Viewpoint: Based on a somewhat-true story

Sometimes it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. This is especially true when it comes to movies that are supposedly “based on a true story.”

The recent release of “Selma” brought with it criticism of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal in the film. According to the film, Johnson constantly pushed aside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concerns about voting in the South, coming across as an almost insurmountable barrier for King and his supporters. Johnson seems harsh and unrelenting for the majority of the movie, insisting that he will address voting laws later, but not now.

According to some moviegoers, this portrayal is inaccurate. Johnson was not so annoyingly aggressive in his supposed struggles with King. The director, Ava DuVernay, said she did not want the movie to portray Johnson as a white savior. It’s possible DuVernay over-corrected.

However, the criticism of the movie’s accuracies raises questions for other movies based on a true story. How much leeway does the phrase “based on a true story” give the director of a film?

It’s true that movies have to be edited for length and some creative license exists. However, what do we give up when we alter facts in movies?

Consider “The Blind Side” and “The Butler.” While based on true stories, there were some scenes that were fictionalized. Many of these scenes appeal to the viewer’s emotions – whether to spark anger for the protagonists or bring tears from the audience. As viewers, we can give the filmmakers some credit for being willing to tell these stories and for telling it well, minus a few historical inaccuracies.

When filmmakers announce a movie based on a novel, book lovers hold their breaths. Sometimes the filmmaker gets it right, like with “The Hunger Games” series. Other times, they get it completely wrong, as seen with the “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” movies. Obviously, there is some amount of cutting down and rewriting necessary to bring books to life on the big screen. Some interpretation is necessary as well. Like historical events, it depends on what is written down or understood about what happened in the books. Different people may create a scene or write a script differently, depending on how they picture what happened.

Some movies twist events so much that they should be classified as historical fiction. Take Disney’s “Pocahontas.” It would be one thing if the characters had different names. In the movie, Pocahontas is a gorgeous Native American who rescues a rugged, yet likeable, mercenary from death. Some people claim history was wildly skewed.  Depending on who’s interpreting history, this story comes across differently.

Overall, filmmakers should be careful to classify their movie accurately, so as to not mislead their consumers. In addition, they should take the time to research carefully and understand every aspect of an event they’re portraying, so they can tell the viewer as a true a story as possible.

But when it comes to wildly inaccurate films, “Selma” does not seem to be one of them. Moviegoers should still be cautious when they hear that a movie is based on a true story. While many of the events may be factual, they are still someone else’s interpretation of history.

Everyone approaches different stories with their own biases. It’s best to remember that when watching movies, and for filmmakers to acknowledge it when deciding how to make a movie based on a true story.

Linda Wilkins is a senior journalism and religion double major from Tyrone, Ga. She is the editor-in-chief and a regular columnist for the Lariat.