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
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
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. …