Historians Watch Movies On Twitter With Awesomely Nerdy Results
It began, as all good things do, with a Twitter conversation about Nicolas Cage movies. “Archaeologists have Indiana Jones, historians have Benjamin Franklin Gates,” says Jason Herbert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota. Because Herbert’s physical home and his dissertation research (on the introduction of cattle into Florida in the 16thcentury) are far from his academic home, he was looking for a way to connect with fellow historians online. National Treasure fit the bill. “It’s such an over-the-top movie, but it’s so much fun,” Herbert says. “I saw that it was on Netflix one day and got a bunch of historians together on Twitter to watch it.” To his surprise, Marianne and Cormac Wibberley, the movie’s screenwriters, joined in. So did renowned Yale historian Joanne Freeman, who had never seen it. “When they put the lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Joanne just lost her mind,” Herbert remembers.
The resulting communal Tweetstorm of 700-plus posts—half snark, half real-time footnoting and fact-checking—was so successful that Historians at the Movies (#HATM) became a weekly event, now entering its third month. Every Sunday night at 8 p.m. EST, historians across the country cue up a different Netflix offering of Herbert’s choice. While suggestions from the #HATM community are welcome, Herbert has a few rules. “I don’t want them to be too dark. I’m trying to avoid too many straight white men. I don’t want this to become biopic of the week.” He aims to balance films about history—like Lincoln—with films that are, themselves, historical evidence, like Trading Places; he also tries to alternate heavy films, like Mudbound, with lighter fare, such as Marie Antoinette. And, of course, they have to be available on Netflix. “I really wanted to show Dead Poets Society, and I missed the window on it,” he laments, but promises: “As soon as National Treasure 2 comes out on Netflix. Nicolas Cage will be back.”
A recent pick, Spotlight, was both grimly topical and captured the musty charms of old-fashioned archival research. “Historians love research scenes,” Herbert says. Interview With the Vampire appealed to oral historians while facilitating “some really neat discussions about the Atlantic world, race and power, and homosexuality. In many centuries, the powerful are represented more in film, so sussing out those unheard voices is part of what we do in Historians at the Movies, just like we do in the archives.”Interview also offered great costume and set design “for our material culture people,” Herbert says. Young Guns provided an opportunity “to talk about pedagogy” and the mythologizing of the American West. But it quickly became apparent that the Brat Pack vehicle has not stood the test of time. “People were super excited about watching Young Guns, and the reaction was ‘This movie sucks! Look at all the casual racism!’” Herbert laughs. The African Queen elicited similar responses. “‘Filmed in Africa’ while using as few Africans as possible,” Rutgers grad student Sharece Blakney mused.
Some #HATM followers do their homework before each screening, throwing out book recommendations and archival finds. During Lincoln, Freeman posted a picture of an actual wig worn by Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a masterful stroke of casting. Michelle Orihel, a professor at Southern Utah University, put National Treasure on her American history survey syllabus after watching it with the #HATM crowd. But non-historians were quick to join in the fun, and Herbert welcomes them. “I want to reach a larger audience and fold them into these conversations,” he says. Personally, he appreciates having a weekly “release from research and writing and grading and kids.” Themed cocktails and dinner menus quickly became part of the discussion. “I can’t wait for The Godfather,” he says.