Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Do Historical Dramas Need to Be Entirely Accurate?

Scene from Stonewall
There's been something that I have secretly been hoping for this Oscar season. I have hoped that there would be a strong representation of gay culture. Of course, there's The Danish Girl and Carol leading the pack while hopefuls like Freeheld have faded from bad reviews. However, there's likely not to be a film more perplexing than that of director Roland Emmerich's Stonewall. More than these three films, Stonewall felt like a film that wanted to matter for a lot of reasons, specifically at capturing the intensity and historical aspects of one of the LGBT community's most important events. Much like how Selma captured the plight of the 60's Civil Rights movement, I hoped that this would be some unexpected masterpiece. Is it? Well, the film currently holds a low 8% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes for a variety of reasons. So, be honest with yourself, was Stonewall good intention or just one of the most misguided Oscar-bait movies in years?

There's a variety of reasons that I was looking forward to this movie despite not being an Emmerich fan. I have found that when a director chooses a subject matter outside of their wheelhouse, it can lead to interesting results. We know Emmerich as a blockbuster man, making such films as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Those aren't really clues of a director willing to tackle smaller drama. Yet, he chose Stonewall as a film. One can wonder why, but there's one more pressing reason: he is a gay man. It's an event that resulted in a lot of change in the community. It would almost be sacrilegious for a gay man not to tackle the subject, considering that Emmerich claims to have been closeted during the actual events of 1969.

Then the trailer hit, and things have immediately turned sour. The very basis of the film is whitewashed to focus on the events of a white man. Almost everyone else is tertiary by comparison and the famous inciter of the riot, a black trans woman, is ignored entirely. While reviews have been kinder to point out other ways that the film fails as a narrative, there's no denying that the general response has been overwhelmingly negative. It may not serve as hope for Emmerich to make anything remotely personal again. Then again, it does raise questions on what he actually saw in this film that, with his influence, he made a film that was anachronistic enough to cause a certain level of backlash. Was it a plea for Oscar attention? I think so.

Instead of lingering on the film, I want to ask a more deliberate question: do facts make a movie good? It does feel like an important topic, especially when addressing Best Picture contenders. As much as we seek entertainment from films, period pieces often get scrutinized for accuracy, with many disliking a film for very banal reasons. Consider how much praise Titanic received for its accuracy, even including the band who played on the deck of the ship as it sank. It was so renowned that when it was discovered that the constellations in the sky were wrong, director James Cameron fixed it. While the film was mostly focused on a fictionalized romance, many praised the film for its attention to detail.

On the flip side was an earlier Best Picture winner with Braveheart. While it focuses on Scotland gaining their independence, actual residents such as Billy Connolly dismissed the film as being factually incorrect. Likewise, Gladiator may have been seen more as entertainment, but the information regarding its many inaccuracies are well documented. It doesn't stop many from enjoying these relatively similar films. In fact, there's a certain question as to what service accuracy does to a film. Does it only work to further appreciate the film, or is it inessential to a fault, as long as the story is entertaining enough?

The one hindsight of historical films is that hindsight is 20/20. Many feel the need to impose their own personal take on history to create a dramatic flair. Some are more shameless about it, specifically of Mel Gibson who also took on the American Revolution with The Patriot (directed by Emmerich). While it was an enjoyable tale about one man making a difference, it was also bloody and suggested a lot of historical inaccuracies regarding how the country gained its freedom. Of course, Gibson was known for being into violence in his films, even featuring spears in an actor's posterior in Braveheart. On the flip side, there are films like Pearl Harbor, which get majority of details wrong and end up being denounced for them.

The issue with film is that nothing is completely accurate. Even D.W. Griffiths' 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation was reflective of this. Yes, he did extensive research to get various details right to make it look as if the Civil War was actually taking place on screen, and that Abraham Lincoln was talking to us. However, it is a film mired by its back half, which features the notorious and racist uprising of black men destroying the civility of white men. For all of the efforts of the first half, it's the back half that ruins most of a positive legacy of the film's achievements. Even if films have been more focused in the proceeding years, there's still the issue of objective and opinion being inserted. Dialogue will never be precise and the very fact that recreating history isn't the same as making it creates a whole series of problems. 

At the end of the day, I think that a film's job - if it wishes to tackle history - is to tell a story or parable that is worth hearing. To deliberately tell us the events of one's life is to potentially make a dull and needless movie. Introduce a little flair into it to make the film feel more engaging. It may not be directly accurate, but I do think that it isn't cinema's job to inform. Yes, Stonewall should have been a little more truthful, but it could have easily been an engaging way to get audiences interested in history. I think it is the viewer's job to be entertained as well as become invested in learning more. As long as the film doesn't lie about the important events, there's no reason to get upset about any other reason than that it was boring or bad.

I know that this is not a common opinion that is held. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy a film that goes out of its way to be accurate. However, I think to dismiss films that aren't quite entirely there is a little flawed. Cinema is a subjective medium and there's been a lot of great movies that don't tell the truth. There's even a few that have won Best Picture, such as Braveheart and Gladiator. Does that make them bad movies? Not exactly. Hopefully they get audiences to research on their own if they care about these events enough. That is all I really hope to get out of historical dramas, which I guess that Stonewall doesn't.

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