Should Hollywood Have the Last Say About History?

“The Conspirator” directed by Robert Redford is about the trial of Mary Surratt, the first women to hanged by the federal government.

I remember going to see this movie in theaters when first came out. I remember feeling angry and disgusted by the way the judges and society was treating Mary Surratt. Thinking to myself, “How could this be a fair trial?!?” Now watching at as a future teacher and having been at Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, it really changed how amazing I thought this film was the first time I watched. Though the anger did stay the same on how Ms. Surratt was treated through out the film.

Like any historical film that Hollywood makes is not far from having biases, exceptionally in Civil war films. But by surprise the movie’s bias was not in favor with the Union and the American government/ military. Redford played with the audience’s pathos in favor of a Confederate woman who may or may have been involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. Because Hollywood plays a major role in our future students lives and in they’re learning, as a teacher showed we show “historical” films in the classroom even if we know that they maybe far from historical accuracy? In my opinion I think they should be shown which then can maybe lead to a lesson with students finding the accuracy in the film. This will allow students to be detectives and what teenager doesn’t like to prove something/someone wrong, exceptionally a movie. The one good thing that I really appreciated from this film it should what life after the Civil War was like for students and adding a female narrative to the very male dominated Civil War period.

Will watching this film there was several questions that came to mind for me, like why did President Johnson not over throw the ruling of the military court? In the article “Causalities of War,” by Anthony Lane, he also had the same question, but he mentions the strong hold of gender roles on the southern women in the movie. This could be a good on how movies depict women in historical films and look at societies gender roles at that time. Another question that came to mind why wasn’t slavery mention. When we learn about the Civil War we learn about how important slavery was and even after, so why was it not mentioned? Doing some research myself Mary Surratt was a slaveholder and not once did we see an African American in the film. Which brings up the problem of a white wash of history that students learn without even knowing it. By showing Mary Surratt with slaves could that have changed the view of her throughout the film even in the courtroom? Redford though not mentioning slavery he blanketed the “slavery issue” with phrase, “the cause”. Which we hear time and time again, but do students really know what “the cause” is? By bring up this questions and allowing students to do their own research, hopefully they would realize that Redford was cherry- picking the sources, which causes bias.

Though this movie kept everyone on the edge of their seats, it did show the publics opinion and reaction of the death of Lincoln in a very real way. This film did bring up some questions and would allow teachers to have students do their own research so they know what was wrong in the film. I think its important that as teacher we don’t let Hollywood have the last say in what history was/is.


One thought on “Should Hollywood Have the Last Say About History?

  1. I really like your point about using the movie to help students become detectives in the classroom by evaluating the sources that we give them. Whether or not the movie is completely accurate or not, it gives students the opportunity to assess the movie and come to a conclusion of why certain things were changed or left out. Something I didn’t think about with the slavery issue was how it might have changed the perspective the viewers have of Mary Surratt had they emphasized the fact that she was a slaveholder.


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