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Once More with New Feelings


President of the American History Association James Sweet in a recent column warned that historians should not fall into the trap of presentism, which is history only focused on the era post 1800s. He mentioned another historian Lynn Hunt who cautioned historians about this 20 years ago and how the trend has only worsened, in his opinion. " If history was little more than “short-term . . . identity politics defined by present concerns,” wouldn’t students be better served by taking degrees in sociology, political science, or ethnic studies instead?"  He cites evidence to prove his point, "The discipline did not heed Hunt’s warning. From 2003 to 2013, the number of PhDs awarded to students working on topics post-1800, across all fields, rose 18 percent. Meanwhile, those working on pre-1800 topics declined by 4 percent." If historians are only concerned with social-economical conditions of the recent past, then they easily judge history through the lens of the present and influenced by current political and social trends, creating bias and lack of originality. 

I do feel what he argues is a valid point. We do spend significantly more time studying recent history and rush through 10,000 years from the Neolithic Revolution to Greeks in a mere year in middle school. With many schools educating students to analyze the implications of the past, we often automatically judge the past using our modern values. This in a sense of a whole trend toward historical distortion. 

The invention of the camera in the 1800s changed how we've pictured history ever since; now we know what things looked like. Where we once had myth, now we have newspaper clippings. This abundance of images presents a challenge for those producing stories set in photographed times: to build realistic sets, and to cast actors who look enough like their historical counterparts to be believable in those roles.

This is so true! Imagine these historical figures in your mind: Jesus Christ? Do you imagine him as blond, tanned, tall? What about George Washington? You are probably picturing him on the US$1 bill, because that famous portrait of him is what we are most familiar with. What about Barack Obama? The more recent the historical figure, the more accurate our perception is about that person's appearance. 

The syllabus mentions several key historical figures and the many movies and plays about their lives. Princess Diana is a favorite with 11 actresses who have been cast, all with blond short hair. Nelson Mandela on the other hand has been played by 9 African descent actors (they don't really look alike at all) and all 14 actors that played Lincoln feature a rough beard and top hat. If looks are so important, should we just have CGI act the historical parts? I don't think so, each actor adds his or her own interpretation to the character and a part of the movie magic is how they bring us into that time period through their dedication for the role.  Even if there were CGI, how can it be artistically performed?

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Hamilton has been one of the most influential musicals out in recent years and frankly all of our team loves it! It has a great cast, great music, interesting storyline and Lin-Manuel Miranda aka the mastermind is just brilliant! The following articles examine how Hamilton defies traditional casting for better or for worse.  According to the Crimson, Harvard's independent student newspaper, Hamilton casting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) actors in traditional White roles as America's founding fathers.  The editor notes how critics have applauded Hamilton's choices and welcomes other cases such as Black actress Jodie Turner-Smith would portray Anne Boleyn, Queen of England. Nevertheless, it warns that there is a significant difference between color-blind casting and color-conscious casting. To get this straight: color-blind casting is when the actors are judged on skill alone that skin-color is not evaluated at all. Color-conscious is when casting is based on present day social standards. In Hamilton's case, "in essence, they otherwise barred the actors from the cast to make room for artists of color." Actors were chosen specifically because they were non-white. In this case, "Although the ‘woke’ composer and lyricist prioritizes diversifying his production, he blindly asks BIPOC performers to act in a piece detailing historical events benefiting their oppressors." In other words, it uses Black actors to glorify former slave owners and makes these men out to be heroes.

While the editor criticizes color conscious casting of Hamilton, it also deems color-blind casting too idealistic or a future society where race has no relevance. With the recent wins of Michelle Yeoh at the Oscars for Everything Everywhere All at Once, we see that minorities are taking front stage. (Check out James Hong's speech at the SAG award)  Instead of having Asian actors replace well-deserving white actors, it calls for diversification of stories.  What instead is needed is more narratives based on minorities instead of having minorities act white roles or vice versa. "For far too long, white narratives have crowded the pages of screenplays and scripts, leaving little room for the development of stories amplifying the voices of racial minorities.“ 

Others worry that the musical distorts American history into a simple tale of heroes and villains; put another way, we shouldn't hate so much on Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and maybe we're overthinking what happened in the room.  Does the simple fact of making historical events into entertainment shows distorts history and creates heroes and villains out of complex, multi-layered people. I believe so, but so does history books, poems, sagas, and every other kind of representation. They are presented through a simpler perspective! 

A play that distorts the perspective of race was Mountaintop (2015), performed at Kent University. Written by African American playwright Katori Hall, the play is about the day before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, famous civil rights leader. The main controversy was the casting of a Caucasian actor in the titular role Martin Luther King Jr., by Director Michael Oatman, also African American. Hall wrote a scathing essay in the Root online magazine to display her disapproval of the director's choice and explained that even though she did not explicitly state the race of the role, she believed it can be easily inferred. Michael Oatman, the director, said he believed he followed the ideals of King to not judge people by their skin color and he wanted to see how the audience would react to this change in race. Hall demanded amendments in the licensing agreement in the future, granting her permission to approve actors.

Hall called out Oatman for being "tone-deaf". But, was Oatman really tone deaf, or merely color blind?  In fact, Oatman casted two actors for the role of Martin Luther King, one was Robert Branch (the White guy) and another Black actor.  They were both supposed to act MLK 3 times. However, the Black actor dropped out due to family issues, so Robert Branch had to act in all of the plays. According to Oatman, the audience liked the play and was fully engaged with him despite is race. In fact, only 6 people left in the audience in all the performances. Oatman also critiques about how famous musical Hamilton also cast Black actors in famous White roles; Hamilton was applauded and accepted for its bold choice.  Oatman reveals the hypocrisy and how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) can play White roles, but not vice versa.​​ I wonder how King would have reacted to this modern-day controversy. Is history being distorted or idealized or both? 

According to the independent photographer, photos are like alternatives to hope and despair. But where did the first photos come from? And what were they like? Well, the first photo ever was taken way back in 1826 by Joseph Nicephore, titled “View from the Window at Le Gras” (left) using the early cameras known as “camera obscura”.  A dozen years later, another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, made another epic invention when he conceived the ‘Daguerreotype’, using of polished silver-plated copper which was treated to make its surface light-sensitive and then exposed in a camera for as long as necessary. The plate would subsequently undergo mercury fuming and chemical treatment before being rinsed, dried, and then sealed behind protective glass.  (very technical) 

Soon after, because of Daguerreotype’s shorter exposure time, the first people were caught on camera in 1839, depicting a person getting his shoe-shined and a shoe shiner.  Soon after, Richard Madox and George Eastman made the next big step in photography. Richard Madox made dry plating.  George Eastman made an even bigger step by inventing the Kodak camera, which made it easier to produce photos, with 100-exposure roll.  Photographer transformed from professionals to include amateurs. Oh, and for future reference, George Eastman was a bank clerk from New York and did photography as a hobby.

In 1916 Ansel Adams, American teenager, received a Kodak camera to take photos at Yosemite. These pictures became some of the most important landscape photos in the 20th century.  (see below)  In 1925, Oskar Barnack developed the now-iconic Leica. It was the first camera to use 35mm film (which had been invented by Thomas Edison some thirty years earlier) and was significantly more lightweight compact than the box cameras that dominated the market at the time. Thus, it opened up a world of photographic possibilities.
In the mid-1930s, Kodak debuted the now legendary Kodachrome. A color-reversal film, it allowed for the capture of highly detailed imagery in full, expressive chromaticity. Though it would achieve significant popularity among commercial photographers, and some amateurs, during the latter part of the twentieth century, for those working in what were considered more ‘serious’ styles (with a few notable exceptions) black and white remained their palette of choice. Black and white photos dominated until nearly the 1980s. So, to view history, is it more authentic to view it in black and white, or in color? Which is truer?

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"Almost 30 years before Kodachrome, two French brothers invented a way to take color photos. The autochrome process they developed gave the soft, slightly blurred images the feel of an Impressionist painting." These two famous French brothers were Auguste and Louis Lumière who in 1907 developed a way to take color photographs. According to National Geographic, "The process, called autochrome, involved covering a glass plate with a thin wash of tiny potato starch grains dyed red, green, and blue, thus creating a filter." It became a hit in Paris and then popularity spread to the United States with NG acquiring more than 15,000 autochrome plates. However, this style lost its following with the introduction of the 35mm Kodakchrome. 


Coloring historical black and white photos can be very tricky and Jordan Lloyd is an expert. He spends hours researching, scouring through google maps, calling experts and analyzing photos to get the right colors. As a result, his quality is superior to AI technology that colors photos in the matter of seconds.  Leading computer programs include DeOldify, DeepAi, and Algorithmia. 


In the photo on the left, left 1/3 is black and white, middle 1/3 is colors by DeOldify and right is the true color. You can see that there is still a clear difference in the quality of AI.  There are many aspects that impact the color including hue, saturation and lighting, and that's when it gets tricky for AI, which views all the same tones as the same color. (See photo on the right) For example, I assumed that Lucy from I Love Lucy is blond when she is actually a red head.

Software advancements created by analyzing more than one million photographs and then identifying some key visual elements (sky is blue, vegetation is green, and mountains are brown), but even then, mistakes can happen, such as a brown waterfall or white Gold Gate Bridge. Humans take many more hours but can get to the precious story behind the images by doing painstaking research to understand historical context.   

Another way to document history is through voice recording. Sadly though, the technology to record audio has not existed for a long time, until the invention of the phonograph. For example, contrary to popular belief, Abraham Lincoln supposedly had a high and shrill voice. Is there a responsibility for actors to mimic voices when recreating history?

Margaret Thatcher, the famous female British Prime Minister, is portrayed by legendary actress Meryl Streep in the movie "The Iron Lady".  Meryl Streep is known for her diversity of characters and voices, and she practiced until she could perfect Margaret Thatcher’s distinctive British accent. Meryl Streep is an amazing actress with 21 Oscar nominations, 3 wins and 32 Golden Globe nominations, 8 wins. Additionally, Meryl Streep also acted in the movie Julia Child as American lady who learned French culinary arts in France and became a famous food author and TV host. You might know her best from playing Miranda in "The Devil Wears Prada". Acting these drastically different characters demonstrates the observation, skill, and effort it takes to bring a historical role to life. We believe actors should take steps to voice train for an historical character to preserve the authenticity of the role. If done wrong, it could really ruin the entire performance.

Preserving authenticity has its own downsides and long-term effects. For example, in the movie Elvis, the young actor Austin Butler perfectly imitate the way Elvis acts, speaks, and sings.  After the filming ended, the accent stuck on.  For those of you who are not familiar with Elvis Presley (think: Can't Help Falling in Love with You, Love Me Tender, Hound Dog), he was one of the most iconic country singers in the 1960 until his death due to drug overdose in the 1970s. He is probably one of the most well impersonated celebrities in the world. 


In the acclaimed movie Gandhi (1982), Ghandhi was played by British-Indian actor Ben Kingsley. The movie won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director. (If you have time and want to learn about Indian Independence from British Imperialism, this is a must-see!)  However, there are critics that disapprove, since Kingsley was only partially Indian, and in the movie, he wore darker makeup (oh no, brown face!!). The director for this prominent movie is Richard Attenborough and given that it won so many awards and depicts the history accurately with many local Indian actors, I believe the darkening make-up was acceptable for the purpose of historical accuracy.  Although it may seem controversial, we should always judge each case individually based on context, as long as it is not satire aimed at making fun of historical figures. And about changing the actor's performance with CGI to re-color the actor, that is just ridiculous and mocks the artwork of Attenborough and Kingsley. 

Bas Uterwijk, artist from Denmark, creates living photos of historical figures using AI. Some of the prominent characters he has created include Van Gogh, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Statue of Liberty. The software he uses is Artbreeder, a deep-learning software that can generate human faces based on many reference and personal touches from the artist. We believe this is a cool way to learn history and gives us a unique perspective on historical figures, but not entirely authentic, as it is based on a secondary source such as photo, painting, or sculpture. 

Otzi the Iceman is an incredibly well-preserved glacier mummy from the Copper Age, discovered accidentally by hikers in 1991 in Schnalstal/Val Senales Valley (Italy). He lived more than 5,300 years ago identified by his copper axe. Currently, he has been exhibited in the Museum of Archeology in Bolzano since 1998. This to us is an accurate depiction of history, or a glimps of the past.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was the 32nd American president and the longest serving president, 4 terms spanning 13 years. Born into the wealthy political Roosevelt family (Teddy Roosevelt as distant relative), he was a physically active man serving in the Navy with an aspiring political career. At age 39, he suffered from polio, which paralyzed him from the waist down. His wife Eleanor became his support and aids helped conceal his physical disability to the world. Surprisingly, the journalists of that time respected his wishes. There are only 4 existing pictures of him in his wheelchair, as the Secret Service banned the photographing of him in his wheelchair. He hid his illness from the world because America was in state of war, and it made him look weak and vulnerable for foreign powers. As America's only handicapped president, FDR's memorial, designed by architect Lawrence Halprin in 1974, features disability adjustment, such as ramps and braille. It also includes a statue of him in his wheelchair in the Prologue Room. A quote from Eleanor Roosevelt is inscribed at the base of the statue, by artist Robert Graham, 

describing how FDR's disease taught him to remain strong. Is it wrong to depict FDR this way? Is the statue against his wishes? FDR's grandchildren approve of the statue as a sign of strength, not shame, for physical disability awareness. 

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For All Mankind is an American science fiction TV drama on Apple TV+ that illustrates an alternative reality where the Soviets won the Space Race. Life seems similar, yet not exactly the same - verisimilitude. Is there a value to creating an alternative history museum so visitors can seriously reflect on the impact of historical events? We think it might confuse young people who are not familiar with real history. But, these type of alternate reality shows are definitely intriguing. Watch the video and see if you can identify some of the distortions from the news montage.

Below is a list of some of the historical discrepancies from For All Mankind. Why did the writers choose these events?

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Ways of Recording History

Additionally, here are our opinions on how different medium influences how information is presented. The bottom line is that there is no perfect way to recapture history. 


The Woman King premiered in 2022 tells of a real historical story few people were aware of: an army of African women warriors called the Agoodjies from the kingdom of Dahomey in present day Benin during the 18th to 19th century. According to critics, "This movie is absolutely worth seeing. But it’s best viewed with the awareness of its significant alterations of history. " The film features a star-studded cast including Viola Davis as General Nanesca and John Boyega as King Ghezo and is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Despite the awareness it raises for an inspiring period in history about female strength and African culture, critics and historians have also called to boycott it for its misrepresentation of the African slave trade.


The criticism against the Woman King including:

1) Far right conservatives condemns it for glorifying Black women murdering White men.

2) Historians condemns it for how it depicts the savagery of Dahomey, especially the annual rituals (aka human sacrifice)

3) Even modern day slave descendants criticize the movie for how it shows an African kingdom that was actively involved in slave brutality.


4) Inaccuracies of King Ghezo as anti-slavery, when slavery was perpetuated by the Agoodjies capturing prisoners of war.

5) how it simplifies history as good versus evil for the sake of entertainment, African women against Portuguese slave traders. 


Julius Tennon, a producer on the movie and Davis’ husband, "It’s history, but we have to take license. We have to entertain people." Personally, we think most of the global audience is unfamiliar with this topic, and it widens our appreciation for African culture, however, a movie should not be the only way that students learn history. After all, movies are made for entertainment, and history is not.    

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