History through the Lens Movies Based on Past Events Aren't Meant to Be Textbooks

By Caryn James 1995, New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 21, 1995 | Go to article overview

History through the Lens Movies Based on Past Events Aren't Meant to Be Textbooks


Caryn James 1995, New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


WHETHER the subject is the Black Panther Party or quiz shows, Thomas Jefferson's sex life or Dorothy Parker's accent, there is one reaction moviegoers can expect when a historical film appears: the scolding, finger-wagging "tut-tut" response. As in, "Tut-tut-tut, Robert Redford changed the facts." Or, "Tut-tut-tut, Mario Van Peebles left facts out."

Van Peebles's current film, "Panther," which presents a saintly version of the early days of the Black Panther Party, has become a predictable lightning rod for the tut-tut critics from the left (former Panthers territorial about their stories) and the right (conservatives who see the Panthers as outlaws with no redeeming qualities).

The director and his father, Melvin Van Peebles, who wrote the screenplay, have created a sometimes powerful and often unfocused movie. They have been treated as if they were charlatans trying to pull a fast one on the American public.

In "Quiz Show," one of the best films of 1994, Redford and the screenwriter Paul Attanasio bent the facts to enhance the film's drama. On screen, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) cracked open the quiz show scandals single-handedly, which was not the case in life. Off screen, the film makers were treated like schoolboys who had done sloppy homework.

"Jefferson in Paris" is currently receiving the same condescending treatment, just as "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Immortal Beloved," a fictional biography of Beethoven, did last year, following the pattern of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" and Oliver Stone's "JFK."

But these film makers know exactly what they're doing: taking dramatic license. Van Peebles creates a lopsided positive view of the Black Panthers to offset what he sees as a lopsided negative one. "Panther" is a drama and a polemic. It deserves to be judged on those terms, not as if it were a grade-school lesson plan.

Presenting history on screen is not a simple issue or a new one. But the recent boom in historical films has been greeted by just-the-facts reactions that are simplistic about both history and art.

Such responses naively assume that an accumulation of facts equals truth. But a collection of facts is no more than an almanac. History is the interpretation of those facts, and even ostensibly "objective" versions have some implicit point of view.

And as artists have always known, a deeper knowledge - about character, philosophy or politics - often emerges from the gaps between the facts. One of Faulkner's crafty narrators puts it this way in "Absalom, Absalom!" (a novel about discerning the truth of the past through the imagination): "There is a might-have-been which is more true than truth."

Film makers need dramatic license if they are to discover the more profound truth of that might-have-been.

It is revealing that so many people now expect fact-based fictions like "Panther" and "Jefferson in Paris" to be educational tools instead of art or entertainment. Such narrow, pedagogical responses to movies tend to be tremulous and fearful.

Beneath the nit-picking about facts, there are usually more potent questions: How dare they say the Panthers were good? That quiz shows were bad? That Jefferson slept with his slave? How dare they challenge convention?

The tut-tut reactions suggest much about the loss of faith in American education, about the influence of the movies, and about the link between storytelling and social power.

"Panther" was created as a deliberate challenge to established power. The cliche that history is written by the winners cuts deep. If Mario Van Peebles rewrites history, he claims a power that seriously shakes up anyone who thought the Panthers were dead.

As many commentators have noted, Van Peebles uses facts selectively to suit his purpose. He ignores drug use and rampant sexism among the Panthers and plays down their violence.

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