Film Features

Who Cares if Films are Historically Inaccurate?

Time Magazine

It's just a movie, right?

Films "based on a true story" tend to blur the line between fiction and reality as thoroughly as Trump's Twitter account.

But history is not a social construct that can be upended as long as there are witnesses to hold us accountable. From biopics to period dramas, films recounting true events call for closer scrutiny than just taking their stories at face value. Should we expect historical accuracy? Not in all cases. Sometimes embellishments are justified if they produce a better movie. Not to mention, some details frankly aren't important. The fact that 300 depicts fit Spartan soldiers in loincloths rather than body armor, or Braveheart's battle scenes make 13th century Scottish soldiers look like tactical buffoons, doesn't skew our perception of the world.

And despite our culture's love of skepticism, historical accuracy seems to matter less and less the better a film is received. We can overlook fumbled facts if the film is seen as a great cinematic achievement. Many laud how A Beautiful Mind depicts schizophrenia, despite it being largely inaccurate about John Nash's life. Depending on the subject, filmmakers and viewers feel they owe different forms of deference to the material. After all, we're still cool with Pocahontas as a children's movie, for which we set a low bar. Aside from the erasure of genocide and indigenous slavery, the real-life Pocahontas was 12 years old when she met Disney's OG colonizer John Rolfe, who thankfully wasn't into it (at least until she was 19 and a slave).

Many of this year's Oscar-nominated films were based on true events but spun off the tracks of history. Sometimes, those creative liberties were justified. In other cases, they were pretty fucked up.

1. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Spike Lee's film opens with the title card, "Dis joint is based on some fo' real, fo' real shit." Indeed, the movie's adapted from real Colorado cop Ron Stallworth's 2014 memoir. The gist of the movie is true: between 1978 and 1979, Stallworth infiltrated his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by striking up a friendship with the Klan's Grand Wizard, David Duke.

The film's creative liberties primarily involve invented altercations between Stallworth and the Klan members and a significant change of identity for his fellow cop. In the film, Stallworth's partner in the ruse, played by Adam Driver, is Jewish, resulting in immediate suspicion from the Klan, heightened stakes for the characters, and an action-packed climax. In reality, his partner wasn't Jewish, and the entire investigation occurred without Klan members casting any doubt on the two cops. But that's a boring movie.

Blackkklansman isn't entirely accurateVanity Fair

So does it matter that the real infiltration was easier–and less violent–than it was portrayed? In this case, no. Not only does Stallworth approve of the adaptation, but the white supremacist he duped feels insulted, so everybody else wins. "The film even changes the facts in Ron Stallworth's book, Black Klansman, to demonize me," Duke, the KKK Grand Wizard, said. "They brag about how this guy conned me. Somebody calls me on the phone, I tend to trust people, I talk to people, I've got nothing to hide." Stallworth agrees, "Spike made him look kind of stupid, but he was stupid in how this whole thing transpired 40 years ago."

The film's creative liberties are justified for the sake of enhancing drama, because they don't alter its broader narrative about anti-black racism in the U.S, which is ultimately the point of Spike Lee's film.

2. Green Book (2018)

While BlacKkKlansman isn't a perfect movie, many of us related to Spike Lee when he tried to storm out of the Oscars when Green Book won Best Picture. Unlike Lee's film, the Academy's pick is co-written by the son of its real-life subject, Tony "Lip" Vallelonga. The simple premise is following along Tony's job as the driver for piano virtuoso Dr. Donald Shirley on his tour through the Jim Crow South in 1962. The movie would have us believe that Tony became enlightened to change his racist views under Shirley's guidance, and the two formed a lifelong friendship.

Neither Vallelonga and Shirley lived to see the film, but Shirley's brother condemned it as "a symphony of lies." In fact, Vallelonga's son co-wrote the script based on his father's notes–with no input from Shirley's surviving family members. It's true that the men bonded while Vallelonga drove Shirley through a contemptuous South just one year after the Freedom Riders were arrested and attacked on a similar route. The musician reflected in a 2010 documentary about the tour, "We never had an employer-employee relationship, you don't have time for that foolishness. My life is in this man's hands, do you understand me? So we got to be friendly with one another."

The real Shirley with Mahershala AliHistory vs. Hollywood

However, Shirley's family members dispute the film's loose interpretation of "friendly" as the kind of transformative lifelong friendship depicted in the film. While Shirley's siblings and nephew take issue with the cold and distant portrayal of the musician, the most offensive inaccuracy is how the film stages the men's friendship as another White Savior narrative. Vallelonga protects Shirley from racism in the Deep South; in return, Shirley shares his exotic wisdom. Mahershala Ali, who portrayed Shirley, even called the family members after the film's release to apologize. Shirley's nephew recalls it was a "very, very respectful phone call...What he said was, 'I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.'"

In this case, straying from the source material just to create a Feel Good Movie About Racism is a cheap, lazy move that romanticizes racism as being curable on a nine-day road trip. As a result, not only does the man who wrote Shallow Hal have an Oscar, but Hollywood bastardized what was probably a genuine, unconventional connection between two people who experienced racism from opposing perspectives.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.

3. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Would Freddie Mercury be pleased with Bohemian Rhapsody? We obviously can't know. Does the film inform Mercury's cultural legacy? With Rami Malek named the Academy's Best Actor of 2019 for his high-profile portrayal of the man, absolutely. With that being said, the Queen bio-pic sacrifices true-to-life details for what is essentially a two-hour-long music video. From the band's early development to Mercury launching a solo career and the group "reuniting" to perform in the 1985 Live Aid broadcast, nothing depicted in the film is accurate. But for general viewers who aren't die-hard Queen fans, that's pretty dismissible.

The most controversial–and justified–grievance about Bohemian Rhapsody is how Freddie Mercury's bisexuality and HIV diagnosis are mishandled. While the film implies that Mercury had romantic relationships with both men and women, it manages to both erase the icon's bisexuality and negatively depict homosexuality. From his lifelong bond with the "love of his life," Mary Austin, to his final relationship with Jim Hutton, the film suggests Mercury was a capricious and nervous man prone to vainglory and promiscuity. Similarly, the film changes the timeline of his HIV diagnosis in order to dramatize the Live Aid performance with the implication that the band was inspired to reunite (in fact, they weren't separated) to support Mercury in his battle.

Rami Malek wins best actor.Hollywood Reporter

In reality, the performance was years before he was diagnosed, and altering the timeline conflates Mercury's legacy with his disease. Indiewire critiqued, "It's inexplicably perverse that the movie retcons Mercury's HIV diagnosis as the band's motivation for Live Aid." Writer Kevin Fallon calls the whole film "an insult to Freddie Mercury" as "a cruel and manipulative version of tragedy porn that is inaccurate and perpetuates the trope of AIDS as punishment for gay promiscuity."

While we can't expect biopics to flawlessly capture the personality and legacy of its subject, the point of the genre is to contextualize individuals in history and modern culture. In doing so, it's a given that films sensationalize events, personalities are exaggerated, and reality is reduced to a tagline. But questioning historical accuracy is important if for no other reason than to hold filmmakers accountable for manipulating the truth. Who's being served by re-writing history? What messages are being manufactured? Ultimately, blanket dismissal of those questions can spiral into a strange and lazy relationship with media, like Trump mistaking a movie for current events or someone who solely relies on Twitter for the news. Spike Lee puts it simply, "You have to do the research. If you don't know about something, then you ask the right people who do."


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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