By Dr. Elizabeth D. Malpass

This begins a series of commentary on The  John  E. O’Connor Film Awards presented annually  by the American Historical Association.  Dr. O’Connor in a long and distinguished career taught at the New Jersey Institute of technology.  His innovative recognition of, and use of audio visual technology and its influence on American society has encouraged the making of outstanding films over the past two decades.

The opening of registration for the American Historical Association AHA Logo annual meeting to be held  January 2-5 in New York City signals a national gathering of eminent scholars and students of the profession to present academic and popular papers, debate issues, and have a thoroughly good time doing so.  America’s “Babylon” is always a fitting venue for any conference dealing with popular and cultural entertainment. This year, the AHA, among its numerous awards, prizes, and grants, will announce the latest of one of its more prestigious honors, The John E. O’Connor Film Award.  It has an exceptional roll call of films with “outstanding interpretations of history.” Over the last two decades, several have done well at the box office and on the small  screens of television and computer.  Almost all of the past awards have done even better through educational use in the classrooms of the nation.

In 2012, The Loving Story Movie Jacket for A Loving Story directed by Nancy Buirski won for a film that Hollywood Reporter called “… a perfect time capsule” of the persistence of racism in America.  Jane Alexander and Lindsay Almond, Jr. played the roles of Richard Loving and his fiancée, Mildred Jeter. A white man and his part black and part native-American girl friend who traveled from their homes in Virginia to Washington D.C. to be married.  It was June, 1958.  Virginia was one of twenty one states that prohibited interracial marriage, often times labeled as “miscegenation.”  Two weeks later, the newlyweds were arrested, subsequently tried and both were convicted of a felony crime.  Almost a decade long suit by ACLU lawyers, finally ended in the Supreme Court of the United States. The 1967  precedent setting decision led to sweeping reform.  The documentary focuses on the legal, political and emotional rhetoric of the era, but never loses the quiet courage of two ordinary people who recognize and are ultimately willing to pay the high price of a cause that is bigger than their own personal interests.  The cause of civil liberties has seldom been present better.

The same issue comes up again in a broader arena in the 2010 winner.  Judith Ehrlich, produced and directed, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Movie for Dangerous Man It won a large number of important awards as a documentary and received recognition for its innovative mixture of photographic techniques, including surprisingly a small use of animation.  Critical applause included extravagant words such as “riveting.” “chilling,” “seismic,” and even “perverse.”  All of them appropriate in time and context.  The evolution of Daniel Ellsberg, once a marine officer into a Rand Corp. analyst into a “whistle blower” of heroic magnitude is a study in the personal and the public conscience of one man.  As with Greek tragedy, the film shows the human ability to question and change and grow, but also to face the price of such moral, emotional and intellectual courage.  Ellsberg would emerge bruised and battered by the fates and the demons of power in his time.  The release of the Pentagon Papers with the rather reluctant and timid initial support of such journals as the New York Times and the Washington Post shocked many Americans into a vituperative frenzy.  The revelations that military plans and forecasts for the Vietnam War went back to the Truman administration and had led an American President to outright lies over the Gulf of Tonkin incident infuriated supporters of the war and eroded faith and confidence in the government.  Inevitably, Daniel Ellsberg paid the price: kill the messenger is also a reminder of Greek Tragedy.  Fortunately, Ellsberg survived and this film ensures that his memory will continue to do so, not because the man of conscience is always perfect but because, as in The Loving Couple, a just cause is always worth the fight.

The 2009 film, Herskovits At The Heart of Blackness, proved controversial (not unusual with  O'Connor films) Movie Cover for Herskovits Melville Jean Herskovits, a child of the late nineteenth century (b. 1895), he was born for historical controversy in the contentious twentieth century. He lived much of his career in the often turbulent maelstrom of historical and anthropology debates over volatile issues. Influenced by Franz Boa's pioneering work, he admired Boa for his breadth of  study and like Boa, Herskovitz took up an uncompromising fight against racist obscurantism and prejudice, and …concern with scientific and scholarly rigor of method ….He pursued truth wherever it led him, and was never afraid to announce what he had found.*

Initially Herskovits' career appears to be a typical biographical note in a long academic roster.  Well educated at Hebrew Union Seminary, he moved on to a M.A. at Columbia in 1921, followed by a Ph.D in 1923.   Yet, Herskovits At the Heart of Blackness emerges, was produced and directed by Llewellyn Smith from a handful of multiple and talented producers and directors as well as intelligent moderators. This was a rare instance of many cooks in the kitchen providing a cohesive and uniquely nourishing meal.  It is, in fact, a lively but meticulous documentary that matches the maturation of an intellectual mind with the actual major questions and often violent issues of his time. Some of his interpretations and resolutions of these issues remain highly controversial today, but they are never dull and often deeply influential.

Born into a white, Hebrew, educated family, Herskovits found his interest in anthropology shared by the brilliant scholars of Columbia and the New School for Social Research and their equally brilliant students. Hired at Northwestern University in 1931, He helped create the Department of Anthropology, serving as its first chair and inventing a program of African Studies.  Today one of the finest African studies and Archival resource it the nation, the Library quite rightfully is named after Herskovits.  Very early, he moved American African Studies into the field of international anthropology. Indeed, his long career and much of his emotional life centered upon all aspects of the African experiences. He dynamited many of the myths of American racism.  Later books would link the economics and the cultural connections of the continental patterns of Africa with its modern day black experience in America.  In particular, how do poor or oppressed, even enslaved, peoples, not only retain their cultural identities and but how do they shape their own lives and personal “oneness” in alien societies.  How do African Americans function both as Black Americans with a unique cultural perspective and as equals in modern society?  In fact, a fundamental question raised by Herskovits and the film:  Who defines a cultural identity? Moreover, how is it politicized, represented, taught, used as a tool for conformity, particularly in areas, such as Colonial Africa or enslaved America or Brazil? Herskovits had a lot of answers and even more questions. Researchers in History and in Anthropology will be seeking these answers for decades to come.  This film, like so many of the John O’Connor film awards, marks an appreciation of personal courage as well as the continuing need for thoughtful and analytical scholarship. 

*Quoted from: "In Memoriam: Melville Jean Herskovits,” African Studies Bulletin, Vol. Vl  No. 1, March 1963

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