On July 3, 2020, the filmed version of the 2015 Broadway musical Hamilton released on Disney+ in the United States. Its release had been moved up an entire year due to the pandemic, and there was immense anticipation for it, but it released at the birth of a new civil rights movement. Suddenly, there was a flood of people criticizing it for its portrayal of American history.
Hamilton is not the only work that has been reevaluated this year. As an example, HBO Max removed the 1939 film Gone with the Wind due to racial stereotypes it perpetuates. Its removal sparked debate about political correctness and censorship. The 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which is widely read by American high school students, is another example. It follows a young girl who watches her father – a lawyer – defending a Black man for a crime he did not commit. Now, it is accused of focusing too much on the white perspective, and for being a one-and-done history lesson in American English classes.
All of these works take place in the past. Hamilton looks at the colonial and post-Revolution United States. Gone with the Wind looks at the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. To Kill a Mockingbird looks at the 1930’s American South.
Evaluating historical fiction is a spectrum, and there is no wrong or right way to do it. Over time, it’s natural that sentiments about certain themes and cliches change, and they aren’t as impressive or tasteful. At the same time, conflicting contexts can make looking at historical fiction difficult.
There is no shame in liking a historical work, even those written at a time where social values were not the same as they are today! However, you must know what the themes mean in the works you read. Knowing what themes do to historical fiction is very important, especially if you want to be supportive of groups and issues represented in both modern and historical works.
Here are some tips to be a better consumer of historical fiction and other works that deal with history:
Only the setting is real.
It’s historical fiction for a reason. The historical backdrop dictates the story and is often the only thing that can be trusted.
Inaccuracies don’t mean it’s bad.
It depends on how inaccuracies are used. According to James Forrester, historical fiction is “not as simple as ‘accurate = good’ and ‘inaccurate = bad.’ It depends on whether the inaccuracies are constructive lies or accidental mistakes.”
Consider the year of publication.
In cases such as Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird, they look at historical contexts from a time that is lost in history to the rest of us. Critique of the American Civil War from 1940 is different from the 2020 critique. Depending on the work’s age, it may be best to consider what you’re reading as a “product of its time.”
Reflect on what a “product of its time” means.
This phrase is included before rereleased Warner Bros. cartoons. It’s a good lesson to carry with you. The studio’s warnings condone racial prejudices that were contained in them. However, they have left their works uncensored, because censorship would be the “same as claiming that these prejudices never existed.” Think of how you can incorporate that with historical fiction.
Remember that you’re reading an adaptation, not the truth.
Even in the works that seem the most historically accurate, there are likely several alterations to the history itself. In fact, there are many historical alterations in Hamilton for the sake of dramatic storytelling. It might be a good idea to fact check what you’re looking at every once in a while.
Don’t use each work as a one-and-done history lesson.
If we are to consider historical fiction as an adaptation, you shouldn’t be using it as a history lesson because it’s not a retelling of what really happened. If anything, you should be using fiction as a companion to your historical research. You should seek out more works and information.
Don’t be afraid to look it up.
If something is bothering you or something that feels too good to be true, Google it. You’ll expand your knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of the work and the period it portrays.
Think of how issues in your work manifest in your current time.
When learning to annotate, one tip that some students receive is to note the connections and links to your everyday life. Keep doing that. How does the work portray gender, race, and sexual orientation? How does it portray certain historical figures? Do you agree with those things? Question those.
It’s okay to like something that others might find fault in.
To Kill a Mockingbird sticks with me to this day. This isn’t an instance of historical fiction, but I really love the film La La Land. It has a white savior subplot (the white male lead wants to save jazz, a Black-pioneered art), but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. It’s a creative, fun, and emotional movie for me. Just be sure to acknowledge the sentiments of others, and be sure that you have other reasons for liking it.
Be sure to give it credit for any positive influence it had on society.
Yes, Hamilton may have some problems, but it influenced a generation. It gave people of color a place on a stage where the leads are often white, and it boosted the reputation of musical theater. All the works had an impact that improved different art forms and aspects of society. It’s completely fine to dislike something, but don’t discount its accomplishments.
You should use historical fiction to mold your understanding of the past. Keep in mind that these works are not one-and-done lessons, but starting points to learning history. Use these works as invitations to dive deeper into the past. You will eventually find the truth.