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On the Paths of History Not Taken

Oliver Stone and Benicio del Toro in Puerto Rico

by ELMA BEATRIZ ROSADO

San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Film director Oliver Stone and Puerto Rican actor Benicio del Toro were the guests of honor by late November, and early December, at two universities in Puerto Rico. Stone had been invited to Puerto Rico by Mr. Del Toro and the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico for the Museum’s 2012 Film Festival, which was dedicated to Mr. Stone and his valuable work within the filmmaking industry. Stone and Del Toro set aside a few hours to visit both campuses in San Juan to meet with college students. They were very interested in having exchanges, or conversatorios, with the students, eager to find out what was on the students’ minds, and what is their perception of History, among other things, because Stone had just finished his latest project, The Untold History of the United States (a ten-part documentary series, shown by one of U.S. Cable TV’s premium channels, also available in Puerto Rico).

The conversatorios were held in the theaters of both universities. Stone was impressed by the University of Puerto Rico’s theater. He admired its architecture and commented on his childhood memories of similar theaters. The second conversatorio was held at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, which is part of the private education system, a campus renowned for its communications and filmmaking programs. The first message was out there: Stone and Del Toro were taking their art to students enrolled in both the public and the private education system: arte para todos (art for everyone).

When Stone started to describe his brand new project the audience seemed to be listening intently. And Stone delved into it. He is very proud of The Untold History of the United States and when he speaks about it he sparkles. Little known facts about World War II, the Atomic Bomb, Truman, Henry Wallace, Eisenhower, Kennedy, the Cold War, all the way to Obama surface in this documentary. Stone’s words seemed to have a profound impact.

Del Toro, who had humbly stated that Mr. Stone was the guest of honor on these visits, tried to deflect the attention away from himself, but was not very successful. Lots of questions were aimed at him, mostly during the open mike sessions, concerning his career, or how does he prepare for a role, or about some particular movie roles. At yet another presentation at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Del Toro provided meaningful insight on the Untold History of the United States. He had been watching it and stated that he was impressed by facts that he did not know about. The Henry Wallace segments have been the most striking, judging by the opinion of many viewers, Del Toro included. He urged students to watch the series, not necessarily to agree with it, but to form an opinion. That is why this documentary is so important. Because through research viewers can verify the facts, and in the process, they will learn. Del Toro, being an ardent enthusiast of films considers them an exceptional educational tool.

There is also the companion book to the documentary, a joint work between Mr. Stone and Mr. Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University. Both authors “challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of traditional history books in this thoroughly researched and rigorously analyzed look at the dark side of American history.” (Description from the back cover of the book.)

The Untold History of the United States has received both praise and attack from its reviewers. Stone explained that the documentary is full of historical facts not widely known, arranged in a different pattern from the conventional pattern in high school education texts. He insists that the information is available at the college level, although scattered, but thorough research brings it out. Stone’s main concern seems to be high school students and that the way they are learning history leaves many facts out. Seems it might be full of holes.

Commendations for Stone’s and Kuznick’s work has been ample, but one of the most prominent attacks on the book lashed out in The Daily Beast (Stone has posted his Defense on his website, providing a link to the The Daily Beast’s review). It is an absolutely interesting debate which partially exposes the methodology upon which the project was built. Stone underlines the fact that “primary source and archival research” was done, and adds, “But whether the history has been untold or not, the problem is that it has been almost entirely unlearned.”

In his article, Stone refers to the paths of history not taken, which might be those of hope or of destruction, and delivers a stunning metaphor: “We trace this double helix of hope and destruction all the way through today, presenting the kind of historical understanding and repudiation of the idea of American exceptionalism that the American people need to embrace if we are to reorient this country on a path away from war and empire and back to becoming a responsible part of the international community.” Just like, JFK, the Untold History is already stirring up debate. “Good.” Those are the words of Mr. Stone. Good. Because it means that viewers will be piqued and will hit the books to verify or refute his work. And this is precisely the process by which they will learn about the history that has been hidden from them. And one of the objectives of the project will be met: history will become a matter of importance, and critical thinking will be a prominent methodology active in the minds of the viewers and readers.

Stone’s and Del Toro’s conversatorios with college students might prove to be the source of energy on which they will draw to further the many creative and untold history projects that have been finding their way into dissertations, books, documentaries and movies lately in Puerto Rico. Del Toro has stated his interest in education and how he would like to see the filmmaking industry in Puerto Rico develop further, particularly as an educational tool. He supports filmmaking courses both in public and private schools in order for Puerto Rico to expand into a strong filmmaking industry. Probably, for Puerto Rican students, it could also mean The Untold History of Puerto Rico.

Elma Beatriz Rosado is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in History of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.