Transcending Its Controversy

Periodically there’s a movie about an historical event or person and we argue about its accuracy. History itself is full of interpretations and historians themselves argue about which is truer. Maybe, though, when it comes to movies, the issue of historical accuracy is not the best criterion. Artistic freedom is another issue, one’s that’s usually cited in defense of whatever a point of view may be, as it is now with the movie Selma. It’s a powerful argument, one difficult to argue against. But does artistic freedom exist in a vacuum? Does it mean anything goes? Fresh from the Charlie Hebdo attack and murders it is a question some are asking. In that case Charlie Hebdo may not be a good example, because as a newspaper its mission in essence is to provoke everyone and bait anything. Exceptions aside, artistic freedom doesn’t erase the issue of social responsibility. And even when artists factor it in, it does not ensure there shall be no dissent, no criticism. John Adams, the composer of the opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” wanted to be responsible and portray both sides of an issue. Still the protest was strong enough the Metropolitan Opera had to cancel its scheduled HD broadcast of it a few months ago. Movies are such a powerful medium, the responsibility of the filmmakers ought to be even greater. Sometimes facts are altered to create drama, often a sign of a filmmaker’s limitations. But there’s a difference between bending facts and interpreting them. Filmmakers are people, as imperfect as the rest of us, and most of all entitled to their point of view. What I expect from a filmmaker is honesty and taking responsibility for his or her point of view. What I expect from a movie making a social statement is that its impact outweighs whatever flaws it might have.

With Selma, therefore, the issue ought not to be whether LBJ is portrayed accurately, but whether the director is open about her point of view and whether the movie’s message and importance are bigger than its controversy—or its flaws.