“How to reconcile facts and feelings, art and fealty to the truth? When filmmakers recall with pride about the deep reporting and research they’ve done for their projects, then they deserve to be held accountable for their projects. For fact-based films, accuracy becomes a formal element, along with acting, design and cinematography. It’s up to each viewer to identify the threshold where artistic license compromises the integrity of the entire endeavor. Cinema has more responsibility in this regard precisely because of its heightened realism, its ability to burrow into our collective consciousness and memory, where the myth has a tendency to overpower settled fact. But viewers have responsibilities, too. If accuracy has become a formal element of historical dramas, then the ensuing fact-checks have become just as integral a part of how we view them. That means it’s incumbent on audiences to engage in a mode of spectatorship that, rather than decide who’s right, can listen to and respect expert critiques, and still open themselves up to a piece of filmed entertainment that speaks to less literal, more universal truths.”
—–Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic, on the controversy regarding the counter-factual treatment of President Lydon Johnson in the new film, “Selma.”
The question of whether film makers have an ethical obligation to fairly represent history, and particularly individual historical figures, in their movies has been a topic visited frequently at Ethics Alarms, and I’m not going to re-hash conclusions that have been thoroughly discussed before, such as
…here, regarding the casting of “The Impossible” with a gleamingly light-skinned central family and the changing of the real life heroine from Spanish to British
…here, discussing complaints that a fictional event was not portrayed accurately in “Noah”
…here, exploring the many falsehoods, some quite despicable, in James Cameron’s “Titanic”
…here, regarding unfair criticism of “Argo”
and here, discussing “Lincoln” screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner’s inexcusable choice to represent a real life former Congressman voting against the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery when in fact he voted for it.
The conclusion of that last one sums up the lessons of the rest, I think. Kushner’s defense against criticism of the collateral damage his invented facts wreaked was to argue that they were legitimate tactics in the pursuit of drama and “greater truths.” He then compared smearing the reputation of a Congressman, to the detriment of his descendants, to misrepresenting the kinds of socks Lincoln wore. (Kushner can be a brilliant writer, but his ideological utilitarianism is repellant.) I wrote:
…there needs to be an ethical doctrine of excessive harm—to public knowledge, history, and real people. Destroying a courageous public servant’s reputation isn’t like using the wrong color socks. I refuse to believe that Kushner couldn’t have accomplished the same dramatic objectives without making those Connecticut lawmakers look like Klan members. He just didn’t care…they were just socks to him. William Murdoch’s reputation was just socks to Cameron, and LBJ’s good name was just socks to Oliver Stone. It’s true: artists have a right to twist facts and history however they choose for what they believe are “greater historical truths” or even for more butts in the seats, more cheers at the credits or more dollars in their pockets. It still is wrong for them to do so recklessly, needlessly and with arrogant disregard for the consequences of their work. People are not socks.
There will always be disagreements over what is reckless and needless. The British are still angry that American prisoners of war were given central roles in “The Great Escape,” when the real escape was an all British and Canadian operation. I’d say this alteration was justified: without Steve McQueen and James Garner to sell the film to American audiences, the story might never have been told at all. Critics of “Mississippi Burning” complained bitterly about how two fictional FBI agents played by Gene Hackman and Willam Dafoe were made the heroes of an iconic civil rights story that had many heroes and was far more complex, but the film never claimed to be accurate in all its specifics: it was obviously historical fiction. My father, a veteran of the battle, was infuriated by the movie “The Battle of the Bulge,” which made it look as if, he said, Henry Fonda won the conflict single-handed. But it was just a lousy movie, that’s all.
When art and history mix, history is likely to be the loser. It’s up to the artists to make sure the result justifies what is lost, and to not abandon all fairness, honesty, compassion and common sense in the process.
Ann Hornaday, in the highlighted quote, suggests that movie-goers have an obligation to do their due diligence and to find out what historical details of a film are accurate, which are controversial, which are false and which are just made up to keep the story entertaining. She might as well argue that the public has a duty to flap their arms hard and check out what’s happening in their neighborhoods by doing daily fly-overs. The public believes that film representations of historical events and individuals are true, unless a film itself makes it clear that it has changed the facts for dramatic purposes. The failing to do the latter is what was so despicable about “Titanic” and especially “JFK,” which used a documentary style to mislead gullible audience members into believing a lot or rumors, de-bunked theories and outright falsehoods in service of director Oliver Stone’s anti-American paranoia.
Yes, wouldn’t it be nice if the public was historically literate and engaged, if the public schools were serious about teaching history, and if the average millennial has a clue who LBJ was? But they aren’t and don’t, and this is not going to change, unfortunately: the only question is whether the situation will get worse. Therefore film makers do have a responsibility.When John Ford completely bollixed up the facts of the Gunfight at the OK Corral in his 1946 film “My Darling Clementine,” the damage was minimal, because 1) it was a nearly forgotten incident at the time; 2) nobody pretended that the film was anything but fiction using real historical characters; 3) the plot was obviously Hollywood fantasy and most of all, 4) John Ford never represented any of his work as being anything but entertainment. (The film also had the unintended effect of focusing attention on the real episode, as historians rushed to their typewriters to inform readers of what Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday really did when they shot it out with the Clantons.) This is not, however, the situation with “Selma.” President Johnson, probably the most ardent and definitely the most effective civil rights activist who has ever sat in the Oval Office, is portrayed as a reluctant partner of Martin Luther King in the battle for equal voting rights, and there is nothing in the historical record to suggest that is fair to Johnson. Yet just as “JFK” had millions of young filmgoers leaving theaters convinced that Johnson had been an accomplice in the assassination of Jack Kennedy, millions of today’s young audience will exit “Selma” think Lyndon Johnson was just another white Southern pol dragged kicking and screaming into giving African Americans their birthright.
That’s unethical, and since there is a liberal vendetta against Johnson, I suspect more than just arrogance, callousness and laziness—the usual reasons for such screen libel—is involved. Johnson is a figure who creates great dissonance among Americans, especially on the Left. His civil rights advocacy and Great Society legislation briefly made him a hero, but his single-minded pursuit of the Vietnam war unraveled his support, causing him to be seen as a traitor to liberal principles. If Johnson’s civil rights accomplishments can be undermined by a new narrative, he can be safely filed with the Left’s villains, like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.
The timing of “Selma’s” choice to portray Johnson as more of an obstacle to Martin Luther King’s dream than an ally is also suspect, even sinister. A primary thrust of the Democratic Party during the Obama Administration, and its first line of defense whenever legitimate criticism of the first black President has arisen, is that America in the 21st Century is still a nest of racism, barely improved since the Sixties; that African Americans are disadvantaged and oppressed, and that the white power structure is aligned to oppose black interests and welfare. As Selma comes out, this campaign has created intensifying racial divisions and a dangerous distrust and fear of police, with high-level officials and the media building the case that young, unarmed, law-abiding blacks are being hunted on our city streets. This was not the time to use artistic license to misrepresent a crucial white crusader for civil rights as a defender of the status quo—or, depending on the film makers’ political agenda, perhaps it was.