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Beware of movies altering the truth of historical events

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Joe Guzzardi

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The last great summer movie was “Jaws,” in 1975. At the time of its release, I lived in New York and was vacationing on Long Island. My son and his friends were about 10. After watching “Jaws,” that summer none of them swam again.

“Jaws” withstands the true test of a classic. Fans watch it over and again with the same satisfaction they first got in the theater.

I’ve stopped going to movies. I went to see “Lincoln,” but fell asleep. Not only is 150 minutes too long — especially when the viewer is being lectured — but so-called historical movies are a slippery slope that distort facts and lead to flawed conclusions about important events. When I read that a film is “based on a true story,” warning lights flash before me.

My disappointment is keener when the films revolve around characters that I grew up with and whose stories I already know.

I didn’t see “Ali” or “42” because I lived through the 1950s and 1960s eras and have since read the main characters’ biographies. Even more difficult is that I can’t wrap my mind around Will Smith as Ali, Jon Voight as Howard Cosell, Mario Van Peebles as Malcolm X or Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson.

But I’m considering breaking my own rule to watch “The Butler,” the fictionalized account of Eugene Allen, who served in the White House from 1956 to 1982. I’m curious to see just how much the truth will be distorted.

The film’s focus is on the civil rights era. Allen, as a White House insider, would have been privy to some of the off-the-record comments Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson would have made.

Predicted to be this summer’s blockbuster, “The Butler” stars Forest Whitaker as Allen (under the name Cecil Gaines); Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Gloria; Robin Williams as Eisenhower; Liev Schreiber as Johnson; and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Since I have no idea what the real life Allen looked like, I can’t object to casting Whitaker in the role. But Williams as Eisenhower? Fonda, still known in some circles as Hanoi Jane, as Nancy? Schreiber as Johnson? Spare me.

In an interview with Parade Magazine, Winfrey admitted that Fonda “took liberties” with Nancy’s character. We can’t know until we see the movie, but it’s a safe bet that Fonda, a liberal, didn’t go out of her way to portray the First Lady, a conservative, fairly.

When Parade asked Winfrey how much young Americans know about the Civil Rights Movement, she answered with depressing honesty: “They don’t know diddly-squat! Diddly-squat!”

After watching “The Butler,” the question will be how much of what viewers saw is true. Don’t trust Hollywood. Instead of seeing an agenda-driven movies, read books that experts agree provide an accurate, factual accounting.

My suggestions are:

1) “The Children” by David Halberstam, about James Lawson, a young African American divinity student who learned about non-violent civil disobedience at the knees of Mahatma Gandhi’s followers during a three-year stint as a missionary to India. When Lawson returned, he entered the all-white Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and began teaching workshops to Nashville’s black youths to prepare them for the equal-rights struggle.

2) “1865: The Month That Saved America” by Jay Winik, a retelling of how America’s history could have been altered but for a few decisions made by Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, a quirk of fate and a sudden shift in luck.

3) Finally, for those interested in what life close to the president is really like, read “42 Years in the White House” by Ike Hoover, an usher. One fascinating revelation: Franklin Delano Roosevelt never worked after lunch. Maybe Roosevelt had the right idea. For all the hours recent presidents have spent in the Oval Office, the nation isn’t the better for it.

All three books can be bought online in used but acceptable condition for half the price of a movie ticket. “The Butler” opens on Aug. 16.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 1986. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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Joe Guzzardi