When a film director makes a movie, how much are they permitted to alter history? This recurring question came up recently in the movie Selma, about the early 1960’s Civil Rights movement and specifically the famous 1965 march led by Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. The film, recently shown in a private White House screening by President Obama, has been criticized for portraying President Johnson as an obstructionist to voting rights, an account challenged by some historians and one of President’s Johnson’s close advisors.
Coincidentally, a high-profile movie raised the same question of the filmmaker’s latitude with history exactly 100 years ago. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson held the first-ever private White House screening of a new film, a controversial story about race relations in America that was criticized for taking significant liberties with the historical record. The movie was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation, a technical masterpiece and box office triumph (eventually seen by over 200 million people worldwide). It may have been the first time a director attempted to use a movie to “teach” the audience about history, or alternatively to advance a specific narrative and it revealed the power of film as propaganda.
By artistic standards, The Birth Of A Nation is one America’s greatest movies, perhaps the country’s greatest silent film. When it was released, the groundbreaking techniques Griffith introduced influenced filmmakers everywhere. In 1992, The Library of Congress enshrined it in the National Film Registry.
Yet, despite its cinematic merits, The Birth Of A Nation is indisputably a virulently racist film, one that, through its popularity, helped perpetuate decades of racism, reinforced negative racial stereotypes, and may have contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan resurgence in the 1920’s.
The movie was originally called The Clansman, after the book it was based on, a novel that openly advocated white supremacy, egregiously misportrayed Reconstruction, and dehumanized African-Americans. To lend the movie greater cachet, Griffith changed the name, and President Wilson, a Princeton scholar born of the Antebellum South, thought it a fitting film to show in the White House as it was in concert with his views on racial segregation and white supremacy. In the film, Klansmen save the South from the evils of Reconstruction, of which Wilson once wrote, “Negro rule under unscrupulous adventurers was finally ended, and the natural, inevitable ascendancy of the whites, the responsible class, was established.” Initially, Wilson vouched for the film’s historical accuracy although he later called it “an unfortunate production” in the face of racial tensions and protests by the NAACP.
The Birth of The Nation is an early illustration of the dangers when moviemakers, especially skilled moviemakers, rearrange history to tell a story. A director is certainly under no obligation to seek an exact recreation of events; that is an impossibility and in most cases would not produce an interesting film. Dramatic license means that altering the facts is often necessary to recreate historical events effectively for an audience. Shakespeare certainly changed the facts in his historical plays for dramatic effect.
The dangers, however, are twofold. First, the more the director’s story diverges from the actual historical record, the greater the chance the story becomes overt fiction with an eye toward deliberate manipulation of the audience. Beware the ubiquitous movie disclaimer “based on a true story” - it can mean the opposite of history. In the movie JFK, Oliver Stone employed dozens of demonstrable falsehoods to indict the Government, the military, LBJ, the CIA, the Dallas Police and a shadowy right-wing cabal in the assassination of President Kennedy.
Second, when those associated with the story seek to portray it as verifiable truth, they help perpetuate the deception. Stone insists JFK is “accuarate and true to historic fact as possible”, a claim most academic historians take issue with. In the case of Selma, one of its stars, David Oyelowo said, “It went from a white man who saves the black race by passing these two civil rights acts in quick succession to how this black man with his brothers and sisters on the ground in the face of huge obstacles change history. I think in 2014, personally, that’s a far more satisfying, far more true version of the story”. More satisfying perhaps, but not necessarily more true. The truth of how voting rights were actually secured in the South is certainly a more complex and nuanced chronicle than the movie version.
The Athenian historian Thucydides wrote the only detailed account that remains of the Fifth Century B.C. Peloponnesian Wars. In his works, he maintained that he wrote history so that men of the future would not have to repeat the mistakes and the agony he and his country suffered. We have no inkling of how true his account of that 2500 year-old war is, but his story did indeed instruct us on how men acted then - and how they continue to act today.
The one hundred years between the White House screenings of The Birth Of A Nation and Selma suggest there is much to learn from history. The movie screen may be a starting point but beware of it as the final destination.
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