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Why Accuracy in Nonfiction Films Matters

02/23/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Since its release, Selma, the hit movie based on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fight for equal voting rights through the 1965 march he led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, has come under fire for being historically inaccurate.

Joseph A. Califano Jr., President Lyndon Johnson's top domestic affairs assistant from 1965 to 1969, claimed in the Washington Post that "the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him." Califano further elaborated that "Selma was LBJ's idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted--and he didn't use the FBI to disparage him."

In the past, Hollywood directors have used "poetic license" when producing films based on historical events. In other words, they make slight changes to the reenacted historical events in order to more effectively convey the movie's message or theme.

This concept of poetic license raises the question, should directors be held to a standard of historical accuracy when producing films?

The answer actually has a lot to do with teens.

In today's world, most teens, such as myself, gather most of their information through online news on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more recently Snapchat Discover, as well as YouTube videos and television. While movies are not a main source of our information, most of us still look to films based on historical events to be close to the real thing. In other words, there is a system of trust between my generation and the Hollywood directors that in movies based on historical events, especially ones that took place decades before our lifetimes, the essential facts of the stories are correct.

However, movies are forms of art, and are not held to the same historical accuracy standard as a newspaper article or a textbook entry. And understandably, every good story needs a villain. For the director and writers of Selma, they created their "villain" in LBJ. However, when the purpose of being informative is introduced, the standard of historical accuracy should be raised.

Admittedly, Lyndon B. Johnson was not one of the most popular U.S. Presidents of the last century. Largely blamed for the U.S.'s involvement in the Vietnam War, his accomplishments tend to be overlooked, such as the series of legislation known as his "Great Society," which established policies that attacked the roots of racism and poverty, including the introduction of Affirmative Action, Medicare and Medicaid.

One of the parts of his "Great Society" was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the focal point of Selma. In a speech to Congress following MLK's march from Selma to Montgomery, LBJ said, regarding racism and the cause of MLK and his fellow activists, that "Their cause must be our cause too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." After the Act was passed, LBJ proclaimed it was a "triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield," reaffirming his devotion to the Act and the Civil Rights movement as a whole.

So, while Selma is a well-produced and acted movie, I believe that the directors and writers of Selma violated the aforementioned trust between themselves and their younger audiences. While poetic license is allowed, I believe that it was overused and pushed past its reasonable boundaries, resulting in historical events being altered for the sake of a plot, rather than a plot being shaped to accurately recount the history of the Civil Rights movement and the individuals involved.

If movies based on historical events continue to be noticeably inaccurate due to a liberal usage of poetic license, I believe the system of trust between teens and Hollywood directors will deteriorate to the point where a film on the efforts of George Washington in the American Revolution may be just as believable as the plot of the next sci-fi blockbuster.