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Myers and Jillian Dion in Apple TV+'s Killers of the Flower Moon.Melinda Sue Gordon/Apple TV+

Kim Nelson is an associate professor of film at the University of Windsor, the author of the forthcoming book Making History Move and co-host of the podcast Moving Histories.

This year – like every year – the historical film genre dominates the list of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture. More than half of the nominated films are set in the past: Killers of the Flower Moon, Maestro, The Holdovers, Poor Things, The Zone of Interest, and the odds on favourite to win, Oppenheimer.

Many brush off historical films as mere entertainment. They are wrong. Historical films have become the most widely consumed sources of reality-based media and the only vehicle of storytelling and meaning-making capable of crossing the increasingly treacherous borders of generation, nation and partisan identification.

A comprehensive study by historians Peter Burkholder and Dana Schaffer conducted for the American Historical Association, published in 2021, demonstrates that “Documentary film/TV” and “Fiction film/TV,” are the public’s top two sources of history, far outpacing all other forms, including newspapers, museum exhibits, non-fiction books, lectures and college classes. The relative trustworthiness of a historical film is moot when compared with sources unread, unheard and unseen. Historical films powerfully influence our shared sense of the past.

Filmmakers evoke the past for many reasons. Birthed as a prestige genre, moving pictures sought to shake off their associations with nickelodeons and lower classes through luxurious spectacles crafted to compete with the allure and status of the symphony and opera. Amassing the outsized budgets required by films to recreate the material environment and costumes of the past has been a flex for filmmakers since 1895.

Part cachet and part communal concern, like Shakespeare transposing his contemporary social commentary into other eras to give cover to his critique of the power systems of his day, the best historical films are always about the past while speaking directly to something overarching and profound in the present.

Among this year’s nominees, Killers of the Flower Moon takes us to Oklahoma in the 1920s, where whites killed their Osage neighbours and family members for oil money. The film speaks to calcified racism when one system replaces another as war, theft and expropriation evolve into guardianship, grifting and municipally sanctioned mass murder.

Maestro focuses on the charismatic and influential conductor, composer, musician and 20th-century celebrity Leonard Bernstein. It centres on his domestic life and marriage to actor Felicia Montealegre. The underlying message addresses the pain inflicted by a culture that forces people to subvert the essence of who they are to fit into a narrow norm, in this case, a heteronormative one, hurting themselves and others in the process.

Revolving around a fictional plot and characters, The Holdovers chronicles an unfortunate high-school student who must spend his winter break in 1970 under the supervision of his cantankerous classics teacher. A subplot focuses on a school cook as she struggles to overcome deep despair over the death of her son in Vietnam. The storyline expresses the devastation of class and race-based inequities of the Vietnam War.

Offering a stark portrait of the family life of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, The Zone of Interest mimics observational documentary, placing the audience in a position to surveil the human species and consider the mundane workings of hatred and evil.

The lead horse in this race, Oppenheimer, traces the triumph and downfall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American architect of the Manhattan Project and the “father of the atomic bomb.” The film intertwines multiple timelines to give cautions on several fronts, requiring some time and space to catalogue and unpack. It serves as a clarion for the threat of the human agency and ingenuity that allows us to conceive, assemble and build the mechanisms of our own destruction. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book on which the film is based invokes the myth of Prometheus and the danger of humanity possessing tools beyond our moral capabilities to handle. It is also part Icarus, warning of hubris and suggesting that just because we possess the capabilities to build and do something does not mean we should. The film also depicts the destructiveness of cultural and political power that allows us to cast out those whose intellectual views and principles we deem alien and unacceptable.

Aside from rare exceptions like Poor Things, a film with an interest in the past no deeper than as a sumptuous through-the-looking-glass backdrop replete with extravagant costumes and exotic steampunk splendour, most historical films aim to be more than a distraction and amusement and are interpreted as more than that by their audience – whether the audience knows it or not. We have less critical distance as spectators of based-on-a-true-story films than we like to think. These sensual, audiovisual and fully rendered re-enactments of the events of the past advance arguments that envelop us. They are deeply influential and convincing.

There are many issues of collective urgency that the makers of the nominated films for best picture ask us to consider today. While the majority focus on U.S. history, like any history, they select data points from the past, arranging and animating them into arguments about dangers within human societies, power structures and impulses. Filmmakers manifest broad social concerns on the screen for us to process, consider, discuss and ideally act upon.

If you watch the Oscars this year, in between considering the quality of the jokes and array of outfits, spend some time thinking and talking about what the films themselves express. Historical films start a mass conversation that crosses many boundaries in our present. It is up to the audience to finish it.

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