Can movies teach us about African-American history?

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Can movies or television really teach us anything useful about African-American history?

It's a reasonable question to ask as we begin Black History Month.

Certainly, the legacy of such famous films as "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) and "Gone With the Wind" (1939) was to give the public a distorted view of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction while offering portrayals of African Americans that were either virulently hateful or condescending.

And because of such films, says Patricia Turner, professor of African-American studies at University of California, Davis, "a lot of the public thinks that the plantation was the dominant entity on which slaves lived during the era of slavery."

In fact, Turner says, "very, very few slaves lived on plantations. Most slaves lived in units that had 10 or fewer slaves on them. Very few black women were domestic servants; you had to be extraordinarily wealthy to take a woman out of the fields and to have female household servants as we see in 'Gone With the Wind,' 'North and South' and the other great plantation epics.

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