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Beware of movies altering the truth of historical events

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Posted: Saturday, August 10, 2013 12:00 am

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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Welcome to the discussion.


  • Bob Marconi posted at 11:14 pm on Fri, Aug 23, 2013.

    Bob Marconi Posts: 39

    Yes, Ms. Bobin, they are. Take a glimpse at our national and state elected officials.

  • Ted Lauchland posted at 2:23 pm on Sun, Aug 18, 2013.

    Ted Lauchland Posts: 261

    I am not intending to mock the youth of today Mr. Barrow. I know several youths that do not care to be involved with politics. It is their truth. - Why?

    Bottom line is if you care then it is generally the difference between believing in a free - enterprise system or more of a socialistic system as to how you vote. Either way it takes a desire to be involved. Most people only care about their immediate daily lives and don't choose any more than that.

    Young or old are viewpoints. Government jobs or independent companies are viewpoints. Wage earner hourly, salary or commission are viewpoints and company owners/employers are viewpoints. All dependent on their own experiences and personal information.

    How do YOU vote? What incentive do YOU have to live this life. What interest?

    Are you out to support someone you do not know or are you in it for yourself and family. What motivates you? Does society benefit more from an adrenaline rush of a desire to personally get ahead or not.

    Do you vote for a candidate because he is pretty? Do you vote character or do you actually vote on policy without any emotion involved what-so-ever. Now you are involving more than just the youth. Don't talk religion either.

    Repeat : What influences our youth to vote or not to vote and for whom or what? Their facts , their experiences, their truth. They are indeed the future but then they get old too.

  • Eric Barrow posted at 9:57 am on Thu, Aug 15, 2013.

    Eric Barrow Posts: 1604

    I thought Joe was talking about 2016 Obama’s America which was actually a documentary with questionable truths, not the fictional movie The Butler which is only based on a true story. I still think Jane playing Nancy is funny.

    As far as the youth of today I think you will find that many of them are quite plugged into to current events they don't read newspapers but they do have others means of following news content. These kids also vote 20% of the last election was from those under 30 and almost 50 % of that age group voted. Mock the youth of today at your own peril they are the decision makers of the future

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 11:57 am on Wed, Aug 14, 2013.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Mr. Lauchland:

    I would be willing to bet that most of the "young people" who you believe to be educationally bankrupt wouldn't even bother to go to a movie that was based on a historical event, let alone believe its content is "the truth."

    Believe it or not, there are kids who do know the difference between historical fact and historical fiction.

  • robert maurer posted at 6:51 pm on Tue, Aug 13, 2013.

    mason day Posts: 488

    Anything Guzzardi posts causes me to do the same thing he posted about ,regarding a movie he watched:[sleeping][sleeping]It would not surprise me if children who are mentally stimulated, and not fed tv or internet crap would do the same.

  • Ted Lauchland posted at 4:26 pm on Tue, Aug 13, 2013.

    Ted Lauchland Posts: 261

    What is truth in our young people's minds?

    What they have been exposed to the most. Movies would be my guess. Whether they paid attention to it's documentary status or not it is still in the back of their minds .

    What is the truth? Is Fox 40 the truth? Is Channels 3, 10 or 13 the truth? Is what you say the truth? I would say that our young folk don't watch any of the news anyway so what is their influences?

    Related accepted practices of all sorts normally associated with generational differences such as slang now reflected in Facebook and such in the form of shortening words like "u" instead of "you" are the truth now. Cursive and such are struggling to exist. - Why?

    "You can't handle the truth" came from a movie didn't it?

  • Joanne Bobin posted at 8:16 am on Mon, Aug 12, 2013.

    Joanne Bobin Posts: 4488

    Interesting that Joe Guzzardi presupposes that the public cannot distinguish between a "movie" and a documentary.

    I'm sure there are some that cannot, but really? Are our citizens that dumb?

    If so, we are a sad society.


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