Magazine article Insight on the News

At the Movies, History and Fact Get Stomped on like Popcorn

Magazine article Insight on the News

At the Movies, History and Fact Get Stomped on like Popcorn

Article excerpt

Asparrow can hardly topple off a bough these days without a fuss of one sort or another. Take, for example, the impassioned campaign of an Iranian-born resident of Northern Virginia against an Oscarwinning team of movie makers -- with Thomas Jefferson buffeted in the middle.

History, or the distortion of history in pop culture, is the ructious theme.

The record of the past may largely be "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," as the great historian Edward Gibbon sardonically observed.

But history is something vitally more: It is the connective tissue of past and present that will shape the character of future generations. It is the memory of our species.

That depends, of course, upon history as an intellectually honest discipline, a discipline as accurate and conscientious as can be; it depends upon historians who do not enlist their craft and art in the service of ideology, who respect the demands of reason and imagination, and who believe that a "reality" can be retrieved from the fragments of yesteryear.

This dispute involves history that segues into pop culture -- a movie now in production called Jefferson in Paris, produced, directed and written by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. They've made classy films, A Room With a View and Howard's End among them.

Enter, too, Bahman Batmanghelidji, a leading developer (and millionaire). He's incensed at what he considers a dishonest and defamatory portrayal of Jefferson while the great statesman was in Paris in the period before his presidency.

The Merchant-Ivory script pivots on the long-asserted but never documented (indeed, thoroughly discredited) liaison between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. (There is, however, historical evidence that two of Jefferson's nephews consorted with Sally Hemings and her sister.) The charge of Jefferson's involvement with Hemings was scandalously spread even during Jefferson's life.

Batmanghelidji said the film portrayal "is a degradation not just of the architect of democracy but of [Jefferson's] spiritual legacy to the rest of the world."

He added, in an interview with the Washington Post, "Americans don't realize, I think, how profoundly Jefferson and his ideas live on in the hopes and dreams of people in other countries."

Batmanghelidji has mounted a campaign by mail and telephone to get the filmmakers to desist -- an act of "moral persuasion," not censorship, in his view -- the sort of action that scuttled a similar television production some years ago. …

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