Historical Accuracy and the Awards Season: What’s at Stake?

From "Green Book" to "BlacKkKlansman," films face the question of whether historical fiction has a duty to be factually accurate — and if that impacts their Oscar chances.
Historical Accuracy and the Awards Season: What's at Stake

Historical accuracy hounds awards season contenders almost every year. This year, films like “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Green Book” came under fire for presenting distorted or incomplete depictions of real-life people and events, once again raising the question of whether historical fiction has a duty to be factually accurate.

For “Blackkklansman,” although marketed as an “outrageous and incredible true story,” the plot takes considerable creative license and differs significantly from the real-life events on which it’s based. Most notably, Boots Riley, director of the acclaimed satire “Sorry to Bother You,” shed light on the film’s faults in an incisive essay, in which he called it “a made-up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.”

Suggesting a more nefarious motivation, Riley added: “It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.” (Director Spike Lee only said he would no longer engage in public feuds with other celebrities.)

In “Green Book,” family members of Donald Shirley (the character played by Mahershala Ali) have condemned the film, saying that they were not contacted by its representatives until after it was made, and that it misrepresents Shirley in a number of ways, including his relationship with his family. (Ali recently apologized to the Shirley family.)

"Bohemian Rhapsody"
“Bohemian Rhapsody”20th Century Fox

And since its opening, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been fact-checked to death, facing harsh criticism over its numerous historical inaccuracies that misrepresent the legacy of Freddie Mercury.

At stake is the perceived freedom screenwriters may have in adapting factual material. Certainly, audiences don’t walk into theaters expecting history lessons, but if a film sells itself as a retelling of actual events, as opposed to being inspired by them, there’s an expectation that the film is presenting the story as it happened.

Cinema has tremendous power, arguably transmitting information in a more effective and permanent way than historical biographies. This makes artistic license more than an aesthetic choice. For many viewers, a work of historical fiction might be their entry, or even their only look, into a person’s life, event, or period, especially as reading among Americans continues to decline in the face of screens big and small.

Still: Is this the filmmakers’ responsibility? Any dramatization implies change. Time has to be compressed, sometimes resulting in the loss of characters and/or the creation of new ones, and events are combined. The goal is to create a dramatic, cohesive whole, and that is what the audience ultimately demands.

Rigorous research is important, but it’s impossible to operate as both a first-rate screenwriter and a first-rate historian. Perhaps a screenwriter has no real obligation beyond telling a compelling story, even if it means tampering with historical fact to provide the gripping dramatic flow that real life doesn’t always sustain.

So what does accuracy mean for a film’s award chances? Many films challenged for their inaccuracies have gone on to win Best Picture Oscars: “Argo” (2013), “The King’s Speech” (2011) and “The Hurt Locker” (2010). And while “Green Book” and “Blackkklansman” continue to face public thrashings, they also continue to rack up awards season nominations.

Should their performances be rewarded, they will join the list of actors and actresses who have won Academy Awards for playing real people, in films criticized for inaccurate or entirely fabricated depictions, including Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland,” 2007), Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club,” 2014), and Helen Mirren (“The Queen,” 2007), to name a few.

“Zero Dark Thirty”

On the other hand, Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) quite possibly saw its Oscar chances upended when politicians criticized the film for what they believed was its implication that the United States embraces the torture of prisoners, and that the act produces results. Bigelow responded in an op-ed published in the LA Times, asserting that “depiction is not endorsement,” and that her intent was to simply “shine a light on dark deeds.”

And while the film appeared on dozens of critics’ top ten lists of 2012, and received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, it won only Best Sound Editing (its only win, which it shared with “Skyfall”).

Amidst all these controversies lies the assumption that cinema is the most influential form of media. And while it often serves as an escape from reality, filmmakers should still commit to some truth and fairness in fictionalizing of real-life events. The challenge is to aim to tell a compelling and complete story that can survive the most intense audit.

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