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Why Educational Films Matter: Educational Films In The United States (Part II)

Educational films offer insights into, among other things, U.S. race relations in the 20th century.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Marsha Orgeron, an associate professor of film studies at NC State and co-editor of “Learning With The Lights Off: Educational Film In The United States.” This is the second of three posts in a series on educational films.

Thousands of educational films have been made, and they were seen by millions of people. But very little has been written about them in the past several decades, since they largely disappeared from public life when the age of video began. “Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States” grew out of our desire to try to put them back on the map of our cultural history. Why? Because they were important.

These are not just classroom films meant to teach science, literature, or history. Educational films were also used to fight the spread of communicable disease, teach farmers how to raise better crops, educate communities about how to procure safe drinking water, instill values such as honesty, show young girls how to behave on first dates, teach policemen how to deliver babies in an emergency, convey religious instruction, teach new soldiers how to clean weapons, and the list goes on…

Educational films matter because they are part of the fabric of both film and cultural history. Watching them now gives us a unique window into the time in which they were made; the ideologies of the institutions and individuals that produced, distributed, and exhibited them; and a picture of the political landscape in which they circulated.

A case in point, selected from the chapter I authored in the book, would be the films made dealing with race relations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I argue that these films were produced in an attempt to manage the anger and dissatisfaction of black male youth in particular, which was deemed especially important in this era of racial inequity and in the context of the disenfranchisement transpiring in American “ghettos.” In the very interesting film “Joshua” (1969), we see this played out by a young man about to leave the city to go to college in Texas on an athletic scholarship.

Directed by Bert Salzman, an independent educational filmmaker, this film brilliantly captures several moments leading up to Joshua’s departure from the city, all of which encourage viewers to think about what it means to be black (or white) in America. For example, Joshua gleefully runs through the city and encounters a younger white boy at the zoo, who—out of ignorance more than malice—calls Joshua a racial epithet. A series of contemplative shots reminds viewers that the white child’s lack of awareness and sensitivity is born of the privilege that comes with being white, and that Joshua’s strength in walking away from this potentially volatile situation is born of having lived as a black person in America.

I interviewed Bert Salzman, who won an Academy Award for another educational film he produced in 1971, “Angel & Big Joe”, and Salzman explained the way his own political leanings informed the film, as well as the hunger distributors had at this time for films dealing with race relations.

This is just one example of thousands of films that deserve to be seen and considered again. The publication of “Learning with the Lights Off”, which includes an open access companion website at Oxford University Press providing links to many of the relevant films, is part of a growing movement to consider the importance of nontheatrical film in the shaping of the twentieth century.

Note: additional films, and information about “Learning With The Lights Off: Educational Film In The United States”, are available here.

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