March 25 - 28
General Description: Films have powerfully and dramatically recorded human rights abuses throughout the world. This mini-course will focus on the Czech and the American experiences from the mid 20th century to the early 21st century. Specifically, it will show how both totalitarian and democratic governments have abused and ignored legal processes to create and perpetuate horrific abuses of human rights. Five dramatic films will reveal specific examples from Czechoslovakia during the Soviet era and the United States during the Civil Rights Movement and following the response to the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001. “Milada,” “Awakenings” and “Fighting Back” from the series “Eyes on the Prize,” “Just Mercy,” and “The Mauritanian” (all available via streaming) are the film sources for this class. Throughout our time, we will examine how this traditional form of expressive culture can provide valuable interdisciplinary intellectual and ethical stimuli for American Studies students
1.The Czech Experience: In this section of the course, the emphasis will be the persecution of Czech lawyer and political activist Milada Horakova. She was a Czech lawyer, politician, and a member of the resistance against the Nazis during World War II. She was imprisoned during that time and later emerged as an opponent of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia. She was a victim of a show trial and a judicial murder when she was convicted of fabricated charges of treason and conspiracy. She was hanged in Prague in 1950. The film “Milada” is a 2017 Czech biographical effort, in English, directed by David Mrnka. It details Milada’s life through 1950, including dramatic trial scenes before her execution. Students will view the film in advance and we will discuss the historical, political, legal, and ethical issues that arise from it. Most Czech and Slovak students know her history, which sets up the context for the American comparison that follows.
2.The American Experience: Civil Rights: In the mid 1950s, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. But even before, human rights were almost nonexistent for Blacks in the American South. Students will view the documentary films ”Awakenings” and “Fighting Back,” from the award-winning civil rights series “Eyes on the Prize.” These short (55 minute) documentaries show (1) the tragedy of the Emmett Till murder and the absurd “trial” of his white murderers and then (2) how two prominent Southern governors refused to obey the federal courts and declined to allow Black students to enroll in high school and university classes. Students will view these films in advance. First, we will consider the Till lynching and its implications and subsequently the governors’ defiance of the law that led to major riots in Arkansas and Mississippi. This second film reveals the stories powerfully, with dramatic footage and narration from the participants themselves. I will summarize the Brown decision and then students will discuss the implications of this massive rejection of the law of the United States and the need of the federal government to intervene with military force. Again, major political, legal, historical, and ethical issues emerge from these materials. For African Americans, life was not entirely dissimilar from that of the population in Czechoslovakia under totalitarian regimes.
3. The American Experience: Contemporary Racial Injustice, Especially the Death Penalty:
Students will view “Just Mercy,” the story of crusading young Black lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who represents an innocent Black man sentenced to death. The film explores how this case led him to his journey of making his life work the defense of innocent African American prisoners. The film encourages a critique of racism in the “criminal justice system,” with particular attention to how the death penalty is disproportionately applied to people of color. “Just Mercy” also allows students a deeper and more critical vision of race and racism in contemporary American life.
4. The American Experience: Response to Terrorism and Abuse of Human Rights: Following the horrific terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government, in response, engaged in a series of questionable actions that abused human rights and violated international legal standard against torture. The most notorious of these abuses occurred at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The film “The Mauritanian” is a 2021 legal drama based on the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian man who was held for fourteen years without being charged with any crime. His American lawyers during this ordeal discover a pattern of abuse and torture at Guantanamo. The two women lawyers are depicted as working vigorously against injustice and Mohamedou is finally returned to Mauretania. Students will again view the film in advance and discuss issues of torture, due process of law, human rights, the role of lawyers, and related issues.
- ATTENDANCE: Students are expected to be present for all the sessions, on time, and above all, to actively participate in class discussions. 2. ASSIGNMENTS FOR CLASSES: There are no readings or assignments to complete between class sessions throughout the week. 3. FINAL PAPER: This will be specified in greater detail once the course begins. Students will choose any topic relevant to the discussed course themes and submit a 3 double-spaced page essay by the end of Spring Semester.