Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Starting image: Mississippi River at dawn with an image of the Huck Finn manuscript superimposed upon it
Ending image: Slaves tilling a field
Approximate length: 17 minutes
The book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is introduced, as is Mark Twain and his experience growing up in the slaveholding town of Hannibal, Missouri. The film moves to McClintock High School in Tempe, Arizona, where Kathy Monteiro and her daughter, Raquel Panton, object to Huck Finn as required reading due to the use of the word "nigger" in the novel.
The importance of the location and time period in which Huck Finn takes are discussed. Early events in the novel are introduced, ending with Huck and Jim taking off together on the raft.
Monteiro and principal Mike Gemma talk about First Amendment rights and how the controversy over the book arose. The use of the word "nigger," both past and present, is explored. An excerpt from Huck Finn is read that contains one of the first encounters with the word: "Jim was monstrous proud about it . . . that nigger was cooked up and had to take a back seat."
The film explains the very different controversy that arose when Huck Finn was first published, when it was deemed unfit for children primarily because it portrayed rough characters, used slang and vernacular language, and presented a main character who questioned societal rules. Twain's early use of satire is explored. Twain's marriage into an abolitionist family is examined.
David Bradley, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, and Jim Miller discuss various historical and literary aspects of the novel. The significance of Twain writing Huck Finn during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence is explored. An excerpt from Huck Finn is read: "They are floating down the river . . . they begin to suspect the truth." A discussion of Jim as the hero of the novel leads to a recap and commentary on events in the novel, ending with the Duke and the King exposing Jim as a runaway slave.
Monteiro and Panton meet with other families to discuss the handling of racially sensitive materials by schools, during which they talk about their feelings about the word "nigger."
The issue of Jim as a stereotype or complex character is discussed. Race relations in present-day Hannibal, Missouri, are explored. Twain's work on the novel and the help of his wife Olivia are shown. More of the early controversy around the book as "indecent" literature is examined.
Gemma and Monteiro comment on the way McClintock has handled the Huck Finn situation. Monteiro files a lawsuit against the Tempe Union High School District and individual governing members.
Twain's relationships during his lifetime with people of color are explored.
Huck's moral dilemma around turning in Jim is discussed. Gemma invites consultant Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua to McClintock to talk to educators and students about the novel. After Chadwick-Joshua's presentation to students, she, Monteiro, and Panton talk and disagree about the effectiveness of her presentation.
The film covers the bans, actual and threatened, that libraries imposed on the novel after publication; Huck Finn's elevation, in the 1930s, to the canon of classic literature; and the NAACP declaration in 1957 that it found the book offensive, leading the book to be taken out of some schools.
The film reviews the events of the last quarter of the novel. The controversial ending and the difficulty of teaching Huck Finn are discussed. Boston Latin School teacher Nancy Methelis and her students discuss their reactions to Huck Finn. Monteiro, at the police station, recounts how she was handcuffed and forcibly removed from the auditorium after she came to Chadwick-Joshua's lecture the second day.
People from different ethnicities and countries discuss how they feel about the novel. Bradley, Chadwick-Joshua, and Jim Miller talk about the place of literature in society. The film ends with an excerpt from the novel: "We catched fish, and talked. . . . and it warn't often that we laughed, only a little kind of a low chuckle."
Next: General Resources
|Culture Shock: Home | Site Map | For Teachers Menu | Huck Finn in Context Menu||
PBS | WGBH | ©