Selma, The Imitation Game, and Hollywood’s Duty to History


No doubt you remember the 2015 Academy Awards which took place just over a month ago. There was some controversy surrounding two films–Selma and the Imitation Game–that brought up an age-old question: to what extent should Hollywood get history right?

Selma, of course, covers the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, focusing mainly on Martin Luther King, Jr. The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing’s activities during World War II, namely his participation in the attempt to crack the codes produced by Germany’s Enigma machine. Neither film did particularly well at the Oscars, and both were criticized for their historical inaccuracies. Selma received only two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song, winning only in the latter category) while The Imitation Game received eight but came away with only the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Did members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snub Selma and The Imitation Game because they had concerns about historical inaccuracies in the films? Or was it because one film was about the African American struggle for civil rights while the other was a bio-pic about a gay man? Francine Prose, writing in The New York Review of Books blog, seems to think it was a combination of these factors:

Prose argues that discussions of these films’ historical inaccuracies did undermine their chances with the Academy, but she also suggests that these discussions were a cover for critics’ discomfort with the subject matter of both movies. As she puts it, “perhaps the real source of controversy isn’t the question of truth in historical films, but rather the subjects of historical films—and how vexed those subjects are.” She concludes that “it’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is ‘true’ than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth: that racial and sexual prejudice have persisted so long past the historical eras in which these films are set.”

Prose may have a point here, but One Thing after Another does not have the power to search the hearts of Academy members and determine whether their objection to historical inaccuracy are sincere or merely a blind for more pernicious thoughts. Moreover, One Thing after Another believes historical inaccuracy does interfere with the ability to engage with important questions arising from movies such as these. If a film wishes to be taken seriously as it addresses significant social issues–that is, if it seeks to educate its audience–it has a duty to get the facts correct. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is under no obligation to get the facts right because it does not have pretensions of enlightening its audience, but films like Selma and the Imitation Game do have that obligation.

Prose does not seem to believe in that obligation. In her “case for Hollywood history,” she asserts that she grew up in a period when expectations concerning the historical accuracy of films was rather low. Indeed, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, viewers and critics did not seem so interested in this matter. She also relates her experience of watching Selma with her eight-year-old granddaughter. Much of the movie went over her granddaughter’s head, but she emerged from the theater with an appreciation of the demonstrators’ bravery and an understanding of why the civil rights movement was necessary. Prose remarks, “Later, I thought, my granddaughter and I can deal with the film’s historical mistakes.”

Among Prose’s comments, two points jump out at One Thing after Another. First, Prose’s standard for historical accuracy is rather low. She learned the following from watching films in her childhood:

What got my attention was the fact that men named Zola and Dreyfus existed, and that a woman had won the Nobel Prize in science: a concept that came as a something of shock to a little girl growing up during the height (or the depths) of the Mad Men 1950s. I recall being enthralled by the achievements of Pasteur (he saved a little boy from rabies!) and the Dreyfus case. And my fascination with Ivanhoe and Robin Hood persisted.

And then, of course, we hear about her granddaughter, the second-grader, learning some basic ideas from Selma. According to Prose, we should not demand very much from a film. It is a gateway that may lead us to history, but we should not ask it to do anything very serious in that respect.

Second, Prose assumes that everybody else has the capacity to deal with a film’s historical mistakes “later.” One Thing after Another wonders how many viewers of films have the capacity to do that. As Elizabeth Drew asks, in a post (on the very same blog) criticizing Selma‘s inaccuracies, “Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it?”

One of the big inaccuracies in Selma that has attracted much attention is its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson who is depicted as opposing the voting rights bill. Does it matter whether or not Johnson actually supported such a bill? Drew thinks so, and if we want to understand how legal discrimination was dismantled, we probably ought to know that the President and King were more or less on the same page. In other words, while the marches and King and Malcolm X were necessary to passing a voting rights bill, they were not sufficient–the president also played a significant role–an important lesson on which Americans ought to reflect in their capacity as citizens.


The Imitation Game is much more profoundly flawed, and its mistakes interfere much more with a true appreciation its subject, as Christian Caryl points out:

In the film, Turing is caricatured as a social misfit/lone “scientist” who almost singlehandedly broke German code during World War II. Such a view does a disservice to Turing while reinforcing stereotypes of how science works. To be honest, the film does not even really engage seriously with the science and mathematics behind the massive multi-national effort that led to the progressive decryption of German codes (which involved involved  significant breakthroughs by Polish and French mathematicians) . That’s a shame, because if we should care about Turing at all, it is as a mathematician. At the same time, we also ought to realize that thousands of people were involved in the attempt to read German codes, and while Turing was among the most prominent, he was still part of a highly talented team that included mathematicians, linguists, historians, chess champions, crossword puzzle experts, and military officers. That fact points to something important: while Turing was considered eccentric, he was not socially inept. Moreover, he possessed a variety of talents–among other things, he was an Olympic-level, long-distance runner. As Caryl argues, “either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.” The film seems to have opted for the latter course.

In addition to these kinds of mistakes, The Imitation Game is not entirely frank about Turing’s sexuality in particular or mid-20th century British attitudes toward homosexuality in general. As Caryn puts it, the film is “desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. . . . The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.” Benedict Cumberbatch has responded to this criticism by arguing that the film is not an exploration of Turing’s “sex life” and that if viewers demand to see sex scenes in such a film, “all is lost for any kind of subtle storytelling.” But can a film convert Turing into a gay martyr without dwelling on the thing for which he was martyred? At the same time, the film does not really capture the context within which Turing operated as a gay man. Turing was actually quite open about his sexuality to his friends who accepted him for who he was. Such an attitude should not surprise us. England’s great public schools (e.g. Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse, and Harrow), along with Cambridge and Oxford Universities, had long tolerated gay sub-cultures. In other words, Turing’s world was not entirely homophobic. It was when his homosexuality was discovered by the police–purely by accident after his boyfriend had stolen some items from his house–that Turing ran afoul of the law and was subjected to a bizarre and barbarous punishment. However, his “treatment” via stilboestrol lasted for only a year (not until his death as the movie suggets), and by all accounts, Turing bore this burden courageously instead of falling apart as he did in the film. In other words, Turing was a complex person living in a world that expressed mixed attitudes towards his homosexuality. And if we understand that person living in that world, we come to a finer understanding of the questions that surround the relationship between the two.

One Thing after Another does not want to make a fetish of historical accuracy in films, but if films pretend to educate us on various social issues, these issues must be placed in their proper context so we can learn how to address them. Students as well as the public often perceive long-standing social issues through two lenses. One sees them as static (e.g. racism always manifested itself in pretty much the same way) while the other sees them as problems that occur elsewhere–either in the past or in another part of the world (e.g. racism only happened in the bad old days but we are fine now). What historians seek to do is restore some dynamism to these questions because in human affairs nothing stands still for very long, and everything is actually rather more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Understanding the often changing circumstances under which social issues emerge is extremely important to understanding that tension itself.


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