Historical movies

Do historical films have to be precise?


Mahershala Ali plays Don Shirley in Green Book. The famous pianist was an alumnus of the Catholic University of America in Washington
Image Credit: Provided

When Green Book won the top prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, it instantly became an Oscar favorite. A few days before the ceremony, his chances remain strong: most bookmakers are currently making him the second favorite to win best film, after Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This, despite several public relations disasters including star Viggo Mortensen uttering the N-word, stories resurfaced about director Peter Farrelly exposing himself, and a commotion over a 2015 tweet from co-author Nick Vallelonga. on American Muslims encouraging the 9/11 attacks. But it can be argued that none of these have done as much damage as the accusation that it misrepresents history.

Green Book tells the story of African-American piano virtuoso Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen) as they embark on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. is refused service in stores, excluded from restaurants and physically assaulted. Initially, Vallelonga is hostile to blacks. When he gets to know Shirley, however, and sees southern Jim Crow up close, his sense of justice overcomes his prejudices. Simultaneously, Shirley is portrayed from the start as a stuck and prissy snob, out of touch with her own African American community. Forced to spend time with the knockabout, Salt of the Earth Vallelonga, he relaxes. In a climactic scene, Vallelonga prompts Shirley to eat fried chicken for the first time.

Green Book is a film designed to warm the shells of a liberal white audience who want to feel good about not being racist. However, Shirley’s real family reacted with pain and anger, claiming there was no close friendship between the couple and criticizing the filmmakers for not consulting them. The film, says Shirley’s surviving brother, is “a symphony of lies.” His emphasis on a white protagonist’s perspective at the expense of his black persona plays into a long-standing controversy over representation in Hollywood. In this stormy political context, the historical fictionalization of Green Book reads for some not as an artistic license, but as an erasure.

The only historic Oscar contenders this year who haven’t sparked widespread accusations of inaccuracy are the Roma and the Cold War. Both are semi-autobiographical: one way not to upset someone else’s family is to make a movie about their own. Everything else took a kick. “I have never seen a movie distort its facts in such a punitive way,” wrote Bohemian Rhapsody critic Mike Ryan.

Historian Fred Kaplan has judged Vice’s historical orientation to amount to “what VI Lenin denounced as ‘infantile leftism’.”

Director Boots Riley criticized Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman: “It’s a made-up story in which the false parts [sic] try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.

Simon Schama lamented the fictional meeting between Elizabeth I and her cousin in Mary Queen of Scots, tweeting that “the whole drama about Elizabeth and Mary was that they never met – the movie got away with it “. In a preemptive attack, Hannah Greig, historical advisor to The Favorite, admitted that Queen Anne didn’t really keep 17 rabbits in her room, saying rabbits “were an early 18th century foodstuff and pest.” . Donald Trump attacked First Man for failing to show the exact moment Neil Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon.


Amy Adams and Christian Bale in Vice, a 2018 American biographical comedy-drama written and directed by Adam McKay.
Image Credit: Matt Kennedy / Annapurna

In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins lambasted Vice, The Favorite and Mary Queen of Scots, asking why, in an age of so much concern about fake news, “instant fake history” is being rewarded. “The Favorite director Yorgos Lanthimos casually remarked that” some of the things in the movie are correct and a lot are not, “Jenkins wrote. “What can a history student think of that?” “

Screenwriter Gavin Whenman retorted, “What if they were doing real historical research, rather than watching a movie that doesn’t claim to be a documentary? Yet there are more important questions regarding the public’s use and understanding of history. Does historical fiction change our sense of reality? Do filmmakers have a responsibility towards history? How do we navigate a world where real and false information is often mixed up?

Almost 30 years ago, many historians were concerned about Oliver Stone’s (1991) fabrications of JFK, which was a plot behind the murder of John F Kennedy. Between 1963 and 2001, Gallup pollsters tracked the percentage of Americans who believed Lee Harvey Oswald had acted as part of a conspiracy rather than a lone killer. Statistics show that the film had little impact. In 1983, 74 percent believed in a conspiracy; after the film’s release in 1992, that figure jumped to 77%; by 1993 it had fallen to 75 percent. There was a much larger jump between 1966, when only 50 percent believed in a conspiracy, and 1976, when 81 percent believed it. This was likely the result of the controversial House Select Committee on Assassinations, which in 1976 ruled that there had been a conspiracy, without knowing which one. Most serious historians believe that Oswald acted alone. They may well worry that a majority of Americans disagree, but these Americans seem to have been influenced considerably more by politicians than by filmmakers.

Stone’s film had an effect. In 1992, Congress responded by ordering that all remaining documents relating to the assassination be released by 2017. Ninety-nine percent are now available, and nothing in those documents has provided any evidence. of a plot. By 2017, the number of Americans believing in a conspiracy had fallen to 61%. Again, this change appears to be attributable more to politicians and historians than to filmmakers.

When considering whether filmmakers have a responsibility for history, it is difficult to define with consistency what is an acceptable or unacceptable artistic license. There have been relatively few reviews of The Favorite, despite great liberties. As an anarchic comedy, it is perhaps less likely to be taken seriously than a drama. Yet Green Book is also a comedy. Outrage may be stronger not because the inaccuracies are necessarily more extreme, but because the recent history of racism in the United States is much more familiar and painful territory to many than the antics of the Stuart court.

There have been attempts in some countries to place legal limits on how filmmakers treat history. The Indian Central Board of Film Certification has considered presenting films with a historical element to selected historians and letting them censor accordingly. Obviously, that would be an imposition on freedoms of speech and expression – as well as costly, time consuming and patronizing. If a government declares that the public is too narrow-minded to be allowed to watch a historical film unattended, many will see it as an intolerable move towards a “nanny state”.

Moreover, it seems unfair to make filmmakers obey historians when historians often disagree with each other. Experts are divided over whether Mary Queen of Scots should have a Scottish accent, like Saoirse Ronan does in the film, or whether she sounded French. This cannot be conclusively settled without a time machine. Even if we had one, we might find that the 16th century Scottish and French accents were different from what we recognize, and the familiar modern English speech patterns didn’t resemble modern movie dialogues either.

If we can’t set clear rules about what constitutes acceptable historical fictionalization, and we don’t want our governments to set up bureaucracies to enforce them, we are left with our current situation. The filmmakers will make whatever historical films they can get. Some care deeply about history and feel responsible for it, but they are paid by studios and investors to do work that is not that of a historian. If we want filmmakers to prioritize responsibilities to history or art over commerce, they need more public funding. As is, films are generally commercial products. It is up to us to choose what we watch and how we react.


The assassination of JF Kennedy, as portrayed in the 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK
Image Credit: Provided

So how do we navigate this flurry of real and invented information? It starts with schools: it is vital that the humanities, including history, are not overlooked, as they teach the process of critical thinking. Fiction, satire, disinformation, propaganda and “fake news” have been with us for millennia, and they are here to stay. If we learn to think critically as individuals and as societies, we can make better judgments and make better decisions. We cannot only survive complexity, but embrace it.

Maybe those who care about fiction are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. As Greg Jenner, historical advisor to Horrible Histories, tweeted this week: “As long as historians are able to respond publicly (which we do en masse), these films are useful, not a hindrance, to stimulate the public’s fascination with the past. It’s understandable that Shirley’s family is upset by Green Book. But the film sparked much discussion of race and class politics in cinema, and a renewed interest in the real Shirley, a fascinating and extraordinarily talented man.

This does not relieve the filmmakers of all responsibility. They should also think critically and expect criticism. But the public doesn’t mindlessly absorb everything at face value. They are able to understand fiction and debate it. Whether you love or hate Green Book, or any of the other Oscar nominees, historical films can be seen not as a threat to history, but as an opportunity to engage audiences. Even the most imprecise film can raise questions, provoke debate, sharpen our capacity for evaluation and analysis. These skills are essential not only for understanding history, but also for understanding the world we live in today.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd


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