Hollywood and History

Argo posterSeveral of the films vying for Oscars at tomorrow night’s Academy Awards ceremony are set at various points in American history: Argo, about the rescue of American diplomats from revolutionary Iran; Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden; Lincoln, about the passage of the constitutional amendment that banned slavery; and Django Unchained, about a freed slave in antebellum Mississippi (okay, so we’re straddling the border between history and fantasy with that one). But are they historical?

We’ve previously blogged about historians’ debates about Lincoln, which has subsequently come under fire for how it depicts the votes of congressmen from Connecticut. Then in this morning’s New York Times, film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott reflect on the question of whether film (or other art) has an obligation to be true:

When it comes to this recent crop of historically informed movies, these eternal conundrums have been intensified by an acute contemporary anxiety about the truth that has less to do with how rightly or wrongly “Argo,” for instance, gets its facts than with the crumbling monopolies on the truth held by institutions like the government and the press….

The rules of journalism [or history?] seem clear enough, at least when they are violated. But where, in a work of imagination drawn from real life, are we supposed to draw the line between acceptable invention and irresponsible fabrication? Can we shrug off, say, the preposterous fancies of “Shakespeare in Love” and playful untruths in “The King’s Speech” and still object to the paranoid embroideries of “JFK”? Historians know that facts are not separate from interpretation and the same can be said of taste in movies. There is no single standard that would condemn (or excuse) both the whimsical inventions of “Marie Antoinette,” in which the Queen of France is glimpsed wearing high-top sneakers, and the wholesale revisionism of “Mississippi Burning,” which ridiculously credited white F.B.I. agents for the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement.

Read the full article here(And listen to the Winter 2010 episode of our departmental podcast, Historia!, in which Profs. Gehrz and Mulberry discussed their favorite historical films.)

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