Does fiction based on history owe any duty to accuracy?

Last Sunday, Green Book won Golden Globes for Best Picture (musical or comedy), Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali’s performance as pianist Don Shirley, and Best Screenplay. This was interpreted by the Hollywood press as a major boost for the film ahead of Oscar season.

Green Book dramatizes the relationship between Don Shirley and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen), as they tour the American South in 1962. Written by Vallelonga’s son Nick, the movie depicts the two men developing a friendship, overcoming their cultural differences, and hitting most of the bullet points of the plot in which white characters meet a character of color and discover racism sucks. And for the latter aspect, the film has divided critics, who see it as either a work of art that will “move you, possibly to tears, at the thought of real social change and kindness (at a time when we need it badly),” or a movie similar to Driving Miss Daisy and Crash, allowing white audiences to feel good about themselves and “nod sagely about ‘how far we’ve come’ before calling the cops on their black neighbors for not waving hello.

However, Green Book has engendered the most controversy over whether the friendship at the heart of the film is even true to history. The story is based on what Nick Vallelonga claims his father told him. Those events are disputed by Don Shirley’s family, which claims the two men were never friends, Tony Vallelonga was only Shirley’s employee, and Shirley’s family wasn’t consulted about the movie before either its production or its release. These issues have been compounded by other controversies surrounding the movie, including comments by Nick Vallelonga defending and supporting Donald Trump’s claim of Muslims celebrating in the streets of New Jersey after the September 11 attacks. After the comments surfaced, Vallelonga offered an apology.

When it comes to film, realism and fidelity to source material usually take a back seat to artistic license. The terms “based on” and “inspired by” are used when liberties are taken (e.g., the 1995 adaptation of The Scarlett Letter starring Demi Moore is only credited as being “freely adapted from” Nathaniel Hawthorne, since it deviates so wildly from his novel). The reason for this is that a film, like a lot of art, is about a perspective that fits a narrative conducive to the medium. And it’s a perspective within a commercial product. The first concern of a Hollywood production is making something that will appeal to an audience and make money, even if it means changing the story. There’s even some debate over whether documentaries have to be technically true in content and details, or just accurate in portraying the vision and point of view of the creator about a subject.

However, when a film deals with real people and real events, is there a duty to portray the events factually? Or is obsessing over details “nitpicking” that gets in the way of telling a story and conveying the particular message and themes of the artist inspired by history? These questions are at the center of recent controversies over biopics that present versions of historical events that many see as manipulative or outright false. 

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