History Depiction in Movies and TV

I hope the local movie theaters aren’t depending upon me to help their attendance numbers. I simply don’t find the vast majority of first run movie offerings of interest and attend infrequently.

I occasionally borrow movies from the Urbana Regional Library and usually spend quite a bit of time making selections. One reason it takes so long is that the library replaced the shelves that permitted easily viewing the covers of DVD jackets. The new shelves expose only the narrow ends of covers and require more search time (as well as angling my head.)

My low level of viewing films is explained substantially by the selection criteria I apply. First, the theme of any movie with an “R” rating has to be of very special interest (despite the sex and violence that may have influenced the rating). Next, modern “shoot-em-ups,” movies featuring comic book characters, and violent distant future themes are unlikely to be of interest to me. On the other hand, movies based on historic events and personalities are of interest. However, something that particularly troubles me is the willingness of the movie creators to adjust the historical depictions to comply with their political views or to include fictitious content aimed at attracting more viewers.

I like to learn new things. If I watch a historical movie or TV program I hope to come away with information that I can add to my collection of facts. I don’t want to have to conclude that what I watched may have the factual status of a cartoon or sit-com.

I draw a line between semi-historical and hard-historical films. For example, the film, Blind Side, a semi-historical biographical film tells the true story of an impoverished African-American teenager, Michael Oher, befriended by a wealthy couple. With their help Michael became a pro football player. In watching the film I didn’t expect to take as fact all the material presented. On the other hand if a film includes an important historical figure, making a statement or taking an important action, I want it to be accurate.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by the newspaper’s critic at large, Edward Rothstein, dealt with the less than accurate depictions of history in several recent first run movies. One film in that category, “Selma,” dealt with an important historical figure, Martin Luther King, Jr. A second, “The Imitation Game,” was about noted mathematician Allan Turing. Rothstein observed that in these and other movies, fictitious subplots were included or statements were erroneously attributed to historical figures – in the Selma case, President Lyndon Johnson.

When challenged by “fact checkers,” the artists associated with development of such historical films, as well as academicians who deal with the performing arts, argue that historical movies need not be accurate and the creators should have full artistic freedom to adjust facts. A Wall Street Journal letter to the editor writer, responding to the Rothstein article, suggested that in historical movies, in addition to the current movie ratings, e.g. G, PG-13, R, there should be a historical accuracy statement. Another letter writer suggested that, in light of the deficient history coverage in contemporary American education, caution is needed by film viewers in taking as fact what is presented.

When it comes to TV documentaries a similar issue of accuracy exists. While the majority of content may be fact-based, it is possible to create slanted appearances based on the content chosen for inclusion and what is excluded.

When it comes to things artistic, we all have the freedom to form opinions, positive or negative, regarding what we view. My movie and TV viewing standards may place me at a pole of caution that is not shared by the majority of viewers. However, I enjoy that freedom and accept that others do likewise.

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