Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
On today, Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I want to invite you to consider with me a sort of heady question: How much should an author (of either fiction or nonfiction) bend true events for the sake of art? (And, yes, that boundary is probably in different places for novelists and nonfiction writers.)
The film “Selma,” which is the first film to ever center on King’s life, raised the issue of art vs. accuracy for me. While the film has won several awards already, historians have decried it because, they point out, the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Baines Johnson was egregiously inaccurate in how it was portrayed. Apparently LBJ was actively supportive of King’s civil rights efforts, but the film depicts Johnson as saying he understands the need but doesn’t believe the timing is right to press the issue. As a matter of fact, some historians are so outraged at this depiction they are saying people shouldn’t view the film.
I watched an interview on The PBS Newshour with Ava DuVernay, the film’s director and executive producer. When asked about the outcry from historians, she replied that the film was art and was not an attempt to be a documentary.
As creators of art, you all know that an enormous number of factors go into each decision you make. Film, like any art form, has many inherent restrictions–the number of scenes, cost of filming, actors’ limitations, movie’s length, screenwriter’s choices, director’s vision for the piece, etc.
And yet, I asked myself, what purpose did changing a well-documented fact serve?
First, it would heighten the drama. Another boundary for King to overcome, increasing his heroic stature.
Second, it would create another conflict in the film. Conflict helps to engage viewers and to move the story along.
Undoubtedly there are other factors, but those two seem obvious.
But was the departure from facts necessary? So necessary that accuracy was sacrificed? This film was created to raise awareness of why Selma was important, who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, and why civil rights was even an issue. It was attempting to depict a crucial moment in our country’s history.
It’s not like the LBJ-King relationship was a side-note; Johnson’s support was crucial. Nor was this a story invented in a screenwriter’s mind. It seems drama could have built up around how Johnson would respond to the civil rights cause and the ways King chose to address the problem. I’m sure that was a significant issue for the civil rights movement.
From what I’ve read, the two men had a bit of a prickly relationship; so it’s not like they blended together like cream and sugar. But showing that would have required greater nuance, more screen time, and wouldn’t have been as big of a moment in the film.
I’m not arguing that Duvernay made the wrong choice; I just want to understand why she made it.
I found her response to the question weak, when put to her in the interview. She repeated a couple of times that people should view the film to decide for themselves. Okay, I understand she granted the interview to publicize the film, but her decision not to try to explain why that choice was made caused me to wonder if she had given it much thought. Perhaps I’m naive or idealistic or both, but I wanted her to engage the art vs. accuracy question because it’s one every creator of art should struggle with.
In what ways have you struggled with the art vs. accuracy question? What parameters caused you to go one way or the other? What other films or books can you recall that danced around the question? Did the director or writer answer it in a way that you agreed with?
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Photo credit: Danilo Rizzulti, FreeDigitalPhotos.net