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Y’all. I just got home from seeing Black Klansman and it’s necessary viewing. Set in the 70s, this movie is not a period piece – it’s not meant to depict a different time. It’s clear that Spike Lee sees parallels between the black experience in the past and our country today and he is not subtle about it. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the movie for you because I want each of you to go see it. But it’s a testament to the power of movies to teach us about history.
But what if you need an escape from the intensity of the news? What if you don’t want to spend your free time being forced to learn about things that happened in the past? What if you’d rather watch fictional characters fly spaceships and parade in pageants to the death? Well then, today you’ve come to the right place.
I’m tired! I’m stressed! I’m anxiously anticipating starting a new school year next week! I needed a break; an opportunity to think about the lighter side of history. So I’m doing what all history teachers do at some point: “Ah, I don’t want to teach today. Let’s just pop in a movie.”
What are we talking about today? Entirely fictional movies that aren’t actually entirely fictional. Movies that have a totally made-up plot and characters but that draw inspiration from the past. These are my favorites because it’s like an inside joke for people who paid attention in high school. Everyone else is sitting in the theater thinking they’re being transported far off into a fantasy world; but you and I know that we’re actually learning history. Haha suckers! Marvel tricked you!
Today, I want to highlight my two favorite fictional historical movies. One came out earlier this year and gave us a glimpse into an incredible alternate history of the world. The other is a series that I think doesn’t always get the respect it deserves, but today the odds will be in its favor.
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: Black Panther
First, SPOILER ALERT! Act 1 I’m going to be talking about Black Panther. So if you don’t yet know what a Wakanda is or how many war rhinos it takes to win a battle, you shouldn’t listen to this section yet. Skip to minute 24:00 to hear me rave about the Hunger Games, and come back to this section once you’ve watched the movie. And please watch the movie. OK. You’ve been warned.
I’m not the first to point out that Black Panther is INCREDIBLE. Oh my gosh I loved every second of it. But, as someone who isn’t sure if she’s ever actually seen another Marvel movie… Is Wonder Woman part of the Marvel universe? If so, then I’ve seen that. I loved Black Panther because it was so steeped in history.
But first, in case you don’t remember the movie very well, let’s go through a brief rundown of what happens.
Wakanda is a small country in East Africa that houses the world’s only stores of vibranium – a highly valued substance in the Marvel universe. In the 1940s, Howard Stark – fictional inventor, businessman and father to Robert Downey Jr. (I mean Iron Man, I mean Tony Stark) – discovered a tiny bit of the substance and used all of it to forge a shield for Captain America. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Punched Hitler in the face in the first edition of his comic book?
Anyway, Wakanda has tons of the stuff and has used it to become the most technologically advanced country in the world. But, in order to protect themselves, they’ve hidden away and presented themselves as a poor Third World country. When you think about it, isn’t this a really sad indictment of our general apathy toward African nations? The Wakandans know that if they just pretend to be desperately impoverished, no one will pay any attention to them.
The basic plot of the movie goes like this: T’Challa has become the new king after his father died. Meanwhile, an arms dealer and enemy of Wakanda since 1992 named Ulysses Klaue is working with a straight-up ripped Michael B. Jordan selling stolen vibranium on the black market. Ultimately, we find out that Michael B. Jordan doesn’t care about the vibranium, he wants to use Klaue to get to Wakanda. He kills Klaue and takes his body to the Wakandans as an offering.
When he gets a meeting with King T’Challa and his advisors, he tells them that he isn’t Michael B. Jordan, he’s actually T’Challa’s cousin. Whoa! After years as a Black Ops soldier – killing enough people to cover his entire body in meticulously spaced scars and to earn the nickname “Killmonger” – he has made it to his ultimate goal: he wants to claim the throne for himself. He challenges T’Challa to the ritual battle, T’Challa agrees and gets pushed off a waterfall. Killmonger, the new king of Wakanda, says that they are drastically changing their foreign policy. Instead of hiding away, they are going to send out weapons to black people all over the world and support them as they rise up and overthrow their oppressors.
But wait! T’Challa is alive because the hard snow broke his fall? I don’t get it. But a battle ensues between the Wakandans. Cue the WAR RHINOS! Ultimately T’Challa wins and Killmonger dies.
At the end of the movie, we discover that T’Challa has decided to open Wakanda up to the world – but not to spark a violent revolution. He sets up cultural and technological outreach centers around the world in predominantly black areas to help raise them up – In other words, he decides to teach them to fish instead of giving them vibranium fish. Right?
Let’s break down a few parts of this story as they relate to history because there’s SO MUCH. First, what is the historical basis for Wakanda? Yeah it’s a made-up place, but apparently after the movie came out Google searches for “flights to Wakanda” spiked so… yeah. People are dumb.
There are a few real places that have served as the inspiration for Wakanda depending on who you ask – comic book author, movie writer, movie director, etc. Fictional Wakanda supposedly borders Ethiopia – coincidence? I think not. Ethiopia was the only African country to resist colonization. Ever since they were the Christian kingdom of Aksum, they resisted conquest by outside groups – first the Muslims and then the Europeans. They actually defeated Italy in the Italo-Ethiopian Wars of the late 19th century.
Another inspiration for Wakanda was the country of Lesotho – you know this one. It’s the weird tiny circle in the middle of South Africa that you always thought was a lake they forgot to color blue on the map? Was that just me? Movie director Ryan Coogler visited the country that avoided the worst parts of colonialism and the apartheid segregation that surrounded them in South Africa.
But the most interesting possible inspiration for Wakanda is the country of the Congo in central Africa. The Black Panther first appeared in comic book form in 1966 – the height of the Cold War. The real world was watching another epic struggle between the US and the Soviet Union for the most powerful substance on Earth to power their weapons: uranium. And where was the richest deposit of uranium? Just as Albert Einstein, who, writing to FDR in 1939 about the possibility of developing an atomic bomb, told him, “The most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo.” Just 6 years later, uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Congo was used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
When the Congo became independent from Belgium, the US and the USSR both tried desperately to control the new government. One part of the country seceded and civil war ensued. After new president Patrice Lumumba asked for help from the UN and was ignored, he turned to the Soviet Union for help. Eventually, Lumumba was assassinated and the US supported his opponent Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko. Remember him? He’s one of the African dictators and all-around-bad-dudes that I talked about last season. He’s the guy that stole so much money from his own country that political scientists coined his government a kleptocracy. Anyway, the US supported Mobutu in an effort to indirectly control the uranium-rich country.
So… Wakanda’s tactic makes a lot of sense historically. If you are a country in the southern hemisphere, you do not want the West to find out that you have valuable natural resources. Just look at the silver mines of Potosi in Peru, the gold and diamonds in southern Africa (negative shout out to Cecil Rhodes), the spices of India, or the tea/silk/everything else luxurious in China. Good call, Wakanda.
But that’s what makes Black Panther such an interesting premise. It gives us a look at what might have happened to Africa if they had avoided all of the history I’ve been talking about. What if their men hadn’t been enslaved and shipped across the ocean? What if they hadn’t been colonized? What if their wealth hadn’t been stripped from them and sold to profit outsiders? What if they hadn’t had to send soldiers to fight European wars? What if they hadn’t been pitted against each other for hundreds of years, making it incredibly difficult to establish a new independent country in peace? What if?
My favorite moments were all of the references to imperialism woven throughout the dialogue. You might not have caught them the first time you watched the movie, but I highly encourage you to rewatch it now that you are a history expert. Let me just quickly point out a few of my favorites:
First, the scene in the London museum is perfection. Michael B. Jordan stands looking at an exhibit on African art. The irony of the white female “expert” on African art is not lost on Jordan, especially when she misidentifies an artifact that he knows is actually from Wakanda. Take your art history degree and shove it, lady! When he reveals to her that he plans on taking some of these artifacts off her hands and she accuses him of overstepping, he responds: “How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price or did they take it like they took everything else?” *slow clap*
Later, after he becomes king, Jordan/Killmonger flips the script, saying, “The world is going to start over and this time we’re on top. The sun will never set on the Wakandan Empire.” Awesome call back to the British Empire – but also, does that make him just as bad as them? We’ll get to that debate in a second.
Klaue, a white British arms dealer and an also straight-up ripped Andy Serkis – like, I wish Gollum had gotten more screen time in Lord of the Rings now that I’ve seen his enormous biceps. “My precious,” indeed. Anyway – focus, Emily. Klaue repeatedly calls the Wakandans “savages” who don’t deserve vibranium. This is exactly the justification Europeans used to colonize Africa in the first place – and kind of the argument Americans used to take the land from Native Americans – they’re “uncivilized brutes” who aren’t utilizing the land and resources as fully as they should be.
But the two best moments come from the ladies, obviously. Little sister and proof that girls like science, too, Shuri, jumps when Martin Freeman wakes up in her lab, saying “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”
During a shootout and car chase in South Korea, Okoye scoffs at the white peoples’ weapons. “Guns… so primitive.” Think about it: this is an amazing table-turning moment. When Europeans showed up in Africa, they were so technologically advanced. They had guns while the Africans were fighting with spears. But now, fierce warrior woman and wig-hating Okoye takes down multiple men at a time with what? A spear. So good.
Before we move on, a quick note about Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman. I love this. The film has completely subverted the typical Hollywood movie with a main cast of black actors and just two “token” white guys. And those two white guys get pigeonholed into one-note characters: they’re either the thuggish dealer or the boring but affable guy who mostly stands in the background to add a little diversity to the screen. Man I love me some Martin Freeman. This is what has been happening to black actors, and really all actors of color, throughout movie history and it’s so great to see them literally flip the script.
There is, obviously, a ton of other of African culture that pop up throughout the movie. A big one is reverence toward the ancestors and the belief that the afterlife is an ancestral plane where you will be reunited with your loved ones. This was an important fact for slave traders who tried to prevent slave suicide by cutting up the bodies of those who died so they couldn’t travel to their homeland in the afterlife. Brutal.
But, I’m definitely not an expert in African culture and there are a lot of people who have done a much better analysis of the art, fashion, and other cultural elements of Black Panther, so I’m going to leave that to them. The last thing I want to talk about is the central conflict of the movie: What should be Wakanda’s relationship to the world, especially the global black community?
This conflict boils down to three opinions. Most conservatively, T’Challa wants to keep Wakanda completely closed off to protect his people from the outside world. To this, Killmonger has the wonderfully historical rebuttal, “Didn’t life start right here on this continent. So aren’t all people your people?” Shoutout to East Africa, cradle of humanity!
In the middle, Nakia – beautiful, badass Nakia – wants to open up Wakanda because it’s too hard to keep turning a blind eye to the suffering in the world when she knows that Wakanda could help. Obviously, the woman is ultimately right and this is the path T’Challa chooses – although he presents it like his own idea? Typical.
The most radical perspective on the conflict comes from Killmonger (and his father – RIP Sterling K. Brown). They both have “watched for too long” as black people have continued to be oppressed. Remember, Killmonger grew up in Oakland in the late 80s/early 90s. In the 80s, the crack epidemic caused Oakland to be one of the most crime-ridden cities in America. Oakland was also home to anti-establishment hip hop and rap artists like Tupac Shakur. Side note: Tupac was named after the last Incan emperor – a person of color who rebelled and fought against white oppression. While T’Challa was safe, protected, and raised as a prince, Killmonger saw the real world and what was happening to black communities.
Black Panther hits at a debate that has been ongoing throughout African American history: how to resist oppression. We’ve seen this in multiple forms, especially since emancipation, but I think the movie is best represented by the debate that was occurring at the turn of the 20th century. In the south, Jim Crow was firmly entrenched. Reconstruction had ended and white southerners had taken back the reins of power – passing laws and supporting groups that disenfranchised, intimidated, and killed black people. And black leaders had different opinions about how to overcome these obstacles.
Booker T. Washington – he’s our T’Challa, for the sake of this conversation – was an African American educator, author, and the most prominent black voice in the Jim Crow South. He gave a famous speech called the Atlanta Compromise that essentially proposed that black people should not directly challenge segregation and disenfranchisement through protest or the court systems. This was a compromise made with white southern leaders who said that they would allow blacks to gain a basic education and economic opportunity, if they stopped pushing for full political equality. So Washington, like T’Challa, argued a more conservative path – first gain economic independence through education and entrepreneurship. This is similar to the compromise that T’Challa and the previous kings had struck with the world – if you leave us alone and let us build up our economy and our technology, we won’t get involved in the global political struggle.
Booker T. Washington’s compromise was popular with middle class African Americans and sympathetic whites who saw him as the least threatening of the black leaders. But many people, especially poor blacks, saw Washington as a traitor for telling them not to fight for their political rights. They saw Washington as a coward, hiding away behind his books – choosing a path that was the safest, and slowest, route to equality. T’Challa, at the beginning of the movie, tried a similar tactic. He wanted to keep his people safe – similar to Washington, who saw outspoken black activists being arrested or, worse, lynched – and so he hid away in the utopia of Wakanda.
W.E.B. Du Bois was the most outspoken critic of Washington. They were contemporaries and Du Bois actually spent a large portion of his book The Souls of Black Folk – an incredible read, really – devoted to taking down Washington and his Atlanta Compromise. Du Bois believed that black people should settle for nothing less than complete equality. He was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard and he was one of the founders of the NAACP. Through this organization, he pushed for a sustained political resistance – in the courts and on the streets – to improve the lives of black Americans.
Nakia is my Du Bois. She wants Wakanda to get out there and start really helping people. They both don’t believe in outright violence or revolution, but they believe that they should be doing more to promote equality. Nakia could also be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. if we wanted to shift this debate ahead about 50 years. I’m going to talk about him and his ideas a lot in a next episode, though, so for now, we’ll stick with the early 1900s.
Finally, we have Killmonger. As his nickname suggests, he is not opposed to violence as a form of resistance. Probably his best historical counterpart would be Malcolm X – the philosophical opponent of Dr. King. Malcolm X argued that violence could be an appropriate tool, especially when you are fighting against a violent regime. He gave a famous speech called “The Ballot or the Bullet” in which he argued that white leaders had a choice: they could either give blacks complete equality, or they could suffer the consequences of a violent revolution.
A quick aside on the Black Panther – comic book hero – versus the Black Panthers – political organization. They actually both were formed in the same year – 1966. Technically the comic book came first but the same name in the same year appears to just be a weird coincidence. The Black Panther Party was founded at first as an armed citizen patrol to act as a check on the Oakland Police Department. Again, very intentional that Killmonger was raised in Oakland. Images of young black people in berets carrying guns terrified many, and *fun fact* prompted the NRA to support a ban on open-carry weapons in California just one year after the Black Panther Party was founded. I’m not even going to get into the hypocrisy of that one…
Marvel actually tried to rename their character “Black Leopard” to distance themselves from the political affiliation but it didn’t stick. The Black Panthers were painted as a violent organization – which wasn’t untrue – but they also created community centers and provided social services to the black community that had been ignored by the government.
Besides the obvious links between Michael B. Jordan’s character and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, I think Killmonger is also really similar philosophically to a Jamaican activist – and predecessor to Malcolm X – named Marcus Garvey. He was also a contemporary, although slightly younger, of Washington and Du Bois. Garvey’s big idea was black nationalism.
Garvey believed that the only way black people would gain power was if they ruled their own country, separate from white people. He was a separatist – believing that blacks and whites would never be able to live in the same country peacefully. Du Bois called him, “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” Garvey established the Black Star Line, a shipping company that would establish trade between Africans around the Atlantic Ocean and could send African Americans “back to Africa” to reconnect with their historical roots.
We see this idea – pan-Africanism and black nationalism – throughout Killmonger’s story arc. He sees himself as part of a global community of black people. He laments that, as a U.S. soldier, he “took life from my own brothers and sisters on this continent” just so that he could eventually defeat T’Challa. He is furious that Wakanda has hidden itself away: “Where I come from when black people started revolutions they didn’t have the firepower… where was Wakanda?” And, “2 billion people around the world who look like us. Their lives are a lot harder but Wakanda could liberate them all.” T’Challa responds to this argument by pointing out that, if Killmonger goes through with his plan – to arm black people and help them overthrow governments – then he is no better than the colonizers. But Killmonger – like many black people throughout the post-Emancipation era – doesn’t see it that way.
Ultimately, Killmonger – like Marcus Garvey – sees black-white compromise and coexistence as impossible. And he would rather die with his people, as a proud black man, than live in a world of compromise. And he wins the award for best last words: “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships because they knew that death was better than bondage.”
In the end, T’Challa chooses the middle path (obviously, the one his lady friend has been telling him to choose the whole time. Just listen to the woman!) The last scene shows T’Challa and Shuri in Oakland, where he is going to establish the first Wakanda International Outreach Center. Like his counterpart Booker T. Washington, T’Challa emphasizes the importance of education. But, like Nakia’s W.E.B. Du Bois, he chooses to take a more active role in uniting black people around the world and creating pride in their African heritage. It doesn’t hurt that he lands his “Bugatti spaceship” in the middle of a basketball court – that’s a good start.
The ending of Black Panther is really beautiful. An unknown young black boy – playing on the same basketball court where Killmonger was playing when his dad was killed – gazes up at T’Challa in amazement. Talking about the spaceship, “Is that yours? Who are you?” You can see in his eyes how important that moment is.
Allow me to get preachy for a minute, this scene is getting at something that people have been talking about a lot in the last few years: representation. Seeing someone who looks like you in a position of power – like the boy sees in T’Challa – or on a movie screen – like so many black people saw in Black Panther; representation is so important. By opening themselves up to the world and showcasing the strength and talent of Wakanda, they are showing black people the possibilities and the promise that exists for people like them.
I’ve been preaching something similar across Season 1 – representation in history matters, too. Understanding the rich history of Africa makes a difference in how we view Africa today. It’s the reason why I love this movie so much: as a historian it’s a fascinating alternate history and thought experiment – What if imperialism had never happened? But it also sends an insanely critical message about the importance of telling everyone’s story – not just the traditional narrative that says that Africa is a poverty-stricken continent that needs our help. There’s always another story – an alternate history that exists alongside the textbook version. So go on, Google “flights to Wakanda.” It doesn’t hurt to keep looking for that alternate reality.
Act 2: The Hunger Games
If you listened to Season 1 or you are a former student, then you had to know we were going to talk about the Hunger Games at some point in this podcast. I use this movie throughout the year to explain topics across world history. I love it. Let’s go.
Setting the scene: for those of you who haven’t read the books or watched the movies. What have you been doing with your life? Listening to podcasts? Turn this off and go educate yourself! But, obviously, another spoiler alert: I am going to talk about ALL of the books and movies. You’ve been warned.
“War, terrible war.” The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian civilization in North America called Panem. Decades ago, there was a rebellion by the districts against the Capitol – the rebels lost and the Capitol responded with the Hunger Games. Every year each district sends two children to fight to the death on live TV. You know, typical stuff. The winner gets wealth and a life of comfort – *ahem* until Book 2.
OK even just with this premise there is so much from history. For one, in the Hunger Games, social hierarchy and division is extremely important. The districts are made to compete against each other to take attention away from corruption in the Capitol. Also, to prevent them from ever joining together to rebel against the Capitol again – good luck with that.
We have seen this throughout history – leaders have tried to divide civilizations to keep them from uniting against them. In the Postclassical Era, the early Islamic caliphate led by the Umayyads declared Islam an ethnic religion and split their empire between Arabs, who were allowed to join the faith, and non-Arabs, who were not. They were overthrown because of this, by the way.
We’ve seen this type of thing so many other places in history – the Chinese Confucian system and the Five Basic Relationships that strictly regulated everyone’s “place” in society; the Indian caste system introduced by the Aryan invasion; the castas in colonial Latin America who were divided up between mestizos, mulattoes, peninsulares, and creoles, all with different rights and responsibilities.
Beyond social division, the economic system in the Hunger Games is similar to mercantilism during the Early Modern and Modern eras. All products are produced by the outlying districts but go through the Capitol, which retains most of the wealth. Also, each district aligns its entire economy around the production of one cash crop or industry which means that on their own they wouldn’t have a fully functioning economy or enough food to survive. This is imperialism. District 12 can’t eat coal, just like American colonies couldn’t survive on sugar and tobacco alone, although between junk food and vaping, teenagers are trying their best.
Moving away from the basic premise to the names. Y’all almost every name in the Hunger Games is historically significant. Panem, the name of the country in the Hunger Games, is “Bread” in Latin. In the Roman Empire they instituted a policy that they called “Panem et Circenses” or “Bread and Circuses” – basically if they kept the people fed and entertained, they would not pay attention to the corruption and power plays amongst the political leadership. Sound familiar?
The leader of Panem is President Coriolanus Snow. He is named after Gaius Marcius Coriolanus a brutal Roman general who got into politics but he was so unpopular that he was eventually deposed. (Um, spoiler alert.) Coriolanus was exiled and led enemy troops to besiege the city of Rome. He is depicted by Shakespeare as siding with the wealthy aristocrats against the common people. Damn Donald Sutherland.
Cinna – sweet Lenny Kravitz with your gold eyeliner – Cinna was a character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. He was an artist who was mistaken for another Cinna, the politician believed to be involved in the assassination of Julius Caesar, who also happened to be his son-in-law (awkward). In the play, poet-Cinna is killed by a mob because he is seen as a traitor to the Roman Empire. In the Hunger Game, Cinna is also an artist who eventually is murdered because of his fashion statements against the Capitol.
Cato was a Roman senator known for his conservatism and military service, just like Cato the Career from District 2 who trained and supported the whole idea of the Games until the very end.
Notice in general that the Roman names are found in the Capitol (the wealthy part) but the poorer districts have more unique, nature-based names. Rue is a medicinal herb, for example – kind of like the leaves she puts on Katniss after she’s stung by all of the tracker jackers. And Katniss is an edible plant that is part of the genus Sagittaria – named after Sagittarius, the constellation also called the Archer. Whoa. Triple name meaning.
“I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” This statement, and the fact that the contestants in the Games are all called tributes has a lot of connections to historical empires. Many different empires set up tribute systems, meaning lesser states had to pay tribute, or give gifts of wealth, crops, or other valuable items as a sign of their subservience. The Tang Dynasty that ruled China from 600 to around 900 established a powerful tribute system. The ruling classes in nearby Korea and Vietnam both paid tribute to the Tang Emperor – Vietnam gave them strains of fast-growing champa rice that were partly responsible for China’s massive population growth, for example.
But no one took this idea of tribute as far as my guys, the Aztecs. The tribes of central Mexico all had to pay tribute directly to the Aztecs, mostly crops to feed their soldiers. But the Aztecs also had an incredibly high demand for sacrificial victims. In many of their rituals, it was necessary to sacrifice a soldier captured in battle and so perpetual war was a key component of the Aztec worldview. “War, terrible war.”
In times of peace, the Aztec ruler would often meet with some of his allies – nearby powerful tribes – and they would arrange a predetermined war for the sole purpose of gaining people to sacrifice. These so-called “Flower Wars” were scheduled by the various leaders because they all needed men caught in combat to give to the gods. Perpetual war is also a great way to keep your people united and focused on a single cause or enemy. President Snow knows this – he realizes the double importance of the Games. It entertains the masses and prevents them from spending too much time dwelling on the fact that most of their lives are miserable. But it also provides a small ray of hope – maybe they could be the one who would make it and live a life of fame and riches. And President Snow knows that, “A little hope is effective… A spark is fine as long as it’s contained.”
The Aztec Flower Wars are in some ways really similar to the actual Hunger Games. It was a scheduled conflict that served a specific political – and for the Aztecs, religious – purpose. But the Hunger Games are also very similar to the Gladiator fights and other forms of entertainment in the Roman Empire. Emperors like Nero are famous for using the Coliseum to eliminate enemies to the empire (especially Christians), which is exactly what Snow will do in Catching Fire by putting all of the surviving Victors back in the Games. Roman Emperors would also add extra elements to heighten the suspense, like animals (like the creepy dogs with human eyes at the end of Book 1). One emperor filled the Coliseum with water to simulate a naval battle – Quarter Quell, anyone?
The pageantry of the Games was very similar to that in the Roman Coliseum. Some gladiators became celebrities. We’ve found ancient graffiti on the walls of Rome praising a gladiator or talking smack about another. Some fought so well that they won their freedom, although this was rare. And some gladiators weren’t slaves at all – they were free men seeking glory and fame, kind of like the Careers from Districts 1 and 2.
In the aftermath of the Games, after Katniss and Peeta call the gamemakers’ bluff and attempt suicide, head gamemaker Seneca Crane is forced to kill himself by eating the poison berries from the arena. “That’s nightlock Peeta! You’d be dead in a minute!” Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, Seneca was a Roman statesman who was a favorite of Emperor Nero. After he was linked (unfairly) to a plot to assassinate the emperor Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by poisoning. Now that’s just straight up historical plagiarism, right?
The final reason why I love the Hunger Games is the way that it flips traditional gender roles. Going all the way back to prehistory, men have hunted and women have gathered. Women needed to stay closer to the home to care for young children. (I mean, biologically the only thing men can’t do is breastfeed. But somehow they are physically incapable of changing a diaper? I don’t get it.)
In the Hunger Games, everything is flipped. Katniss has the masculine traits. She is the breadwinner of her family; she doesn’t show emotion easily; she doesn’t think about relationships – even Gale, who is for the most part a pretty typical male archetype – mentions that he might want to get married someday (HINT HINT Catnip!). Katniss is the traditional male hero.
In walks Peeta. Sweet, sweet Peeta bread. Peeta takes on the traditionally feminine role – he is the quintessential “damsel in distress” throughout all of the movies. It’s infuriating and adorable. Katniss can hunt. What can Peeta do? Paint himself to look like a tree. Our own little dystopian Bob Ross. Peeta freely shares his emotions; he is artistic and sensitive; he is constantly in mortal peril and needs to be saved by Katniss.
But the perfect moment that encapsulates this point is the scene right after Katniss and Peeta are reunited in the arena. They go in search of food and Peeta says, “I’ll take the bow… I’m just kidding, I’ll go pick some stuff.” PEETA IS THE GATHERER AND KATNISS IS THE HUNTER. I see you Suzanne Collins – flipping those Paleolithic gender roles.
While I wanted to mostly focus on the first movie/book, there are great allusions to history in the others as well. The creeping fog that stings Katniss in the rainforest arena during Catching Fire is incredibly similar to soldier’s descriptions of poison gas attacks in the trenches during World War I.
The third book and last movies, Mockingjay, is really a great depiction of the anatomy of a revolution that we talked about last season. People are unhappy with the current regime and they join together to overthrow the leader – President Snow. But the new people in power – Alma Coin and former Gamemakers – are not much better and don’t institute enough change. So a more radical revolution takes place – spoiler – when Katniss assassinates President Coin.
In the end, the survivors have to determine what to do with the perpetrators of the oppressive regime – the citizens of the Capitol. Again, war and revolution are much easier than peace. There is a round table debate amongst the leadership and the surviving Victors about what to do – do we forgive them or do we punish them? Katniss votes for a WWI/Treaty of Versailles-style punishment – this makes sense. She has never been a very empathetic thinker anyway and now she’s hardened by her experiences. She wants to make Germany – I mean President Snow – pay.
But others, like sweet sweet Peeta, see that this will only perpetuate the divisions in their society. He votes for a more moderate, forgiving response that focuses on moving past the violence – similar to President Wilson’s Fourteen Points or even the treatment of Nazi Germany after World War Two. Good call, as always, Peeta.
The epilogue – of the book, not the terrible version of the epilogue in the last movie – lets us know that Katniss ends up choosing Peeta because of course she does, thank God. And she has an interesting inner dialogue as she holds one of her children, thinking about how she will tell this story one day. The end of the Hunger Games series contemplates history and how it is created, which makes sense considering “History is written by the Victor.”
There are obviously so many other movies I could talk about in this episode. Wonder Woman made me cry and has also provided a perfect clip to show my students when teaching about trench warfare. Gal Gadot strutting across No Man’s Land, deflecting German artillery, is iconic.
Star Wars might be the original fictional history movie. I mean, Darth Vader’s soldiers are called Stormtroopers. That’s literally the name of Hitler’s personal army. But, interesting, Vader is not Hitler. Emperor Palpatine’s rise from chancellor to dictator does mirror the Nazi leader’s slow climb in the 1930s.
But George Lucas himself has said that his main inspiration for the film was Richard Nixon. “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.” The adorable Ewoks were inspired by the guerrilla fighters the Viet Cong.
There are also tons of allusions to the Roman Empire and the Jedi are like the medieval monastic soldiers of the Knights Templar or Japanese samurai. And, I mean, Reagan’s whole plan to shoot Soviet missiles out of the sky was nicknamed “Star Wars.” There’s so much in those movies that someone could write a whole book about it. In fact, someone did – in 2012 there was a book called “Star Wars and History” by Janice Liedl and Nancy R. Reagin – not that Nancy Reagan, although that would be incredible, right?
The other incredible example of a work of fiction that draws on history is my first and truest love: Harry Potter. I can’t even get into this series right now or else we would all be here for the next four hours. I’m not joking – ask my husband, who has to pull me out of my one-year-old’s bedroom as I try to keep him awake so that I can read him more of the Goblet of Fire. I’ll have to do an entire episode on J.K. Rowling’s masterpiece as soon as I’ve gotten over my grief about the series ending.
For now, go back and watch Black Panther, watch the Hunger Games. Find movies that claim to be fiction and see how much they all lovingly plagiarize from history. And then smugly tell all of your friends about it so that they know how smart you are. People love that.