When you drive up Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. past embassies and elegant houses, just before you come to the Naval Observatory you’ll pass between two statues, roughly the same height and color, of elderly men raising their right hands towards each other across the wide road in salute.
On the East Side is Nelson Mandela, fist raised outside the South African Embassy, and on the West Side Sir Winston Churchill, flashing his two-fingered V for victory outside the British. These two men are deservedly symbolic of their countries and times. Mandela’s reputation, almost uniquely among 20th century figures, still appears undented by scandal or revisionism; the only thing with which he has seriously been reproached has been the conduct of his relatives.
As for that, being incarcerated for half his life gives him a good excuse for neglecting the firm management of his extended family. Mandela’s political achievement was truly exceptional; the Apartheid regime subjected him to decades of imprisonment and the ruin of his career and personal life, yet he emerged from Robben Island seemingly devoid of the vindictiveness and petty score-settling that would have obsessed lesser men, and despite everything that had been done to him and others in his movement, worked to heal wounds and build a multi-racial democracy in Africa.
Churchill, no less great a man, nonetheless had some notable flaws, and his reputation has been subject since his death to waves of historical revisionism. Still, to portray him as one caricature or another – fat, drunk, racist aristocrat on the one hand, or saintly, eloquent savior of democracy and freedom on the other, is a disservice to history. Churchill deserves to be shown in his entirety, and as a historian and prolific writer himself, he would have wanted no less.
Which brings me to the American hero we celebrate this week, Martin Luther King, and the film Selma, now out in theaters. Few of us have had a chance to see it yet, but already one can’t escape the controversy over the film’s accuracy, especially in one scene where President Johnson and Dr. King are talking on the phone about King’s plans for a march on Selma, Alabama.
According to its defenders, the film’s director Ava DuVernay made the deliberate decision, rather than error, to portray Johnson’s position as other than it was. He is seen arguing against the campaign, and the impression is left that King ignored him and did it anyway. As there are still living persons, not to mention phone records, that tell the story as it really happened, some of the film’s defenders took the tack of not denying that the portrayal was inaccurate, but saying it was a deliberate artistic choice. If so, this is unfortunate.
Biopics like Lincoln, Malcolm X, and Selma are increasingly seen by the current video-only generation as historical documents, whether we want them to or not. Kids writing their 8th-grade papers are going to view Selma with as much credulity as they do a PBS documentary.
This doesn’t mean filmmakers have a duty to be 100% accurate, just that, if they want their work to last, they shouldn’t deliberately trifle with facts that matter. Making a biopic about Washington where he has real teeth instead of false ones, or where he says the occasional anachronistic phrase, doesn’t change anything essential about his story.
In the interests of art or compression, directors can eliminate ciphers or change minor details without damaging the truth of narrative; what does it matter who was in the next booth to Lincoln’s at Ford’s Theater, for example, or whether Kennedy’s hair was parted on the left or right? Some things are too important to mess with, however.
Say a director wanted to make a movie about FDR, but to make it more interesting… he isn’t in a wheelchair! He plays tennis! Plus, Eleanor is a total looker, I’m thinking Tea Leone for the part, and half the dramatic action is about her outrage at Franklin’s affair with his secretary, which distracts him from seeing a crucial memo right before Pearl Harbor ….
The point is, if you are making pure fiction, fine, but if you are going to be 95 percent accurate in a historical movie, go all the way. To deliberately change just a small portion of the facts in order to suit a modern, ephemeral, political viewpoint is a disservice to both our historically challenged current population and to future generations.
When Quentin Tarantino made Inglorious Basterds, he wasn’t even pretending to accuracy. It was immediately obvious to any educated viewer that the movie was a cartoon and meant to be taken that way. (Uneducated viewers were watching it for the action, not to learn about World War II).
Selma seems to want to put itself in a different league, to be taken as a serious work, and by most critical accounts succeeds hugely in all but a few, fixable scenes and details. Critics are completely right to point out that many earlier films about the civil rights era have been woefully inaccurate in down-playing the importance of African-Americans and inflating that of certain white people, either out of ignorance or a desire to appeal to common-denominator movie audiences. But the answer to bias or ignorance in art is not to be equally biased on the other side and hope people find the truthful middle on their own, but to strive for honest depiction backed by historical fact, so that in the final accounting, ‘the truth will out.’
LBJ was a titanic character whose presidency diverged wildly between a lasting legacy of achievement in civil rights and anti-poverty programs and a disastrous foreign policy centered on Vietnam. Depriving him of the former achievement, which few dispute, is as unfair as letting him skate on the latter, which no one does. Making Johnson out to be a lesser man does not make Dr. King a greater one; his reputation and achievements stand up perfectly well on their own. Great men and women don’t need hagiographies, but they deserve honest biographers, even in historical fiction.
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