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Movies are the historical record.
Americans experience the Vietnam War by watching “Apocalypse Now,” slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” and D-Day through “Saving Private Ryan.” A lot more Americans watch historical movies than read history books. Which, when done well, is not a bad thing. I’ve read countless books about the collapse of Nazi Germany, but the brilliantly-acted and directed reenactment of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker depicted in the masterful 2004 German film “Downfall” can’t be beat.
When a film purports to depict a historical event, it becomes the only version of what most people believe really happened. So, as we move further into a post-literate society, misleading historical filmmaking isn’t just a waste of 2-1/2 hours.
It’s a crime against the truth.
The Ava DuVernay-directed film “Selma” is at the center of controversy, both due to its semi-snubbing by the Oscars – viewed as backtracking from last year’s relatively racially diverse choice of nominees – and accusations that it plays loose with history.
Former LBJ aide and Democratic Party stalwart Joe Califano fired the first shot with a Washington Post op-ed. “Selma,” wrote Califano, “falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.”
Robert Caro’s magisterial four-volume biography of Johnson portrays him as a deeply flawed man, but one whose passion to push for desegregation and an end to discrimination against blacks informed his political career throughout his life, though it wasn’t always obvious to his detractors.
It was only after JFK’s assassination brought him to power – actually, a movie portraying Kennedy as reluctant to support civil rights would have been accurate – that he had the chance to push through both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he did aggressively and quickly, despite what he famously predicted would be the loss of the South to the Democratic Party for a generation or more.
Johnson gave J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI too much latitude, which Hoover used to harass King, but there’s no evidence that, as the movie depicts, it was LBJ who ordered Hoover to send audiotapes of King having sex with other women to his wife. And let’s be clear: every important conversation in the Oval Office was being taped. We have the transcripts. We would know if that had happened.
Califano takes his defense of his former boss too far when he says “[the march on] Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Otherwise, the facts are on his side: the LBJ in “Selma” is not the LBJ King knew.
Fans of the film argue that it doesn’t matter.
“Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story? Why yes — just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made,” the media writer David Carr writes in The New York Times.
Yes, in a movie the story is the thing. It’s hard to imagine “The Queen” — about the inner workings of the British monarchy and its relationship to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana — working without a lot of made-up dialogue between the principals. However, the great detail of these obviously private conversations signals to the audience that they don’t come out of a transcript, and that we must be witnessing a fictionalized account.
There comes a point, on the other hand, where so many corners get cut and so many characters get tilted that a film ceases to resemble history and enters the territory of complete fabulism and, in the case of “Selma” and LBJ, retroactive character assassination.
The clash between MLK and LBJ – King pushing, Johnson resisting – isn’t merely some extraneous detail of the script in “Selma.” It’s the main plot of the film.
It didn’t go down like that, yet thanks to this BS film, a generation of Americans will grow up thinking that it did.
Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post repeatedly calls “Selma” “fiction.” As in: “film and other fiction.” To her, apparently, film is always fiction. But it’s not.
Like books, film is a medium.
Film can be nonfiction.
Film can be fiction.
“Califano’s approach,” she writes, “besides setting a [sic] odd standard for how fiction ought to work…suggests that we should check fiction for inaccuracies.”
As usual, the crux of the debate boils down to an inability to agree on definitions of terms. For those like Rosenberg who believe that everyone knows movies are just for fun, it doesn’t matter that “Schindler’s List” depicts showers at Auschwitz spraying water rather than Zyklon B — even though that never happened, and thus serves to understate one of the horrors of the Holocaust. To the all-movies-are-fiction crowd, “Zero Dark Forty” is cool despite its completely false claim that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” director DuVernay told PBS. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”
That’s sleazy. Truth is, her film is being marketed as fact, as she knew it would be. And it’s doing better because of it.
Audiences need a ratings system to separate films that purport to recount actual historical events from those like “Selma,” which are fictional tales using historical figures as hand puppets.
I suggest that the MPAA institute the following ratings:
Rated H for Historical: a film that makes a good faith effort to recount history accurately.
Rated S-H for Semi-Historical: a film that relies on devices like made-up dialogue and encounters, but whose basic plot line reflects history to the best of our knowledge.
Rated H-F for Historical Fiction: a film in which anything, including the basic plot line, can be made up out of whole cloth.
If the movies are going to lie to me, I deserve to know before shelling out my $12.50.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
Though laudable for finally acknowledging that the United States tortures and kidnaps people, the Senate torture report’s principal arguments against torture rely not on the basis of morality or law, but its supposed ineffectiveness. This what moral corruption looks like.
President Obama refers to both torturers and their victims as just plain “folks” in an effort to simultaenously be phony, inspid, and diminishing of the horrors inflicted by the United States government, an institution for which no single human being is as responsible.
No Context, But Propaganda Is Amusing
Try as they may to make the news as boring as possible, U.S. media outlets keep churning out hilarious “news” stories. Hardly a day passes without the release of some piece whose content is so ridiculous, its tone so absurdly credulous, that it makes us feel as if we live in a bizarre reincarnation of the propaganda-soaked Soviet Union.
Remember “Baghdad Bob”? Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Iraq’s information minister during the 2003 U.S. invasion, kept denying reality, insisting that Saddam’s regime was winning even as attacking tanks appeared in the background of his camera shots. I had a Baghdad Bob flashback moment earlier this week while listening to NPR’s afternoon news program “All Things Considered.”
“President Obama toured the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington today joined by Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel. Mr. Obama said the U.S. must never again allow such atrocities to take place,” said Melissa Block.
The implication is that Obama cares about protecting innocent people from state-run mass murder. That the U.S. has moral standing. But…but…
The U.S. is currently the world’s leading perpetrator of atrocities!
American wars against Afghanistan and Iraq have slaughtered at least two million people and injured many millions more. The U.S. maintains a network of “black site” secret prisons and concentration camps around the world. President Obama claims the right to assassinate anyone, including U.S. citizens, anywhere in the world, without having to explain himself to a court. We’re the #1 arms dealer on the planet. And, as a British newspaper has learned, the military maintains dozens of secret drone bases here inside the U.S., obviously for future use against the enemies of our increasingly oppressive police state.
The Obama Administration isn’t killing as many people as were killed during the Holocaust—but that’s not saying much. Does NPR think we’ve forgotten that the hands of our political leaders are dripping with blood? Or is NPR trying to compete with Comedy Central?
The report included an Obama sound bite: “And when innocents suffer, it tears at our conscience. Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence simply for demanding their universal rights. We have to do everything we can.”
When innocents suffer. Well, not all innocents, right, Mr. President? Like, we’re not supposed to lose sleep over the thousands of detainees—including children—in U.S. concentration camps at Guantánamo, Bagram, Diego Garcia, Thailand, and Bulgaria. All of who are, under U.S. law, innocent of any crime (because they’ve never been charged, much less convicted, in court).
Anyway, it’s not like the U.S. is doing “everything we can” for the Syrian resistance. Not that we should. But coverage like this—it really does hearken back to the glory days of Pravda and Izvestia.
It’s bad enough to be fed propaganda. But at least make an effort when you lie. This crap is insulting.
In the same report, Don Gonyea let loose this howler: “Mr. Obama announced new sanctions against nations that commit grave human rights abuses through technology that includes cell phone tracking and monitoring citizens on the Internet.”
What a kidder! Such awesomely dry delivery!
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported: “The President took aim at Syria and Iran, whose leaders have tapped compliant phone companies and Internet services to hunt down dissenters.”
Listening to and reading that, you could almost forget that Obama voted for FISA, which retroactively legalized Bush’s illegal domestic wiretapping program, which was carried out by the National Security Agency and—ahem—compliant phone companies such as AT&T. FISA also radically expanded the federal government’s right to listen to your phone calls and intercept your email without a warrant.
Obama’s own commission of “grave human rights abuses through technology that includes cell phone tracking and monitoring citizens on the Internet” is context worth mentioning in a story about Obama imposing sanctions on other countries that do the same things. Maybe something like this: “Mr. Obama, whose Administration vigorously asserts its right to track Americans’ cell phones and track them on the Internet, announced sanctions against other countries that do the same thing.”
They wouldn’t be telling us anything we didn’t already know. But here’s the thing—as ignorant and stupid as the American public is, the media thinks we’re even stupider and more ignorant!
If nothing else, our neo-Soviet media sure is funny.
(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)