversary approaches, Herbert has something special planned: “We’re going to roast The Patriot in July.”

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