The Power of Narrative: Upper Schoolers Dissect History Through Film

In Bobby Rue’s American Democracy in Theory, Practice & Film class, Upper School students learn about the power of narrative. The class asks students to analyze films through the lens of history. As they unpack the themes in each film, they learn how to think critically about the messages and opinions a story can convey, becoming more informed media consumers in the process.

A student raises their hand in class.

This course is all about analysis. As the class views films from a variety of decades, they delve deep into the content of each story and ask important questions: What larger political events might be influencing the story? What is the opinion of the filmmaker? What is the film trying to say about a particular issue? Discussing the significant historical events that surround the film, they think deeply about how those issues might influence the narrative. For example, after watching the 1970s crime thriller Dirty Harry, the class analyzes the film's subtle critique of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Miranda v. Arizona, which made it obligatory for suspects to be read what became known as their Miranda rights before an arrest. Bobby explains that the films chosen for the class “have something to say” about the era in which they were created. It is through deep examination and discussion that students discover exactly what that something is.

Both reading and writing are major parts of the work done in this course. Students read supporting texts to delve deeper into the complex themes presented in each film. While watching the 1950s western classic High Noon, students pair what they see on the screen with readings from historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., giving them a robust sense of the political climate of the time. While the themes of the film —  in this case, presidential power — may be lost on the casual viewer, students are equipped with both the context and critical thinking skills necessary to see the film as a metaphor and recognize the message it sends.

Students also learn the art of crafting a powerful thesis statement — the core of formal writing. For example, after watching and dissecting High Noon, students are asked to write a thesis illustrating the film’s stance on presidential power. As students craft their theses, Bobby challenges them to emphasize nuance because, as he states, “the issues we’re talking about involve subtle distinctions.” Stressing nuance forces students to look closely at the complex layers of a particular issue.

While the content of the course itself is not a reaction to the current political climate, Bobby says teaching the class with the backdrop of current events makes him feel “energized.” As he guides students in an exploration of film and historical texts, Bobby helps them reflect on the narratives that they internalize through media, equipping them with the skills to think critically about what is being presented to them on a daily basis. It is through this rich analysis that they leave this class both stronger as writers, and as citizens.