Should movies about history actually be about, you know, history? In other words, is it important for movies purporting to describe historical events to describe those events accurately? Recent movies, such as Selma – which highlights Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement – have rekindled the debate.
Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, chose to portray President Lyndon B. Johnson as a condescending enemy of civil rights, who scolds Martin Luther King and orders J. Edgar Hoover to disparage and discredit the iconic civil rights leader. The problem, however, is that none of this is true; LBJ was very proud of his administrations civil rights achievements, and viewed King as a helpful partner in his efforts. Why, then, does DuVernay depict LBJ as a villain? She explained: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie. Black people should tell their own stories from their own perspectives.” In other words, as Edward Rothstein writes, “[DuVernay] wanted a history in which African-Americans determined their own fates instead of seeming like passive recipients of Johnson’s good will.” (Edward Rothstein, Who’s History is it, Anyway?, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015) The actual historical facts did not convey the message that DuVernay hoped to express in her film, so she simply altered the facts. For DuVernay, and those in her camp, historical truth is a secondary value that may be trumped by other, more essential values.
Within the traditional Jewish community, the value placed upon historical truth has remained a simmering debate for decades. “Rebbe Biographies,” which are actually hagiographies that significantly alter or ignore factual details of their subjects’ lives, have proliferated. Rabbi Shimon Schwab justified this practice, with an argument similar to DuVernay’s: “What ethical purpose […]