With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Pop Culture Roundup: This Week

More than 60 years ago, Woody Guthrie bemoaned his landlord – Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump – in unrecorded song lyrics. Now a group of artists has turned his writing into a modern protest song as Trump’s son Donald continues his candidacy for US president.

Three artists have collaborated to finish and produce Old Man Trump, Guthrie’s song inspired by Fred Trump. The track, which had never been previously recorded, was released last week by Firebrand Records just months after the lyrics were re-discovered and publicized. Old Man Trump was recorded by riot folk singer Ryan Harvey with Ani DiFranco and guitarist Tom Morello.

“You’ve got Donald Trump talking about making America great again ... and so here’s Woody Guthrie, one of the definers of American history, coming out after his death and saying ‘No, it wasn’t a great era and in fact your father was part of the problem,’” Harvey said.

Six years before the play “Hamilton” opened Off-Broadway, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda had a thought: Whenever I finish this play, it will be useful for teachers. That’s because before “Hamilton” won 11 Tonys, before its cast album was streamed 365 million times, before the top ticket prices soared to a record $849, Miranda debuted the show’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009. When video of the 4½-minute performance hit YouTube, the No. 1 comment was, “My teacher showed us this in APUSH,” Miranda told Newsweek, using the acronym for AP U.S. History.

Six years later, when the play opened at Manhattan’s Public Theater, one very interested observer made smart use of his second ticket by inviting Lesley S. Herrmann of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As soon as the play finished, Herrmann turned to the man who invited her, historian and award-winning author Ron Chernow, and said, “We have to get this in the hands of kids.” Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton inspired Miranda to write his play.

Fast-forward to May 2016. Thirteen teams of 11th-graders from around New York City are waiting anxiously in the wings to perform their own two-minute pieces on events or people from the birth of our country. “Welcome to the best day of the year for us here at the Richard Rodgers: EduHam,” says an enthusiastic Miranda as he looks out on a theater packed entirely with high school students. After the student performances, the high-schoolers will see “Hamilton,” culminating their immersion in the life and times of the “10-dollar Founding Father without a father.”

The acclaimed documentarian discusses Trump’s demagoguery, race in America, and more. A retrospective of his films is currently streaming at SundanceNow Doc Club.

The Daily Beast spoke to Burns about his storied career, the aforementioned presidential candidate spreading “demagoguery,” and much more.

One of the films included in the retrospective is The Central Park Five, which holds a special place for me as a New Yorker. A lot of young people probably don’t know that Donald Trump took out a hysterical full-page ad at the time calling for the now-innocent kids to receive the death penalty, which inflamed public opinion.

He shamefully took out a full-page ad in all of the New York dailies asking for a restoration of the death penalty for two 14-year-old, two 15-year-old, and one 16-year-old innocent children. While New York State laws would not have permitted their execution, just the fact that there was a rush to judgment ought to be complete evidence of how temperamentally unsuited he is for the office he now seeks.

Do you feel Trump’s rancor was racially motivated? Even when the city recently settled with the kids for $41 million for their wrongful convictions, Trump penned an op-ed calling the settlement a “disgrace” and writing “these men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”

Of course it was [racially motivated]. I found no outrage at the “preppie killer.” The problem was that the initial idea of the crime was that there were these “wilding” black youths—a wolf pack—that attacked this innocent blond woman, and that’s always been the primal fear of Americans as they tolerated slavery and then tolerated Jim Crow. You had newspapers in a progressive northern city sounding like a southern racist newspaper from the 1880s gleefully reporting on a lynching.

Tarzan is back in theaters Friday, and the only thing worse than its white supremacy message is its mixing in of real-life black and African history

In his long and illustrious film career, Samuel L. Jackson has played a dancing crackhead, a Jheri-curled killer, the coordinator of a team of Marvel Comics superheroes (a favorite role of this writer), a Jedi knight and the ultimate house Negro.

On Friday he plays George Washington Williams, the pioneering black American writer and African human rights activist, in a major Hollywood film.

Sounds good, right? Well, he’s going to be side by side with Tarzan….

In The Legend of Tarzan, Jackson plays a version of Williams who goes to the Congo with Tarzan to fight against an evil Belgian captain. So, thanks to Hollywood, the real-life rape of the Congo by Belgium, and the black-led human rights activism that responded to that crime against humanity, will mind-meld with the most famous fantasy white supremacy character of the 20th (and, now, 21st) century.

Sometimes filmmakers try to do the right thing and it comes out wrong, as it does in “The Legend of Tarzan.” The movie conveys an earnest effort on the part of the producers, the screenwriters, and the director to reboot Tarzan on virtuous principles, but the results feel constrained to that virtue. Despite the gratifications of rewarded justice that the story delivers, every narrative twist feels calculated to that good-natured end. The movie has a didactic knowingness that undercuts suspense, and even curiosity, at every turn.

The action takes place in the eighteen-eighties, set in the historical context of the colonization of the Congo and the efforts of King Leopold of Belgium to subjugate and enslave its population. In London, John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), formerly known as Tarzan, is summoned to a meeting at 10 Downing Street: Great Britain hopes to do business with King Leopold’s dirty dealers and asks him to go to the Congo as a friendly observer and the invited guest of the Belgian government. John wants no part of it, but he’s taken aside by the American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who explains the true nature of the Belgian occupation and offers to travel with him to the Congo in order to thwart it. (Williams was a real-life person, of remarkable accomplishment.)...

There are inescapable underlying racist horrors built into the very notion of Tarzan—the idea that, as a white man raised by apes, he’s the white-skinned equivalent of black Africans, their equal as a force of nature but with the natural aptitude to be rapidly civilized, and that, as a white man, he is Jane’s one acceptable African mate. The filmmakers behind “The Legend of Tarzan” exert themselves mightily to disguise the story in a worthy political mission, the good vibrations of homecomings, and the overcoming of long-standing enmities. Nonetheless, the film’s ethnocentric and condescending roots are exposed in unfortunate touches (such as a photograph of the younger Jane in a group of villagers, not one among many but the center of the composition), and the entire movie plays like an effort to hide the filmmakers’ own embarrassment at the subject itself. “The Legend of Tarzan” is like a cinematic comb-over that can’t move too fast or take any chances for fear of revealing what lies beneath.

Should art looted by the Nazis be returned to the families of its original owners? Of course. Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to the Greeks? Some say yes, but many say no. What about the Benin Bronzes? Europeans took – by force – thousands of these stunning bronze sculptures from what is now Nigeria. They are now in the British Museum, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, and other European institutions to whom they were sold to offset the expenses of ‘pacifying’ Africans. Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans are also calling in vain for the return of sacred artefacts now in European possession.

The farther we get from Western Europe, the less morally compelling we seem to find the claims of those whose art Europeans looted. Crimes committed against Western Europeans, including victims of the Nazis, merit restitution and correction whenever possible. The Greeks have a certain standing through the legacy of classical society, but they are geographically and economically on the periphery of Europe. Their claims garner less consensus. Crimes committed against Africans, Asians and indigenous peoples are clearly different. Outside of small activist circles, their claims find very little support. Why?

Lin-Manuel Miranda may have announced that he’s leaving the Broadway show “Hamilton” on July 9. But Alexander Hamilton himself, as local museums and libraries are eager to remind people, is hardly leaving New York City.

Just in time for the Fourth of July, four institutions — the New-York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York and Columbia University — have dug deep into their archives and storage rooms to show off what they’ve got related to the country’s new favorite founder.

The resulting exhibitions feature, among other things, two copies of the sex-scandal-revealing Reynolds pamphlet, two first editions of the Federalist Papers, three copies of Washington’s farewell address (which Hamilton partly wrote) and two locks of Hamilton’s hair. If there is a duel to establish whose stash is the best, no one is admitting it.

Seventy years ago today, a French engineer unveiled his design for a women’s bathing suit, naming his atomic-age creation after a tiny cluster of Pacific islands being used for American nuclear tests: Bikini Atoll.

The designer, Louis Réard, had trouble finding a conventional model to wear the revealing article, so he turned to a strip-club dancer for its debut at the Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris, on July 5, 1946.

Mr. Réard didn’t originate the two-piece suit. Ancient Greeks and Romans wore them, and the designer Jacques Heim had unveiled the “atome” — “the world’s smallest bathing suit” — a few months before. But it was the name of Mr. Réard’s version — and its navel-revealing design — that captured the public’s imagination.

Americans weren’t won over until the ’60s, when Brigitte Bardot, among others, wore a bikini on the big screen; Sports Illustrated printed its first swimsuit issue; and even The Times touted “the Bikini Plunge.”

The fashion editor Diana Vreeland once declared the bikini “the most important thing since the atom bomb,” but others have taken a less enthusiastic view. Women’s Health magazine, for instance, recently banished the phrase “Bikini Body” from its covers, and one-piece sales are on the rise — aided by celebrities on Instagram.

IN the summer of 1916, a young Oxford academic embarked for France as a second lieutenant in the British Expeditionary Force. The Great War, as World War I was known, was only half-done, but already its industrial carnage had no parallel in European history.

“Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute,” recalled J. R. R. Tolkien. “Parting from my wife,” he wrote, doubting that he would survive the trenches, “was like a death.”

The 24-year-old Tolkien arrived in time to take part in the Battle of the Somme, a campaign intended to break the stalemate between the Allies and Central Powers. It did not.

The first day of the battle, July 1, produced a frenzy of bloodletting. Unaware that its artillery had failed to obliterate the German dugouts, the British Army rushed to slaughter.

Before nightfall, 19,240 British soldiers — Prime Minister David Lloyd George called them “the choicest and best of our young manhood” — lay dead. That day, 100 years ago, remains the most lethal in Britain’s military history.

Though the debt is largely overlooked, Tolkien’s supreme literary achievement, “The Lord of the Rings,” owes a great deal to his experience at the Somme. Reaching the front shortly after the offensive began, Tolkien served for four months as a battalion signals officer with the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers in the Picardy region of France.

The relationship between professional historians and Hollywood has always been fraught. Pick any movie that has purported to be a “true story” about an important part of our past and invariably there will be an academic historian waiting just off camera to let anyone who will listen know that the “truth” has been mangled and distorted. Think of journalist and historian Stanley Karnow’s stinging rebuke to JFK director Oliver Stone, whose “cinematic crusade,” Karnow said, “often borders on the zany.” Stone is an easy target, but ask most professional historians and they will likely tell you to visit the library, not a movie theater, if you seek deeper understanding of America and the world around you.

One prominent filmmaker, Gary Ross (Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Big) did go to the library in preparation for his new film, Free State of Jones. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as a Mississippi Confederate soldier who deserts the battlefield and allies himself with runaway slaves in an ongoing battle against rebel armies and plantation owners.

CNN has partnered with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly to cover the 2016 election. Kennerly has spent 50 years photographing U.S. politics. At age 27, he became the youngest chief White House photographer when he started working for President Gerald Ford.

DAVID HUME KENNERLY:  "Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was the first national politician I photographed, and I hold him directly responsible for my interest in what makes the world tick! When I covered Kennedy in 1966 as a 19-year-old news photographer, I was entranced not only by him, but by the notion that so many people were transfixed with the persona and words of a single person. That was my first exposure to major-league charisma. As a sophomore in high school in Roseburg, Oregon, I vividly remember when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Along with most people, I was shocked into tears. When RFK showed up in Portland three years later, I was curious to see if he had the same kind of aura. He did."