New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently took Selma director Ava DuVernay to task for getting some of the details wrong in her film about Martin Luther King Jr.—especially the parts where she made LBJ a bit more racist than history tells us he actually was. Dowd wasn’t the first writer to criticize the inaccuracy of Selma, and DuVernay answered earlier complaints by saying she was making “art,” and that she was not a “historian” or “documentarian.” This wasn’t good enough for Dowd, who pointed out that the director was having her cake and eating it too by accepting the plaudits for the fraught subject matter while subtly altering the facts for dramatic purposes.
Art vs. Truth is an old argument, and one that depends very much on the situation. Here now, for the benefit of future artists, is the Artist Authenticity Scale, outlining when you’re allowed to go wild with the facts, and when you should adhere to the strictest version of truth possible.
Let’s start at the less rigorous end of the spectrum.
Are you creating a work of fiction? Awesome! Go crazy! Literally write whatever you want to write, short of inciting revolt against the government, which is called sedition and is illegal. This includes works of arts from books to films to movies to comics to WHATEVER. As long as you’re working under that fictional umbrella, you’re great!
These are works of art that depend on actual historical figures, but are still marked as works of fiction. A great example would be Forrest Gump, who runs into a lot of actual people who did actual things over the course of the film. He’s a modern Zelig, which is another example of a film about a fake person who interacts with real ones. In these cases, you should sort of respect the actual life and times of the historical person, but it doesn’t really matter. I wouldn’t advise putting Richard Nixon in a space suit and saying he walked on the moon, because that would be a weird distortion, but there’s no real reason to be hyper-sensitive to the truth here.
This is where we’re talking about movies like Dances With Wolves, which are very much set in a specific time and place, and those details are important engines of the plot. In these cases, the artist should make at least a token effort to get the details right. It’s not a huge deal if there are a few anachronisms or liberties taken, but there’s a bit more responsibility not to completely muck things up.
Okay, look, if you’re making Braveheart, and it’s about a real historical character, we pretty much get that history is a little vague in those long-ago times, and in order to personalize a character, you’re going to have to invent personality quirks and lines of dialogue and even whole scenes. You should still stick to the broad strokes, historically speaking, and it’s not cool to mess up the winner of a battle or to fudge the big facts, but if certain real events are out of sequence, and there are assumptions made about certain figures whose personalities have been lost to the fog of time, we will forgive you.
I don’t want to tell you that you can have zero moments of artistic liberty in these movies, because obviously it’s not possible to know what happened in every second of a person’s life. Small assumptions are fine. However, there’s a lot of documentation these days, and even if the finer points require some fill-in, you the artist shouldn’t deviate very far from what we actually know.
There’s nothing humans love to document more than war, right down to the nitty-gritty details of how many cannons and muskets each side had. So if you’re making art specifically about a war, you should probably be able to get this mostly right, otherwise, why are you making this in the first place? I mean, by all means go ahead and invent the plucky soldier who just wants to get back to the ol’ homestead and marry his sweetheart Debbie, but in terms of the finer points, there’s no reason not to get it perfect.
A lot of people won’t agree with this, but I sort of get that you’re going to exaggerate certain details in the service of comedy. I’m okay with you, David Sedaris, as long as you’re not devolving into outright invention. I want an anchor of truth!
If you’re going to call it a “memoir,” and it’s dramatic, and you don’t want to put the word “fictional” on the cover, then please tell the truth. Cough James Frey Cough.
Don’t screw it up, guys. Sure, you might have to give your best guess on certain matters that aren’t fully documented, but make sure to note the fact that you’re guessing, and your guess, while educated, isn’t ironclad truth.
Reallllly don’t screw it up, guys. Don’t make LBJ a hardcore racist if he wasn’t. I’m pro-Dowd in this case. By all means, make art, but don’t use that an excuse to screw with the reality of historical figures, who don’t deserve to be slandered because of your artistic impulses.
Feel free to make it literary or atmospheric or any number of adjectives, but don’t make it blatantly untrue!
It’s as simple as that. Now that this has been written, I look forward to plagiarism and lying and bad mistakes being a thing of the past. Hurray!