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American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film$
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Trevor McCrisken and Andrew Pepper

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780748614899

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748614899.001.0001

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Rattling the Chains of History: Steven Spielberg's Amistad and ‘Telling Everyone's Story’

Rattling the Chains of History: Steven Spielberg's Amistad and ‘Telling Everyone's Story’

(p.39) Chapter 2 Rattling the Chains of History: Steven Spielberg's Amistad and ‘Telling Everyone's Story’
American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film

Trevor B. McCrisken

Andrew Pepper

Edinburgh University Press

The release of Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997) constitutes something of a new direction in Hollywood's attitude towards both slavery and its role as public historian. This chapter examines questions of audiences, film reception and the relationship between film and public pedagogy. It argues that a growing number of Hollywood filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to use historical films in order to critically engage with complicated questions about what constitutes ‘America’ domestically and internationally in the post-Cold War world. Amistad's effectiveness in reinscribing American hegemony is predicated not on any kind of heavy-handed, top-down racism, but precisely on its ability to preach and privilege tolerance, acceptance and cultural diversity. In doing so, the film implicitly speaks about the changed and changing nature of cultural and economic power and requires us to develop a new critical idiom to come to terms with concepts such as race, racism, national identity, and multiculturalism. The chapter also discusses the ‘plantation’ movie; the television mini-series Roots, first shown in the United States in January 1977; and public pedagogy versus historical authenticity.

Keywords:   Amistad, Hollywood, slavery, public pedagogy, historical authenticity, historical films, racism, plantation movie, Roots, multiculturalism

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