Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

Gates wrote to Lynton, “Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See and

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.

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.