Teaching Urban Documentaries, Part I

This is the first of a two-part, auto-ethnography about teaching and learning with documentaries. Given the increasing substitution of video screens for flesh and blood professors it is critical to think about both the contexts as well as the contents of these pedagogic practices.

Given the increasing practice of substituting video screens for flesh and blood professors we must consider the contexts as well as the contents of these pedagogic practices. A cautionary message was provided by Rachel Emma Silverman, who wrote “In John Eastwood’s subterranean lab at York University in Ontario, Canada, young adults sit watching video clips: They are part of a test to see just how deeply bored they can get.” (2013)

In grade school (1947-55) I was on the “AV Squad,” operating and maintaining the 16 mm projector, and splicing films. Old celluloid film frequently cracked and split, and public schools had limited budgets. After a few years of too frequent service, and poor storage, a 45-minute reel ran only 30 minutes; causing problems for assembly periods where films were shown to keep us busy while teachers took well-deserved breaks. As today, AV then served both custodial and educational purposes. Most memorable was Duck and Cover (1952) that taught us how to protect ourselves from atomic bombs. It began with a cartoon turtle ducking into his shell when a monkey lit a firecracker. It proceeded to kids crawling under desks, picnickers covering themselves with tablecloths, and a farmer lying alongside his tractor to survive the blast. Other, fear-inducing “instructional” films displayed the concentric zones of relative destruction from Ground Zero if an A-bomb hit, as it always did, in the center of Manhattan (as though Brooklyn, where I lived, wasn’t worth the effort of the godless Russian communists).

Army training films (1963-66) warned us about venereal diseases, showing what happens to our private parts when we aren’t careful. Most of us closed our eyes and hoped for the best. Soldiers had their own version of Duck and Cover, and I was especially grateful for learning how to protect myself against mustard gas, as well as radiation, with a rubberized rain poncho (olive drab). War training films gloriously portrayed our own historical heroism and the equivalent cowardice of our enemies, a la The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

AV technology has radically changed. As a professor (1969-2013), I have survived “mobile” televisions (on barely moveable carts), classroom CCT, “mobile” computers and projectors (on carts). Today’s classrooms are smarter than we are and wifi is everywhere. However, secretaries still show “films” when the professor is absent, and, when the professor isn’t, s/he too often uses them as a substitute for a lecture.

Although “instructional” films can stand alone, in my opinion, their educational value must be part of a well-planned curriculum such as the PBS Eyes on the Prize series for classes on the African-American Experience where they serve as “text” to be studied and discussed. We must consider the strengths and weaknesses not only of the medium but the individual products. This includes the complex relationship between the film, instructor, and students. Documentaries are not objective facts or unbiased recounting of events, but presentations of points of view which students must interpret and evaluate them. They should look at films as advertisements and ask, “What are they trying to sell me?”

Richard Broadman’s Brownsville Black and White is a good case in point as even his “unflinching probe of how people really live, and why” (Crockett 2012) can be misinterpreted. This classic documentary shows how Brownsville (Brooklyn) changed “from a poor but racially harmonious area made up largely of Jews and blacks to a community made up almost entirely of people of color.” As “sociologists teach through film to better understand the society.” (Sutherland and Feltry 2013 4), for 10% of their grade, my Visual Sociology students watched it “as ethnographers trained to observe social groups and situations,” and wrote short (250 -500 words) reviews about “the sociological concepts that are visualized.”

Educators show films for different reasons and differently assess student learning. Different audiences also differently influence what is learned. Like Brownsville, Brooklyn College has changed since the 1930s when it was almost totally white and predominately Jewish. Today, like my class, it is about 30% white and Jews are a small minority. As a result, Broadman’s documentary evoked intense (instructor-moderated) exchanges about objectivity as well as the more or less laudable points of view the filmmaker extracted from the main characters. My students “learned” Brownsville’s history but their sense of that history is different than students on other campuses. Their social and geographic closeness to the subject prevented a neutral absorption of facts that was enhanced by selective in/attention. All saw a community torn apart by outside forces, but as to the Black-Jewish conflict over community control of public schools, the designation of victim and victimizer varied by their ethnicity. However, few students wrote that they were “bored.”

Finally, for teaching and learning, the educators’ own relationship to the visual subject matter is critical. I knew one character, Irving Levine, who later became the American Jewish Committee’s Executive Director, from my interethnic relations work in the 1970s. This made it possible for me to explain both who he was then and what he was to become. Over the decades I worked with many Black and Jewish community organizations and I have written extensively on Brooklyn’s ethnic dynamics so I could point out how the film conflated distinct issues such as Black-White versus Black-Jewish relations, and Urban Renewal and “White Flight” that require their own, more intensive, treatments. In other words, even for the best documentaries, like Richard Broadman’s Brownsville Black and White you can’t simply turn it on and leave the room.


Brownsville Black and White. 2000.
Crockett, K. 2012. Real films to believe in: Richard Broadman. Visual Studies 27(1): 105-10.
Duck and Cover. 1952.
Silverman, R. E. 2013. Interesting Fact: There’s a Yawning Need for Boring Professors. The Wall Street Journal Accessed February 26, 2013.
Sutherland, J. and F. Kathryn, eds. 2013. Cinematic Sociology. Los Angeles: Sage.
The Manchurian Candidate. 1962.

Related links

Teaching Urban Documentaries, Part II

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.



    There are dignified stupidities, and there are heroic stupidities, and there is such a thing as stupid stupidities, and that would be a stupid stupidity not to have a camera on board.

    Werner Herzog


    The function of sociology, as of every science, is to reveal that which is hidden.

    Pierre Bourdieu


    Visual culture is now the study of how to understand change in a world too enormous to see but vital to imagine.

    Nicholas Mirzoeff

  • Give us adequate images. We lack adequate images. Our civilization does not have adequate images. And I think a civilization is doomed or is going to die out like dinosaurs if it doesn’t develop an adequate language for adequate images.

    Werner Herzog

  • Watching a documentary with people hacking their way through some polar wasteland is merely a visual. Actually trying to deal with cold that can literally kill you is quite a different thing.

    Henry Rollins

  • If you want to tell the untold stories, if you want to give voice to the voiceless, you’ve got to find a language. Which goes for film as well as prose, for documentary as well as autobiography. Use the wrong language, and you’re dumb and blind.

    Salman Rushdie


    Sometimes one picture is equal to 30 pages of discourse, just as there are things images are completely incapable of communicating.

    William S. Burroughs

  • Before I became a film major, I was very heavily into social science, I had done a lot of sociology, anthropology, and I was playing in what I call social psychology, which is sort of an offshoot of anthropology/sociology – looking at a culture as a living organism, why it does what it does.

    George Lucas


    For any picture, ask yourself what question or questions it might be answering. Since the picture could answer many, questions, we can decide what question we are interested in.

    Howard Becker

  • So it is my firm belief, that if you want nowadays, to have a clear and distinct communication of your concepts, you have to use synthetic images, no longer words.

    Vilém Flusser


    Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.

    Bertolt Brecht


    One advantage of photography is that it’s visual and can transcend language.

    Lisa Kristine


    Every photograph promises more than it delivers and delivers more than it intended.

    Steve Harp


    The task for sociology is to come to the help of the individual. We have to be in service of freedom. It is something we have lost sight of.

    Zygmunt Bauman

  • You try your hardest to give people their space, but at moments you know you’re capturing their image in ways they may or may not be okay with. It’s that rocking back and forth between respect and betrayal that I feel like is at the heart of the film.

    Kirsten Johnson

  • Photographers learn to interpret photographs in that technical way because they want to understand and use that ‘language’ themselves (just as musicians learn a more technical musical language than the layman needs). Social scientists who want to work with visual materials will have to learn to approach them in this more studious and time-consuming way

    Howard Becker

  • I believe that we face incredible obstacles in our attempts to see the world. Everything in our nature tries to deny the world around us; to refabricate it in our own image; to reinvent it for our own benefit. And so, it becomes something of a challenge, a task, to recover (or at least attempt to recover) the real world despite all the impediments to that end.

    Errol Morris

  • We never really know what’s around the corner when we’re filming – what turn a story will take, what a character will do or say to surprise us, how the events in the world will impact our story.

    Barbara Kopple


    If it’s far away, it’s news, but if it’s close at home, it’s sociology.

    James Reston


Contact us


    Become a member