There’s a small but noticeable trend in recent movies that I’ve been calling “Fantasy History,” or maybe “Wish-Fulfilment History” is a better term. Quentin Tarantino is often cited as most responsible for this trend with movies like “Inglorious Basterds.” The real Adolf Hitler shot himself in his bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945, when the Allies were closing in and it was clear that the Third Reich was over. But in Tarantino’s film, Hitler and his henchmen, Bormann, Göring, and Goebbels, are gunned down in a movie theater in Paris, presumably years earlier and, only in this movie fantasy, saving the lives of millions of war and concentration camp victims. It’s an admirable vision and who would not wish that it were true? Actor Christopher Waltz, who played a Nazi officer in the movie, has been quoted as saying the film is, “A piece of art. Not a history lesson.” But how can we be sure, as the last survivors of WWII pass away and Holocaust deniers are celebrated in Alt-right corners of the Internet, that the actual, historical truth is what future generations will remember?
Does it seem like a foolish concern? Everybody knows about Hitler and WWII, right? But a 2018 study by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (AKA the Claims Conference) revealed that 11% of all respondents had not heard of the Holocaust or were unsure about it. Among Millennials, that figure rose to 22%. 66% of all the Millennials surveyed did not know that Auschwitz was a concentration camp and death factory. Does the fantasy ending of a movie like “Inglorious Basterds” help future generations remember the atrocities of WWII or unintentionally cloud the collective memory? I was not surprised to find the question “Is this film historically accurate?,” on an FAQ list devoted to the film on a popular movie database site.
And WWII has not been the only subject given the treatment by Tarantino’s wonky Wayback Machine. In his recent film, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” a courageous stuntman played by Brad Pitt disrupts the Manson murders, leaving victims Sharon Tate, et al very much alive at the end. In “Django Unchained,” Jamie Foxx, playing an escaped slave, kills his former masters and blows up their mansion. These fantasy endings are all a kind of wish-fulfillment. Wouldn’t it be great if the Manson victims could have been saved and a once enslaved man could have wrought well-deserved revenge upon a family of Southern slave owners? Yes, but the truth is none of these things happened and we are left in our present moment to deal with the very real consequences of these actual historical events.
Tarantino fans fear not! This is not just an anti-Quentin screed. Ryan Murphy has provided another prime example of "Wish-Fulfilment History" with his recent Netflix series, "Hollywood." The story takes place in 1940's Hollywood and swathes many real events in a cloud of good-hearted if misguided fantasy. Darren Criss plays a newbie director who befriends a young screenwriter, yet to be produced, who has written a movie about Peg Entwhistle. Entwhistle, a stage actress seeking movie stardom in the 1930s, threw herself off the Hollywoodland sign when success eluded her. Murphy's screenwriter, who is black and gay, meets and falls in love with a young Rock Hudson before Hudson has had his first screen role or even been given his famous stage name. The director's love interest is a young Black actress who is under contract to a studio but fears she will be relegated to playing maids for the of her life. Director and screenwriter decide to transform the character of Peg, (who was white and British) into a young Black woman then campaign hard to have the part awarded to the girlfriend. No less a personage than Eleanor Roosevelt helps convince the studio to make the picture, now called "Meg." The film is a huge hit and wins a slew of Oscars. The young crew is given front row seats at the Oscar ceremony and the screenwriter and his boyfriend Rock Hudson attend as a couple, even kissing and holding hands on the red carpet.
If you know any Hollywood history, you know none of this ever occurred. The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel was reluctant to allow the first Black actress to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind" to attend the ceremony and put her at a table in the back corner of the room. Black performers are still fighting for parity, as recognized by the "Oscars So White" campaign of 2016. Rock Hudson, far for being able to attend the Oscars with a partner, was forced into a sham marriage with a studio secretary and didn’t feel he could come out as gay until he was dying of AIDS. Murphy even gives Anna May Wong, an Asian American actress, whose career was thwarted by prejudice, a fictional, "Gee, sorry racism blinded us to your brilliance" Oscar. What good comes from portraying these still festering social issues of racism and homophobia as neatly resolved and tied up with a pretty bow?
Here’s another, somewhat more insidious example of Hollywood twisting history; Netflix recently aired a mini-series called "Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker" starring Octavia Spencer. Madam Walker was an entrepreneurial genius who rose from poverty to build a haircare products empire that made her arguably America's first Black female millionaire. She was also profoundly philanthropic and played a role in founding the NAACP. The series is based on an excellent book, that I have read, written by Walker's great-great-granddaughter. But let’s consider the title of the Netflix mini-series once again; “Inspired by the Life of…” The word “Inspired” leaves an awful lot of wiggle room between truth and typical Hollywood tropes.
In 1902, Madam Walker was working as a laundress in St. Louis when she started working for another Black female entrepreneur, Annie Turnbo Malone, as a haircare sales agent for Malone's line of products. When Walker moved to Denver in 1905, she started her own rival hair care company. Just one generation from slavery, both of these women were wildly successful powerhouses at a time when the only jobs available for most Black women were as cooks, nursemaids, or laundresses. By the 1950s, Malone had opened 32 branches across the country of her Poro Cosmetology School, designed to enable Black women to create careers and income for themselves. The two women were unquestionably rivals. But I wonder why the writers and directors chose to cast the thin, light-skinned, and glamorous Carmen Ejogo as the character they call "Addie Munroe" against the less glamorous and darker-complected Octavia Spencer. And then write Addie as a stereotypical scheming temptress out to steal not only her rival's success but also her man. They even stage Walker and Munroe duking it out in a dream sequence boxing ring. Making Addie a typical “mean girl” bad guy doesn’t do justice to either of these two brilliant women and serves no cause other than that of melodrama. The real story is so much more nuanced and interesting.
I could go on and on citing examples….
I know that Hollywood screenwriters (and playwrights before them) have been re-writing history since there was history to be re-written. And some truly great documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog may well disagree with me. Herzog’s theory of the “ecstatic truth” holds that documentary filmmaking practice should explore the boundaries between truth and fiction. In a New Yorker profile, Herzog was questioned about his 1971 film, "In The Land of Silence and Darkness," about a deaf-blind woman. In the film, the woman describes a ski jumper she had seen before she went blind. Herzog said, “I asked the woman to say this line -- she’d never seen a ski jumper. And I said. “This is going to be important for the film, maybe you don’t understand but please say this text for me as if you’d seen a ski jumper. “ I’m not a cinema-verité person. I hate cinema verité, by the way. There is such a thing as the plain truth, but there are also different dimensions in truth -- and in film there are more dimensions beyond cinema verité truth.” So Herzog got his metaphor and perhaps the film is a deeper representation of the experience of a deaf-blind woman than it would have been without the line.
Still, in our “post-factual” world, when a QAnon supporter has just won a primary election and will probably go on to represent her Georgia district in Congress, when millions of social media users lap up conspiracy theories and racist diatribes, when facts have been replaced by feelings, science is discounted and any image or sound can be digitally manipulated, do we have the luxury to present mainstream entertainment that encourages viewers, especially younger ones, to doubt historical truths, to believe that critical social problems can be solved by revenge and that all human relationships are governed by the laws of melodrama? Truth is will always be stranger and more important than fiction.
Barbara Multer-Wellin (AKA The Docudiva) is a proud lifelong docu-nerd. As a fan and practitioner of the genre, she believes we need strong, truthful documentaries now more than ever.