Fea­tures Should biopics like ‘Bo­hemian Rhap­sody’ and ‘Green Book’ be ac­cu­rate?

Oman Daily Observer - - SPORT -

What kind of ac­cu­racy do you ex­pect from movies based on real peo­ple or events?

Maybe a bet­ter ques­tion might be: What kind of ac­cu­racy do you want? And are you will­ing to swal­low a few false­hoods in the name of good en­ter­tain­ment?

Un­like doc­u­men­taries, nar­ra­tive fea­tures based on true-life sto­ries tend to oc­cupy this neb­u­lous mid­dle ground be­tween fic­tion and non­fic­tion, where de­tails and time­lines be­come col­lapsed or murky. Side char­ac­ters or en­tire mo­ments are cre­ated out of whole cloth for the sake of story ex­pe­di­ency.

For me, good biopics are shaped around facts rather than fudges. As a jour­nal­ist, that’s some­thing I think about all the time when I ap­proach my own work: That it’s not only pos­si­ble but vi­tal to tell true sto­ries in in­ter­est­ing and com­pelling ways, in­con­ve­nient de­tails and all.

The rules aren’t the same when it comes to telling a co­he­sive story on screen, re­quir­ing dif­fer­ent skills and nu­anced de­ci­sions. Film is — and should be — an artis­tic ex­pres­sion. I want film­mak­ers to have the space to be cre­ative and stray from the record to un­der­score cer­tain ideas or themes.

I just don’t want to feel lied to by a movie.

Golden Globe win­ners “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” and “Green Book” have both been crit­i­cised for this and I think with good rea­son.

I won’t list all the dis­crep­an­cies here; you can find nu­mer­ous sto­ries on­line that go into de­tail. But let’s talk about key el­e­ments from each film that de­part from re­al­ity. In the case of “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody,” which is about the band Queen and its charis­matic front man Fred­die Mer­cury (Rami Malek), one as­pect is the tim­ing of Mer­cury’s HIV di­ag­no­sis.

Writ­ing about movies for a liv­ing means think­ing about what kinds of sto­ries they tell, so I rang up some of my col­leagues to get their take.

Here’s Kevin Fal­lon, the se­nior en­ter­tain­ment re­porter for

“I un­der­stand when you’re dis­till­ing a per­son’s life into a twohour movie, there’s go­ing to be the need to play with things a lit­tle bit in or­der to have a nar­ra­tive chug along,” he said. “But what this movie does is fal­sify things in a way to ma­nip­u­late an au­di­ence into a re­ac­tion and I find that gross.”

“Bo­hemian Rhap­sody” moves up Mer­cury’s di­ag­no­sis by two years to1985, which means the mo­ment lands with an added in­ten­sity “to make it seem like it was the im­pe­tus for that per­for­mance of his ca­reer at Live Aid,” is how Fal­lon put it. “They changed the facts for purely dra­matic rea­sons — to ma­nip­u­late an emo­tional re­ac­tion from the au­di­ence — but that just wasn’t what hap­pened. I think that it’s a very crass thing to do to Fred­die Mer­cury’s legacy and the AIDS move­ment, hon­estly.”

That mat­ters. Even if you think the movie is a good time and you love Malek’s per­for­mance.

“Green Book” may fea­ture lesser­known sub­jects at its cen­tre but it is also based on a true story. It fol­lows the odd cou­pling of the el­e­gant black pi­anist Dr Don Shirley (Ma­her­shala Ali) and the white meat­head of a driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) that he hires as both chauf­feur and body­guard for a con­cert tour across the South in the early 1960s. Over the course of their two months on the road to­gether, the bril­liant but up­tight Don Shirley learns to loosen up a lit­tle and con­nect with his black­ness, while the un­couth Tony Lip learns not to be such a racist. And a life­long friend­ship en­sues.

The film was co-writ­ten by Peter Far­relly (who also di­rects), Brian Hayes Cur­rie and Tony Lip’s son Nick Val­le­longa, and their source ma­te­rial was drawn from the let­ters Tony wrote home dur­ing the tour, as well as tapes of Val­le­longa talk­ing with his fa­ther about the old days.

Though the film has been mar­keted as the true and de­fin­i­tive ver­sion of how these two men pro­cessed is­sues of race and racism in the United States, it’s fil­tered only through the prism of the Val­le­longa fam­ily mem­o­ries. (All three of the screen­writ­ers are white.)

And many of us in the me­dia have helped to so­lid­ify the movie’s mar­ket­ing. Here’s mag­a­zine, for ex­am­ple: “Ac­cord­ing to Val­le­longa, ev­ery­thing de­picted in the film ‘Green Book’ hap­pened in real life.”

The mem­bers of Shirley’s fam­ily feel oth­er­wise and in a story re­ported by Shadow and Act have called the movie’s por­trayal a “sym­phony of lies.” (They were not con­sulted with for the film.)

Here’s one crit­i­cism that stands out: What­ever im­pres­sion Tony Lip or his son may have had about the men’s dy­namic, Don Shirley him­self did not con­sider his driver a close friend.

That doesn’t mean Shirley wasn’t per­haps friendly with his em­ployee. But be­ing friendly is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent than a deep and abid­ing per­sonal friend­ship and it un­der­cuts the story’s mes­sage. This is a movie with a moral to its story — and that moral is ap­par­ently false (not to men­tion re­duc­tive).

The critic Candice Fred­er­ick re­viewed the movie for Slash Film and this is what she had to say about biopics and ac­cu­racy: “It’s def­i­nitely a case-by-case ba­sis. And ‘Green Book’ is a very spe­cific case. When you’re tak­ing artis­tic li­cense — which I don’t con­demn -you have to make sure that you’re not si­mul­ta­ne­ously dis­parag­ing the char­ac­ter. And I think that’s what’s hap­pen­ing with ‘Green Book.’

“The film’s por­trayal of Don Shirley isn’t a well-rounded de­pic­tion of a per­son, pe­riod. He’s so dis­tant from his hu­man­ity, so dis­tant from his black­ness, he’s so dis­tant from peo­ple that he be­comes this alien char­ac­ter who is re­flected through the eyes of a white per­son. Even with­out know­ing any­thing about Don Shirley’s life, I was like, this can’t be — it didn’t seem plau­si­ble that this was all there was to him. So that’s when I’m like, where was the re­search? Who did you talk to?

“And if you read in­ter­views with Peter Far­relly or Nick Val­le­longa, they say the movie is about these two men who are very dif­fer­ent and they over­come their dif­fer­ences to be­come life­long friends. If that’s what they’re say­ing and that’s not true, then what are we do­ing?”

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