By Charles Hallman
Re-enactments of true events in documentaries are common practice. University of Minnesota professors Rose Brewer and John Wright both were critical of the use of re-enactments in Mighty Times: The Children’s March, which won the best short documentary Oscar in 2005, during a discussion after its August 24 screening at the Glover-Sudduth Center in Minneapolis.
The film was about the 1963 Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Alabama, when thousands of Black children of all ages were arrested and jailed in seven days of protests. (See “Film on 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade gets free screening” in MSR Aug. 16-22 issue.)
First produced for HBO, the film used scenes that included actors and shot at locations outside of Birmingham. Although the film included historical facts, Wright called it “a faux documentary” and said he had “mixed feelings” about it. He questioned if the audience was misled by filmmakers Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson.
“Its accuracy has been challenged within the filmmaking community…over material that was used in the film,” admits the professor. He explained documentary filmmakers often use re-enactments for “filling in the gaps” in telling historical accounts. “The rules [permits] the use of [new] material and scenes, but audiences must be told that such material are being used; and [the film] must have visual cues so that audiences can distinguish between archival material and re-creations.
“There were multiple challenges by other documentary filmmakers” after the film won the Oscar in 2005, notes Wright.
“There were two versions that were produced,” explains Brewer. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences judges saw and judged the first version, while the second version is part of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance educational series and does include a disclosure statement.
Wright told the audience immediately after the showing that they watched the film’s second version that includes “film sprockets.”
“These were cues that indicate re-creations which are seemingly interwoven with genuine archival footage throughout the film, which is an effect that the filmmakers wanted to achieve,” he pointed out. “Documentaries are an art form. It is not a transparent window to the truth. Like feature films, they are constructions of reality with narrative and dramatic inventions.”
Therefore Wright strongly suggests that when people watch The Children’s March, “They have to watch it with critical intelligence.”
However, such films, especially those dealing with Black history, must be done more accurately, believes Brewer: “We really got to tell our story.”
It “is powerful — it does deal with historical events,” reaffirmed Wright. “I don’t know any film that deals with this historical event, but we must watch it with very critical intelligence.”
“However you look at it, we should give a standing ovation to our young people” who risked their lives in the Birmingham protests of 1963, says Brewer. “These were very young people in jail. But the way our young people are depicted in the media today, you wouldn’t know that there was this history of tremendous brevity. I think every youth and every adult in our community should connect with [the film].”
“Kids need to know their history,” said longtime educator Dr. Josie Johnson, who urged that the film should be shown to Black students.
“I think [it is] important for our young people younger than ourselves to see this,” said Kenya McKnight after the film.
“It’s a true story,” confirms Wright, “but we have to be very careful about how things are constructed. We have to understand the real and the invented.”
“I thought it was a wonderful film,” says Rozenia Fuller of St. Paul. “I think that every African American and every Black person should see this film. I think it should be shown in classrooms, on Thanksgiving, Christmas, family reunions and whenever we get together.” On the film’s reacted scenes, “The fact that parts of it looked more like a movie, that was very clear to me,” adds Fuller. “I taught my children to watch for these things as well.”
The local group Solidarity sponsored the screening as part of their “community education” series, which alternates between Minneapolis and St. Paul locations. Each site has a different purpose, explains retired professor Mahmoud El-Kati, who introduces each program.
“This whole program is built to help us get a good political education,” he points out. “That’s why we’re showing documentaries over here [in Minneapolis] and regular wholesome entertainment movies at the [Golden Thyme] coffee shop.
“The film is about reviewing it in our memories for those of us who are older, and also an inspiration for young people,” he concludes.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.