Ethics Quote Of The Month: Washington Post Film Critic Ann Hornaday on “Selma”


“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.




14 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Washington Post Film Critic Ann Hornaday on “Selma”

  1. So often in the shaping and presentation of these artistic “Greater Truths” do the artists find it necessary to ignore, deny, obfuscate and outright lie about the pesky actual truths, that I question if any larger truth is revealed. One could argue that the artists are simply shaping events to meet their bias, or political position, or fantasy.
    This is especially bothersome when they stray beyond simple storytelling devices (Daniel Boone needs a love interest!), and change actual important historical facts, like who voted for and against the 13th Amendment. I rarely watch quasi-historical movies because of this.

  2. Jack: Ostensibly, you are validating my thesis from yesterday regarding “Dixie”. Your point , “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.” is well taken. I would extend that group well beyond millennials. Nonetheless, I tend to agree with the critic regarding theatergoers responsibility to separate fact from fiction.

    The fatalism expressed in your point about historical education is rather scary. It suggests that we are all at the mercy of what others want to teach us and it is their responsibility to get it right. Unfortunately, there are many vendors of Kool-Aid and we are often all too willing consumers of their products. The only difference among us is that we favor different flavors of that Kool-Aid.

    It is incumbent upon us all to seek facts and develop our own analysis of what is truth. If we rely simply on a demand to “get it right” and we never question what is promoted as fact then we become slaves to the information handlers.

    • Chris, isn’t that a “Let the buyer beware” approach? I research these things: for example, in “The Conspirator,” I was sure Redford had dreamed up the part about Surratt’s lawyer getting a writ of habeas corpus on the eve of her execution only to find she has been hung anyway, but it was true: I checked it. But Hornaday’s argument relieves the artist of any responsibility, just as patent medicine makers once had no obligation to make fair and reliable claims.

      As I’ve written often, ethics divorced from reality aren’t useful or even ethical.

      • I think we are in agreement. I am not suggesting that those that convey information in the guise of truth have no responsibility for accuracy. I am just of the opinion we should never just take someone’s word for it. This is a shared responsibility to ensure an informed electorate.

        If Hornaday believes that the purveyor of the information bears no responsibility for perpetrating myths she is sadly mistaken but that was not my impression when I read the quote.

        “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.”

        This is sentiment to which I agree.

  3. The DNC still has up on their history page that “For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights.” They claim total ownership of both the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, and most still cling to the big lie about the southern strategy causing the parties to flip suddenly. People can only check their facts when the real facts haven’t been dropped down the memory hole (Ahem – Harper Collins…)

  4. Is anyone else reminded of Dan Rather’s “…fake, but accurate” defense of false facts to support an agenda that the left wing just knows is the Real Truth™?

    • Yup. Had the same thought. Also, if your default position is to lie, what’s distorting a little history in a movie going to be? Nothing!

  5. While I agree that “we” ought to be engaging in critical thinking whenever we are not the primary source for “facts” (in our spare time), I am concerned about the population of “we.” To say that “we” have a responsibility to check facts that we have been spoon-fed, either by TV or Internet or Books or Periodicals, presupposes that every resident in the land of “we” is capable of doing it or has the wherewithal to do it. It’s the same concern that I have about the concept of an informed electorate. I have first-hand experience of trying to convince an Internet junky that “facts” cited in a single source (any single source, not just Internet) are not necessarily true. (This person is also a serial Confirmation Bias offender.) In addition, many, many, MANY people only receive updates/reminders of their primary and secondary history education through movies and TV.

    Lack of time/capability/wherewithal/willingness to check “facts” — for all of these reasons I feel that it is extremely irresponsible for media producers to engage in changing the actual “facts” about history. Bad enough that we have those with agendas spinning “facts” constantly. When facts are changed “just because” or out of negligence or laziness, this is completely unacceptable.

  6. Selma and JFK are only the tip of the iceberg. Hollywood has not only a decidedly leftward/anti-Republican/anti-religious bent, but an inability to step away from certain required elements to a narrative to please certain key demographics or demographics perceived to be key to a film’s success. The fact is that any filmmaking enterprise is first and foremost a business, second a filmmaking enterprise, and only third a filmmaking enterprise producing whatever kind of film it is producing.

    When dealing with fiction, alterations are sometimes unavoidable. The sweep of a novel is impossible to fit into a two (or even three) hour movie and some things that work on the page don’t on the screen and vice versa. That’s why, for example, whole subplots in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (one frankly nothing but a distraction, another of which would have dragged out the denoument) were axed, a lot of elements in the first three Tom Clancy novels that made it onto the screen were pared down (too many characters to keep track of), and a lot of end of the third Narnia book that made it onto the screen was cut (it would have produced wonderful visuals but nothing else). What’s important is staying true to the original author’s vision or at least as true as you can.

    Changing settings or stories because you are afraid of being accused of bigotry, or adding a romantic subplot because you are convinced that the wives and girlfriends will keep their men home without one is not as successful, which is why Sum of All Fears didn’t do as well as the other Clancy adaptations (changing the villains from Arabs to neo-Nazis? Come on), the Narnian adaptation Prince Caspian was enough of a failure to convince Disney to give up the ghost (Caspian and Susan attracted to each other? Uh no. C.S. Lewis didn’t do romance) and the addition of the Xena-esque Tauriel to the Hobbit trilogy (which should have been one film, but, one film wouldn’t have made as much money) is roundly condemned and parodied, and not just by Tolkien purists, and may have cost Peter Jackson the rights to further mine the Tolkien mythology for more films.

    With history, though, it’s not a question of just changing a vision. It’s a question of changing the truth to fit a narrative, and sometimes present-day chavinism and fears that a modern audience can’t handle the truth make filmmakers bend the truth so far it isn’t recognizable as the truth anymore. If they are just offering it as entertainment then perhaps it’s a little more acceptable, but when they are offering it as some solemn, profound pronouncement on human nature, they need to hew to the facts, or I submit their solemn pronunciations turn to just puffed-up bloviation.

    A lot of the biggest offenders have already been mentioned, like “Braveheart.” The truth of Sir William Wallace’s life is interesting enough without the moral grandstanding grounded on outright lies:
    – A massacre of Scottish noblemen idiotic enough to come to a meeting unarmed and with only one page each (total fiction, but sets up the English as totally evil, and also plays to the Hollywood convention that there is only room for one hero, and so much the better if he’s a commoner),
    – Wallace unwilling to join the fight for independence until his (secret) wife is murdered (a half-lie, following the Hollywood convention that no one ever joins a fight until it gets personal, and romantic love is the only true motivator),
    -Turning Edward I Plantagenet into a cackling villain (the truth is a lot more complex than that, but boils down to the fact that he had been regent of Scotland for a while as the Scots struggled to elect a new king, and when the process took too long he decided he might as well rule in name as well as fact, but hey, every Hollywood story needs a clear villain, with no moral shades of gray), and his son Edward II into a simpering sissy (a half-lie, Edward II could more than hold his own on the battlefield, although he may have had male as well as female lovers).
    -Even going so far as to imply that William Wallace fathered Edward III (complete fiction and gets the timeline wrong, his mother was a child at the time portrayed in the film, not a mature queen, but follows the Hollywood convention that heroes must be great lovers as well as fighters),
    -Turning the Battle of Falkirk into a defeat by treachery on the part of the surviving Scottish nobles (who are later killed in revenge by Wallace, total fiction) rather than one lost by the fact that Wallace just wasn’t a very good commander vis-a-vis Edward I, the Scottish nobles knew it, and they got the hell off the field when they saw which way it was going to go to avoid a massacre of the leadership (following the Hollywood convention that the hero never screws up and can only fail when the weak stab him in the back)
    -Smearing Robert the Bruce as initially a screwup and a lapdog to Edward I, who fights against Wallace at Falkirk and only comes around to the cause of independence when he sees what his treachery has done, and who decides at the last minute not to receive Edward II’s emissaries, but instead to charge the fields of Bannockburn and thereby win freedom. (90% lies, Bruce DID fight on the English side at Falkirk, partly because he understood politics better and didn’t think Wallace was a suitable leader, but then found the English turning on HIM, forcing him to flee, rally the Scottish nobles who had wisely gotten the hell out of Dodge at Falkirk, and eventually meticulously plan and execute the Bannockburn campaign, a masterpiece of tactics and the employment of lesser resources against a numerically superior but badly led foe. However, this plays again to the Hollywood ideas that guilt leads to doing the right thing, that there can only be one hero at a time, and once he’s made the decision to act, everyone else follows him).

    We’re supposed to come away from this cheering for Wallace as some kind of triumph of the human desire to be free, and not worry about the truth because, as stated in the opening narration “history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” Well of course we will, when the facts are twisted and the deck is stacked and we’re told to ignore the facts because they’re suspect! In the meantime Mel Gibson sits back, counts his money, and pats himself on the back for making the Best Picture of 1995 and of course delivering a Powerful Message.

    At least five years later, when he did “The Patriot” he had the sense to use a fictional hero, although that might have been because the original intended historical hero, General Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, didn’t fit into the Hollywood mold (slave-owner, not averse to torturing, and no trauma in his past to justify fighting for independence). So he created Benjamin Martin, who regrets his brutal tactics against the Indians, refuses to vote for a levy, and only joins the fight for independence when his son is killed in front of him by the villainous Colonel Tavington (actually Banastre Tarleton taken up to eleven, with the addition of a completely fictional massacre of colonists by burning a church). The cause of independence wasn’t enough, it had to be personal. Again, history is jammed into the Hollywood mold, yet Mel thinks, no doubt, he made some great statement.

    Ridley Scott’s attempt to essay the Crusades in “Kingdom of Heaven” (perhaps buoyed by his success with the not as inaccurate [except for showing Marcus Arelius as intending to restore the Roman Republic when he never intended any such thing] “Gladiator”) was, in a lot of ways as bad as “Braveheart,” maybe even worse, though I suppose in the post-9/11 era he was pretty brave to even touch the subject. He might as well have used a fictional hero – there was a Balian of Ibelin, but he didn’t come from France by “going to where the men speak Italian, then keeping going until they speak something else,” nor did he retire to a bucolic existence back there, with a hot ex-queen (she actually died in an epidemic), after the fall of Jerusalem, and turn away Richard I (Lionheart) Plantagenet when he came looking for him with a simple “I am the smith,” and he was definitely not the agnostic (the concept wasn’t even named yet) that Orlando Bloom portrays him as. In fact Balian lived out his life in the Holy Land and was one of Richard’s closest local advisors during the Third Crusade. There was also no creepy but brilliant leper king hiding his scarred face behind a silver mask able to lead an army, by the time of the events in the film Baldwin IV was blind and unable to walk. Yet Scott ended this butchery of history, at the end of which I think we’re supposed to cheer because the lovers get to be together and leave everything else behind them (as all lovers must end up in Hollywood), with sonorous pronunciations on how peace in the Holy Land remains elusive almost a thousand years later, like he’s just delivered some great dissertation on the truth. If only it WERE truth.

    The last sin I’ll mention is 2001’s “Pearl Harbor,” once characterized in an article as being about a day in which the Empire of Japan made a surprise attack on an American love triangle, or words to that effect. Inaccuracies big and small, fill the movie, mostly again due to Hollywood convention. Aircraft are the wrong color and dart in and out of obstacles, which in reality would have been suicidal (Rule of Cool). Battleships like USS Pennsylvania are shown as destroyed that weren’t (nothing less than total destruction makes the point). Ensign Victor Delano, who was actually with the captain of the USS West Virginia in his final moments and showed Dorie Miller how to fire a machinegun on the spot is never shown, in order to move Miller to the forefront (an obvious playing of the race card). Active-duty airmen are shown volunteering for the UK’s Eagle Squadrons (that was specifically prohibited, but they had to get Rafe out of the are to set up the all-important love triangle). Admiral Kimmel is shown on a golf course when the attack starts (he was planning to do so, but cancelled when he got word of the attack, but showing him there makes him look like the leadership is that much more incompetent and out of touch). BTW, there really WERE two pilots who did manage to get aloft and take out a few Japanese planes during the attack, but their names were 2Lts. George Welch and Kenneth Taylor. They were in fact friends, but there was no love triangle. They did not participate in the Doolittle Raid, for one simple reason. They were FIGHTER pilots, not bomber pilots; they flew planes with one engine, not two and four. I am sorry to report that Welch perished at the age of 36 while flying early jets, but Taylor went on to serve 27 years on active duty and reach the rank of brigadier general, only dying in 2006, at the ripe old age of 86.

    This inaccurate trash, which turned two genuine heroes, one of whom was still alive at the time (Taylor died five years after the film) into fiction and deleted a third, who only died last year (Delano served out the war and into the Korean War, rising to the rank of captain, and died this past August at the age of 95), is somehow thought of as a great historical epic and brought people out in droves, and at the end we are supposed to again, cheer as Rafe and Evelyn, the original lovers (the third member of the triangle is conveniently killed off), are shown happily together, because in Hollywood the story’s never complete, or ready for a mixed audience until the good-looking guy and the good-looking girl end up together.

    I apologize for the term paper length of this comment, but I think it’s important to illustrate that Hollywood simply doesn’t have time for stories, historical or otherwise, that don’t neatly fit into a few established molds, and they are afraid that if they deviate from those molds, they will lose enough of their audience for a film not to be profitable. Since profit is what they are all about, they throw the history book out the window to get it. In the end it’s on the audience to actually get literate with the history, and not let themselves be bamboozled by Hollywood moguls selling the same stories and the same tropes with different costumes.

    • I so enjoy your skewering of “Pearl Harbor,” which was atrocious (but recognized as such, for the most part.) “Tora! X 3” was more accurate but so inept, thanks to the original grand plan falling through. But how could you omit Jon Voight, in more latex than I thought it was safe to have, as FDR, standing up to prove that the US would not be defeated? Dumbest scene I’ve ever experienced in a historical film.

        • Bullseye and bullseye. The former should forever stand as testimony that Jeff Daniels can do better than playing Jim Carrey’s idiot pal.

      • Sorry, I was running out of gas at the end. The very idea that FDR, who did his best all his life to conceal his disability, except at the very end, would stand in front of others to make a point, is ludicrous.

        • Actually, he did do that sort – of to make a point. Specifically, that HE was not weak or disabled in any way. And, hence, perfectly capable of fulfilling the duties of President.

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