Fact-checking movies: who cares?


Did you see “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” two movies that recently won Golden Globe awards? Did you catch that “Green Book” was divisive? Did you notice that Dr. Don Shirley didn’t consider his driver a close friend? That Dr. Shirley was estranged from his Black Family?



bohemianrhapsodyfOr how about “Bohemian Rhapsody”. While watching, did you track the movie’s timeline to see that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was moved up by two years “adding to an intensity to make it appear that it was the impetus for his performance on Live Aid,” says Kevin Fallon of The Daily Beast. That Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS after Live Aid, not before his performance at that concert? That Jim Hutton, Mercury’s only formal relationship after Mary, was not a waiter?

These are just some reported inaccuracies in these movies where critics felt compelled to bring them to our attention.

A Washington Post commentary, “Will ‘Green Book’ hold up under increased scrutiny?” and a Chicago Tribune article, “Playing with facts” were recently placed next to each other in the Chicago Tribune and read as a one-two punch at movie-bashing these award winners.

The Post commentary slams “Green Book” with negatives and reports criticism from on and off screen. The minutiae of the discrepancies and criticisms is not important here but the idea that some felt these movies begged for fact checking is wrong.

Ann Hornaday writes, “As with most narratives, the conventional wisdom bears some closer scrutiny.” Why so? Sold-out crowds gave it enthusiastic standings. One audience member says she didn’t care about those details. “Stop being a hater . . . why are you trying to ruin things?” It’s true. What’s the big deal?

Ms. Hornaday does not want to feel lied to. She points out there are discrepancies in “Green Book.” I believe Ms. Hornaday felt compelled to prove the movie was riddled with inaccuracies just because she could. Do you suppose she really walked out of the moving, expressing anger because she was lied to?

Kevin Fallon at The Daily Beast says when a movie falsifies things in a way to manipulate an audience into a reaction, “I find that gross.”  I find his assumption that undetected falsehoods can manipulate an audience insulting. I wasn’t controlled or directed anywhere.

I had neither a conscious tracking of exact years or an ability to equate an AIDS diagnosis as being used as a motivation for Mercury’s Live Aid performance in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Mercury received his diagnosis and then there was Live Aid. I didn’t analyze and consider the time frames. Who cares? It all just happened.

Can you expect an audience to see these discrepancies? Would they become suspicious and feel the need to do their own fact-checking? How awful for audiences to go into a movie with preconceived ideas that the movie is, well . . . just all wrong. Do discrepancies even matter?

Audiences watch movies to be entertained, to take themselves out of a 24/7 news cycle of facts. Audiences want to escape, sit for two hours and lose themselves in a compelling story with dynamic characters and talented actor portrayals. I hardly think one will sit in front of a movie screen and mentally track a biopic’s timeline, questioning the truth of how a character was portrayed. Fallon claims people go in blindly assuming these movies are accurate, which he believes is rather naïve. I think it’s rather prudent of people to watch a movie for what it is, to watch without preconceived negative ideas but with positive excitement in anticipating seeing a good movie with a story well told on screen.

I was unaware of a story of a black pianist and his white driver set in the early 1960s in the South. And that’s just the point of why I was drawn to “Green Book.” Just think of what a black pianist, a white driver, the 1960s and the south suggests. That’s why I went to see this movie, not to scrutinize for facts of time, place or character or even truth, but to experience the conflicts and resolutions of obvious opposing forces.

As for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I anticipated being brought back to a good time in my life when I recalled listening to Queen’s music obligatory for a fifteen-year-old who fell in love with music of loud electric guitars and the long-haired musicians who played them. I was in awe of the actor portrayal of Freddie Mercury and seeing the story of one successful rock band during a time when rock history was being made was a gratifying reflection. Whether Mercury’s formal partner was a waiter, when exactly the band broke up and then reunited or when Mercury actually met Mary Austin didn’t matter to me. These examples of reported discrepancies had no bearing on my opinion of the film.

Dr. Don Shirley ‘s niece said the move was “A white man’s version of a black man’s life.” Well, true, the creative team were all white males but how a screenwriter, black or white, perceives that story will differ from every other writer’s take who may have written this story. But what appeared to be made worth pointing out was the producer of the movie, Octavia Spencer, a black woman, standing in front of the white male team while accepting a Golden Globe.

It’s unfortunate these movies were called to be scrutinized for facts. It’s also unfortunate that a movie audience can’t sit back and enjoy a story on the big screen, free from assumptions going in that the movie is flawed, that the truth is not being told and that in some way we will be manipulated. Fallon believes there is a burden of responsibility to stick to the spirit of the truth, to not change a person’s life or legacy or values in order to “manufacture some creative moments. Well, all creative moments are manufactured.  Film IS an artistic expression.

As writer of memoir, I am challenged to write truth. I am called to write accurate conversations, characters and scenes as best as I recall them. My recollection is my perceived truth. And if I get it wrong in someone’s understanding, the story itself will always remain steadfast.

I love a good story. And the audience who saw “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” thought so too.

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