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Mahershala Ali stars as Don Shirley in Green Book. The famed pianist was an alum of The Catholic University of America in Washington Image Credit: Supplied

When Green Book won top prize at the Toronto film festival in September, it became an instant Oscar frontrunner. Few days before the ceremony, its odds remain strong: most bookies currently make it second favourite to win best picture, after Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This, despite several PR disasters, including star Viggo Mortensen saying the N-word, stories resurfacing about director Peter Farrelly exposing himself, and a fuss over a 2015 tweet by co-writer Nick Vallelonga about American Muslims cheering on the 9/11 attacks. But arguably none of these has done as much damage as the charge that it misrepresents history.

Green Book tells the story of African American piano virtuoso Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his Italian American driver Tony Vallelonga (Mortensen) as they undertake a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Along the way, Shirley is refused service in stores, excluded from restaurants and physically assaulted. At the start, Vallelonga is hostile towards black people. When he gets to know Shirley, though, and sees the Jim Crow south up close, his sense of justice conquers his prejudice. Simultaneously, Shirley is depicted early on as an uptight, prissy snob, out of touch with his own African American community. Forced to spend time with the knockabout, salt-of-the-earth Vallelonga, he chills out. In a climactic scene, Vallelonga goads Shirley into eating fried chicken for the first time.

Green Book is a film designed to warm the cockles of a liberal white audience who want to feel good about not being racist. However, Shirley’s real-life family have reacted with hurt and anger, asserting that there was no close friendship between the pair, and criticising the filmmakers for not consulting them. The film, says Shirley’s surviving brother, is “a symphony of lies”. Its focus on a white protagonist’s perspective at the expense of its black character playing into a longstanding controversy about representation in Hollywood. In this heated political context, Green Book’s historical fictionalisation reads to some not as artistic licence, but as erasure.

The only historical Oscar contenders this year that have not prompted widespread charges of inaccuracy are Roma and Cold War. Both are semi-autobiographical: one way of not upsetting someone else’s family is to make a film about your own. Everything else has had a kicking. “I’ve never seen a film distort its facts in such a punitive way,” wrote the critic Mike Ryan of Bohemian Rhapsody.

The historian Fred Kaplan judged that Vice’s historical slant amounted to “what V I Lenin denounced as ‘infantile leftism’.”

Director Boots Riley critiqued Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman: “It’s a made-up story in which the false parts of it to [sic] try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.”

Simon Schama deplored the fictionalised encounter between Elizabeth I and her cousin in Mary Queen of Scots, tweeting that “the whole drama of Elizabeth and Mary lay in the fact they never did meet — movie has copped out on that”. In a pre-emptive strike, Hannah Greig, historical adviser to The Favourite, admitted that Queen Anne didn’t really keep 17 bunnies in her bedroom, stating that rabbits “were an early-18th-century foodstuff and pest”. Donald Trump attacked First Man for not showing the precise moment when Neil Armstrong planted the US flag on the moon.

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Amy Adams and Christian Bale in Vice, a 2018 American biographical comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam McKay. Image Credit: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna

In The Guardian, Simon Jenkins railed against Vice, The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots, asking why, at a time when there is so much anxiety about fake news, “fake instant history” is rewarded. “The director of The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos, remarked casually that ‘some of the things in the film are accurate and a lot aren’t’,” Jenkins wrote. “What is a history student to make of that?”

Script reader Gavin Whenman retorted: “How about they conduct actual historical research, rather than watch a film which does not purport to be a documentary?” Yet there are more substantial questions around the public use and understanding of history. Does historical fiction alter our sense of reality? Do filmmakers have a responsibility to history? How can we navigate through a world where real and fake information are often blended together?

Nearly 30 years ago, many historians were concerned about the fabrications in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which made up a conspiracy behind the murder of John F Kennedy. Between 1963 and 2001, pollsters Gallup tracked the percentage of Americans who believed Lee Harvey Oswald acted as part of a conspiracy, rather than as a lone killer. The statistics show the film had little impact. In 1983, 74 per cent believed in a conspiracy; after the film’s release in 1992, that crept up to 77 per cent; by 1993 it had fallen back to 75 per cent. There was a far bigger jump between 1966, when only 50 per cent believed in a conspiracy, and 1976, when 81 per cent did. That was probably the result of the controversial House Select Committee on Assassinations, which, in 1976, took the view that there had been a conspiracy, though it wasn’t sure which one. Most serious historians think Oswald acted alone. They may well be concerned that a majority of Americans disagree, but those Americans seem to have been substantially more influenced by politicians than by filmmakers.

Stone’s film did have an effect. In 1992, Congress responded by ordering that all remaining documents pertaining to the assassination would be released by 2017. Ninety-nine per cent are now available, and nothing in them has provided evidence for any conspiracy. As of 2017, the figure for Americans who believe in a conspiracy was down to 61 per cent. Again, this change seems more attributable to politicians and historians than filmmakers.

When considering whether filmmakers have a responsibility to history, it’s difficult to define with any consistency what is acceptable or unacceptable artistic licence. There has been relatively little criticism of The Favourite, despite major liberties. As an anarchic comedy, it may be less likely to be taken seriously than a drama. Yet Green Book is a comedy, too. The outrage may be louder not because the inaccuracies are necessarily more extreme, but because the recent history of racism in the US is much more familiar and painful territory for many than the bed-hopping antics of the Stuart court.

There have been attempts in some countries to enforce legal limits on how filmmakers treat history. The Indian Central Board of Film Certification has considered screening films with a historical element to selected historians, and letting them censor accordingly. Clearly, this would be an imposition on freedoms of speech and expression — as well as expensive, time-consuming and patronising. If any government says the public are too mushy-minded to be allowed to watch a historical movie unsupervised, many will consider that an intolerable move towards a “nanny state”.

Furthermore, it seems unfair to make filmmakers obey historians when historians often disagree among themselves. Experts are divided over whether Mary Queen of Scots should have a Scottish accent, as Saoirse Ronan does in the film, or whether she would have sounded French. This can’t be settled conclusively without a time machine. Even if we had one, we might find that 16th-century Scottish and French accents were different from those we recognise, and that the colloquial speech patterns of early, modern English were nothing like modern film dialogue either.

If we can’t make clear rules about what constitutes acceptable historical fictionalisation, and we don’t want our governments to set up bureaucracies to enforce them, we are left with our present situation. Filmmakers will make whatever historical films they can get funded. Some care deeply about history, and do feel a responsibility towards it, but they are paid by studios and investors to do a job that is not that of a historian. If we want filmmakers to prioritise responsibilities to history or art rather than commerce, they need more public funding. As it is, films are generally commercial products. It’s up to us to choose what we watch and how we respond.

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The assassination of J.F. Kennedy, as depicted in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK Image Credit: Supplied

So how can we navigate through this squall of real and made-up information? It starts with schools: it is vital that the humanities, including history, aren’t neglected, for they teach the process of critical thinking. Fiction, satire, misinformation, propaganda and “fake news” have been with us for millennia, and they are here to stay. If we learn to think critically as individuals and as societies, we can make better judgments and decisions. We cannot only survive complexity, but embrace it.

Perhaps those who fret about fiction are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. As Greg Jenner, historical adviser to Horrible Histories, tweeted this week: “So long as historians are able to publicly respond (which we do in droves), these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating public fascination with the past.” It’s understandable that Shirley’s family are upset by Green Book. But the film has prompted much discussion of the politics of race and class in cinema, and an upsurge of interest in the real Shirley, a fascinating man and extraordinary talent.

This doesn’t let filmmakers off all responsibility. They should think critically, too, and expect criticism. But audiences do not mindlessly absorb everything at face value. They are capable of understanding fiction and debating it. Whether you love or loathe Green Book, or any of the other Oscar contenders, historical films can be seen not as a threat to history but an opportunity to engage audiences. Even the most inaccurate film can prompt questions, spark debate, sharpen our ability to assess and analyse. Those skills are essential not only to understand history, but to understand the world we live in today.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd