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Henningsen: Hollywood History

From Alan Turing single-handedly defeating the U-Boat menace in The Imitation Game to Stephen Hawking redefining space and time in The Theory of Everything, this year’s best picture nominees exemplify a time-honored Hollywood tradition – the over-the-top historical biography.
And many historians take exception to that. Both Imitation Game and Theory of Everything supposedly misrepresent the scientific work of their subjects. American Sniper, it’s said, legitimizes Bush administration policies, ignoring the larger historical context. Johnson scholars fault Selma for its unsympathetic portrayal of LBJ.

So what – you may say. These are movies not documentaries. Yes, they’re based on fact, but they’re stories. And storytelling requires making choices about evidence and interpretation, whether you’re making a film or writing history.

Well, speaking as an historian myself, I’m not sure we should get so overheated about how Hollywood treats the past. It’ll always oversimplify, ignore chronology, forget about context, and transform complex historical issues into simple fables of good and evil. Indeed today’s alleged violations of history pale in comparison to the excesses of the Golden Age. Many of us grew up half-believing that actor Don Ameche invented everything, that foreign men of conscience – like Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, and Benito Jaurez – all looked like Paul Muni, and that Elizabeth I resembled Bette Davis. Of course Hollywood overdid it – that was part of the fun. One critic’s response to C. B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments was “It’s what God would’ve done if he had the money.”

There’s no question that damage can be done. For years Hollywood’s demeaning portrayals of African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians and Latinos reinforced existing prejudice; reducing their roles in our collective past to caricatures of fun or menace. Still, they also inspired protest and debate, forcing Americans to take a hard look at themselves and their society. Some people claim that Gone With the Wind started more discussions about race than a score of scholarly tomes - and provoked many scholars to write books setting us straight on the real facts about the Old South.

And that’s the point, I think. If films inspire, anger, and provoke us to argue about them and find out more about the subject - then both art and history are served.

As an historian, I’d like films to get it right. As a history teacher, I’m happy if films get us talking.