Help me find more "histories of the present"
April 18, 2016 9:50 AM   Subscribe

So I just finished watching The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. I really liked it! I especially liked that it was not just an historical drama, but used the story of the Simpson murder trial as a way to comment on contemporary life. That is, the show was a vehicle for showing how the issues raised at the time -- of racism, sexism, police misconduct, domestic violence, celebrity culture, the 24-hour media cycle -- are still with us today, and lets us see how our understanding of all those issues is shaped by the impact the trial had on the public consciousness. Where can I find more stuff like this?

Another example of this -- an historical drama that's really about the present day -- was Mad Men. A blog post by Will Davies a couple of years ago explained this:
Mad Men is self-evidently not about the 1960s, any more than Discipline and Punish is about the late 18th century. It is about us today and the contingencies through which we came to be so.
The reference to Foucault helps make clear the distinction I'm making. A lot of historical dramas simply excavate the past for material and frame a more-or-less conventional narrative around it. What Mad Men and ACS have in common, however, is that they take a story from the past and reevaluate it in the light of contemporary understanding. So in Mad Men, the social upheavals of the 1960s are shown to have been the product of long-simmering developments in the broader culture, thus undercutting Boomer claims of radical change. Similarly, ACS dispels many of the myths from that time and reveals an unbroken thread from the civil rights era to the Simpson trial to the post-Ferguson present day. And both series, I think, grapple with the weight of their respective periods in a way that I find far more satisfying than most other historical dramas -- compare Mad Men to its many failed imitators, for example.

Hopefully, I haven't come off as too abstruse in explaining what I'm looking for. But I'd like to find more movies, TV series, and books that operate in this particular mode (Hamilton, maybe?). Thanks in advance!
posted by Cash4Lead to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean to sound snotty, but this describes a ton of history, and some would even argue that it's the point of history.

Natalie Zemon Davis has written a lot about what makes good historical films. A quick search found this, which I don't think is what I read in college, but should still get you started on further reading/searching.

In general, book reviews in highbrow current events magazines might be a good place to start. NYRB, LRB, the New Yorker, Harper's, etc. These often tend to be critical responses to the book under review, and often relate the book to present-day issues.

The Lord Cornbury Scandal by Patricia Bonomi is a book I read in college that might be of interest, if you have an interest in gender/sexuality. Obviously, these are modern concerns, and so there's a lot of subtext about the difference in attitudes between then and now.

I think most of the war movies released around the second Iraq war do what you're talking about. For example, Black Hawk Down is ostensibly about Somalia, but it's hard to watch it and not think of what was happening at the same time in Iraq.

Sorry for rambling; I was at work and kept getting interrupted.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:54 AM on April 18, 2016

Best answer: Maybe Show Me A Hero? I was struck by how similar this story of housing desegregation in 1980s/1990s Yonkers was similar to the This American Life episode about contemporary school integration in Missouri.
posted by vunder at 10:54 AM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: kevinbelt: Yeah, I recognize that what I'm describing is really broad. I suppose I'm drawn to revisionist histories, but there was something about the mood of Mad Men and OJ -- the sense that the characters, for all their sophistication, didn't know and couldn't know what was truly happening to them -- that I found compelling. Thanks for the suggestions.

vunder: I've been meaning to watch Show Me a Hero for a while, thanks for the reminder.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:30 AM on April 18, 2016

Best answer: I want to very much second Show Me A Hero. I also think that Confirmation (recent fanfare thread) and Spotlight (recent fanfare thread) are worth your watching. I can recommend a British film called Pride. True story, fictionalized just a bit. It's not perfect and a bit sentimental, but still worthy to my mind.

This one is not new, but still resonates today in so many ways: The Battle of Algiers.
posted by gudrun at 12:04 PM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Confirmation seems like the perfect recent example of this.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:39 PM on April 18, 2016

oh yeah, heartily seconding The Battle of Algiers. Really worth anyone's time all around. Plus an early Morricone score.
posted by vunder at 2:12 PM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The interesting thing about that blog entry you linked is that it covers exactly the logic that led me to appreciate Westerns. Pretty much every western you've heard of, and a great many of the b-roll ones are histories of the present in just this way.
posted by .kobayashi. at 3:36 PM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Since you mentioned it: yes, Hamilton.
posted by epersonae at 4:26 PM on April 18, 2016

I know I'm late to this, but I have two suggestions:
The Americans
posted by areaperson at 12:06 PM on April 20, 2016

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