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The Controversy Over 'Selma' Shows Why You Shouldn't Fact-Check Movies

Paramount Pictures

The fact-checking of films has run amok. Selma had not even been released in most theaters before the hounds were out. Last month, a former LBJ aide and the director of the LBJ Library and Museum accused the movie of playing down the president’s role in the Voting Rights Act, setting off an Internet debate that may affect the movie’s Oscar chances. 

But this was just the latest chapter. Just this past year, The Imitation Game was criticized for giving Alan Turing too much credit for breaking the Nazi code, while The Theory of Everything was harshly judged against the memoir upon which it was based. Time magazine analyzed out the true impulses of Unbroken’s Louis Zamperini, including such crucial facts as whether he wanted to impress girls with running. In a perhaps more understandable endeavor, Mark Schultz, the Olympic wrestler brought to life in Foxcatchertook to social media to object to his own portrayal in the movie, while media outlets conducted a more composed assessment of fact versus fiction.

It’s perfectly natural to want to know more about the events that inspired a movie. In fact, that’s part of the point of these movies—to bring to life a little-known story or interesting slice of history. Knowing how a movie diverges from history can also deepen our understanding of it, shedding light on the artistic choices made by the director. Ava DuVernay, as she stated in Vulturewanted to tell the story from the perspective of MLK and those who marched with him. Before DuVernay took over, the film had in fact focused more on LBJ.

But our desire to know “what really happened” should not cloud our judgment of a movie’s quality. Writing about movies as if they are merely compilations of facts sets up an unproductive, flawed standard of criticism. It suggests that “inaccurate” equals “bad.” Movie-making, like all storytelling, is subjective, even manipulative. Movies are the manifestation of one person’s vision of a narrative. 

Selma’s mayor, George P. Evans, defended the movie by reminding people that it is not a documentary. But even documentaries are subjective, and the most interesting documentarians readily admit to their biases. Night and Fog (1955), the classic Holocaust documentary, never explicitly mentions the Jews because it was made to influence France’s behavior in the Algerian War in addition to recording the Holocaust. And some of the most interesting more contemporary documentaries are the ones (The Fog of WarThe Act of Killing) that interrogate the gray zones between truth, memory, and history. 

Moreover, the very documents used to fact-check films like Selma have their own biases. Two historians can look at the same set of facts and come out with radically different versions of world events—and both of those narratives can have value. In the case of Selma, those criticizing the movie have their own vested interests; the two main Selma critics worked for LBJ or his estate. It is obviously in their interests to defend his legacy.

We go to the movies to be entertained, not—generally—to be educated. Historical movies are works of fiction, just like superhero movies and rom-coms. In fact, certain historical figures are reinterpreted so frequently in movies and television that they adopt pop culture identities removed—but not contradictory—to their historical selves. Take Queen Victoria: The long-reigning queen shows up besieged by a werewolf in “Doctor Who,” as a dodo-bird-eating villain in the stop-motion comedy Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012); and, in more serious versions, as a young woman played by Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria (2009) and a grieving widow in Mrs. Brown (1997), a role that earned Judi Dench an Oscar nod. Only a few of these interpretations bear any resemblance to the one documented in history books.

Movies, like all works of fiction, require a suspension of disbelief, even if they are based on someone who really existed. They are made to entertain, to appeal to emotion, and to tell a compelling story—even if that story is not the whole truth. Ava DuVernay acknowledged this when she addressed the controversy surrounding Selma. “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history,” she tweeted. “Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”