Opinion: Historical accuracy in contemporary film

Over the last few weeks I have watched many biopics and historical films, all of which have given a fairly accurate recount of events and the lives of inspiring figures. However, whenever I watch these films I always consider what has been altered or changed in order to make the story more compelling or to heighten tension. The need to make adjustments is understandable, as sometimes even the most important events need to be highlighted in a manner that is intriguing to audiences and can sustain a feature film length.

I have no problem with this sort of artistic editing to a degree. Ava DuVernay argued, following criticism of the historical accuracy of her film ‘Selma’, that directors and screenwriters are not documentary makers, but story tellers. The essence of her statement was to highlight that the job of a film-maker is to transport the audience into the film’s context, entertain them, make them realise and make them think.

I agree, and these themes come up in an article I wrote mid last year about what I believe makes a good film. Yet, what I detest is when artistic license is used to manipulate a real life figure in a manner that makes sizeable adjustments to their character, legacy and reasoning. What angers me even more is when this is fuelled by political agenda. While I agree that film-makers should not be held to every single fact and event, they must present a fairly accurate depiction of a real person. It is that person’s life they are playing with and to portray them in an incorrect manner, whatever your beliefs, is wrong and unjustifiable. You are broadcasting this to potentially millions of viewers, and to present such an image in a way the audience believes is educational and factual, is simply irredeemable.

I am not a historian. I can’t watch a film and tell you a list of things that the film gets incorrect or inaccurate. No casual, mainstream film goer can do this. Many film makers may believe this gives them freedom to push the genre and experiment with perspective. But I believe that while the minutiae and ‘nitty gritty’ can be adjusted, the general notions of character, relationship and story should remain true. It is the responsibility of the film-maker to make sure the impression given is correct, even if there are some minor alterations with the history.

It is not the responsibility of the audience to feel the need to go away and research the event to check the accuracy of the film. I feel from conversations I have people, and my own experiences, that this a recurring theme these days, where films simply are not trusted like they once were. The internet has become a boiling pot of discourse, leading to a more politically aware public. Social media allows citizens to discuss events, organise protest and become part of something. The extent of this and how it is executed offline is certainly flawed, but the general idea is that audiences are now more politically and socially in tune due to the advancement of technology. However, while facts can be checked and information can be revealed, there is no experience like seeing something depicted visually in film. But why bother changing history in a major manner when audiences can just check it against proper articles, archives and photography on the internet? With the rise of more aware citizens, film-makers may be pressured to make greater statements, emphasise key relationships or dramatise tragedy. The need to get audiences to buy tickets is therefore harming the authenticity of some films, which feel that a sensationalist approach is more enlightening and entertaining.

As I said, I am no historian, and I don’t want to go into a full on discussion of an individual film’s historical accuracy, but I do want to raise DuVernay’s comments once more. The director states that the film is not a documentary and therefore it does not need to be 100% accurate, something I agree with. But the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in ‘Selma’ is undeniably incorrect. Instead of showing the man’s nuance and stressing the incredible pressure he was under from different sectors of the political arena, the main impression provided was that he was an obstructionist, who had a chilly relationship with Martin Luther King. While Johnson was not able to do as much as he wanted to to help the Civil Rights movement, the film neglects to highlight that it was still one of his main goals and intentions in office, and that his relationship with King was incredibly productive and friendly. There are also other instances where Johnson’s character is put in to disrepute, all to create a figure of ‘white mentality’.  To make the statement that the administration as a whole didn’t act quick enough may be correct, but to highlight Johnson as inadequate and provide the sense that he didn’t really care is discrediting. This sensationalist approach was purposefully in opposition to the values of the man. It is signficant to point out that this representation is within a film that attempts to proclaim the importance of every citizen. ‘Selma’ promotes the importance of every person’s beliefs and voice within a democracy, but them strips Johnson of much of his character.

Whether or not the general audience realises these faults is irrelevant. I do not expect DuVernay to realise every aspect of the Selma march, but I do expect a director to never politicise, simplify or manipulate. Stories have always been allegories for greater themes, so doesn’t that at least make the storytellers in some manner educators? I would never go off into detail in a review about a film’s historical accuracy, but if film critics ignore mistakes then it legitimitises the film makers manipulations. It is therefore a critics role to alert audiences to the question of historical accuracy. Even if the critic cannot understand or comment upon the delicate facts, they should propose the statement that the film may not entirely correct and the reader should seek further research if they wish.

In summary, film is an important medium to educate people. It is at its core an allegory for something bigger, a representation of vision. While it needs to be entertaining and engaging, it shouldn’t discredit or manipulate. A viewer should be able to trust the film maker to present a relatively correct examination of history, but due to the current climate where politics have become so widespread with ‘alternative facts’, films often need to make bigger, more potent statements to stand out. The need for controversy and agenda overrules accuracy. Film critics must make audiences aware of these issues, but ultimately film makers should not let their beliefs rule the product they are making. Of course it is important to have a personal voice in a film, or to make films that speak to social problems, but not when it hurts the legacy or character of a real life figure. ‘Selma’ is a powerful film, and a very good one. When reviewing that film I try not to think of its historical accuracy, and attempt to score it upon itself, as an individual product. But as someone aware of the real situation, I feel it is only right to make sure people understand the facts.

I hope I have expressed my thoughts in an understandable, relatable manner. I would love to hear your own views because this is definitely an issue I am passionate about. But most importantly, it’s also one that I go back and forth on. How much freedom should film makers have and what is the role of the critics and those that know the truth?

Photos: “Selma” (Huffington Post), “Jackie” (Bustle), “Hacksaw Ridge” (Fandango)
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