“The Witness”: Controversy in Film

Our discussion in class this week of “The Struggle Against Lynching: Lessons for Today” exhibition at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum focused on how to exhibit controversial topics with violent or explicit material.  This conversation reminded me of “The Witness,” a film about the 1637 Pequot War and massacre of around 600 Pequots that decimated the trib

(A short trailer is available here, and the 30 minute film is played at no extra cost simultaneously in two theaters multiple times per day at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut.)

One of the two identical theaters where "The Witness" is shown.

Told through the lens of Wampishe, a Pequot elder, the film employs the “enduring Native tradition of oral history as the narrative voice” to bring the story to life while connecting and appealing to the audience.  [1]  The film also has a scene of the English, Narragansett, and Mohegan attack on Mystic Fort, stronghold of the Pequots, and vivid portrayals of the murders, massacre, and rapes that occurred.

Wampishe fleeing from the attack on Mystic Fort

Both the film and exhibit feature violence and brutality in order to teach about a tragic and often forgotten event in America’s history.  The question remains – is this honest and evocative or sensationalism and spectacle?  Is the use of such explicit violence necessary to carry the message?

I think that this is a powerful, effective, and sincere approach to teaching about controversial events.  The shock of the violence carries the message of just how brutal past events were, and shielding audiences from that truth only continues the sugarcoating and narrowing of history most people receive from textbooks.  Museums exist partially to expand that education and teach the nuances of history as well.  This film and the lynching exhibit both tell the story of the oppressed, including the harsh reality of the violence and anger they experienced.  The filmmaker Kieth Merrill mentions that “The Witness” will “bring empathy” to its audience, and it will, as long as controversial history is continued to be presented in a direct and matter-of-fact manner. [2]

[1] “Facts About Permanent Exhibits,” http://www.pequotmuseum.org/Home/AboutTheExhibits/

[2] Kieth Merrill, “Movie Ratings Not Reliable” in Meridian Magazine, http://www.meridianmagazine.com/arts/991105movieratings.html

Image from “The Witness in Super Panavision 70,” http://www.in70mm.com/newsletter/2000/60/witness/credits.htm

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