Controversy rages over movies ‘based on truth’

From slavery to politics to war, the latest blockbusters are dominated by real-life characters and events. But what happens when truth overlaps with commercial movie-making?

Quentin Tarantino is one of today's most controversial directors. Nothing is too violent or outrageous for his films, which are adored and condemned for their stylised depictions of gore.

So when Tarantino took on one of history's most sensitive subjects, it was bound to cause a stir. Django Unchained applies the director's fantasies to the slave trade, telling of a slave turned bounty hunter who seeks revenge on his white masters in a spree of glorified violence.

The movie is a smash, collecting two Golden Globes and a rash of Oscar nominations. But it has also been criticised for trivialising black history. Director Spike Lee, among others, says the film is 'disrespectful' to his ancestors: 'American slavery was not a Spaghetti Western,' he said, 'it was a holocaust.'

That would hardly put Tarantino off: his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds featured a group of guerilla Jewish soldiers exacting bloody revenge on Nazis. And Django is one of several new films to tackle sensitive historical events. The biggest winners of 2013's film awards are Lincoln, which dramatises the US President's campaign against slavery, and two films about US subterfuge in the Middle East.

Each has been simultaneously applauded and attacked for a gung-ho approach to history. Argo's 'real-life' story of American diplomats who escape 1980s Iran by posing as filmmakers is only partly true – their bizarre cover story was never used, and the film's thrilling chases are completely fabricated. As for Lincoln, some historians say it paints a rosy picture of the American President, ignoring his flaws to create a more sympathetic portrait.

Zero Dark Thirty is even more controversial: its portrayal of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, critics say, glorifies torture by showing terrorists confess under the pressure of waterboarding. Moreover, writer Mark Boal used CIA sources for much of his research, prompting some critics to argue that the film is inaccurately biased toward the US agency’s version of events.

Fact in fiction

For some critics, such controversies reveal the danger of mixing reality and art. However fairly filmmakers portray events, they say, the desire for drama always wins out, turning something serious into an excuse for a few hours of entertainment. History, they say, is too important for the movies.

But fact and fiction are not so drastically distinct, others argue. A single film is not an accurate version of events, but neither is a single history book – both are full of conjecture and opinion. Art helps people think about the past in nuanced, critical and unusual ways: look at the impact of Schindler’s List on conversations about the Holocaust. Its controversy should be celebrated.

You Decide

  1. Does violence in movies influence people to behave differently in their own lives?
  2. Do filmmakers have a responsibility to accurately portray real events, or should their only duty be to create entertaining and thought-provoking art?


  1. Make a list of good films based on true stories: which do you think are successful? For some ideas see the link in ‘Become an Expert’ at the bottom of the list.
  2. Write a pitch for a film that depicting real-life events, or a particular period of history. Think of a plot that can bring the events alive, without straying too far from reality.

Some People Say...

“Some things are too important for entertainment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

These movies are made for entertainment. Why does it matter whether they're true or not?
Films can be a powerful influence on attitudes and opinions. IfZero Dark Thirty portrays torture in a positive light, for example, it might prompt public acceptance of the practice – and hamper campaigns to prevent torture internationally.
These films are very violent. Is that an issue?
Django Unchained has been held up as an example of excessive violence on screen – which some think influences behaviour in the real world. When Tarantino was asked about this in a recent interview, he refused even to answer the question. Some say the violence in his movies desensitises people to bloodshed; others say that Django’s depictions of brutality are appalling but necessary, because they accurately represent the horrors of the slave trade.

Word Watch

Spike Lee
Spike Lee is an American film director, writer, actor and producer, whose work often focuses on race, poverty and crime in the black community, and the media. His films include She’s Gotta Have It, Malcolm X and Jungle Fever and he has directed a music video for Public Enemy.
Spaghetti Western
This particular style of wild west movie was made famous by the work of Italian director Sergio Leone, the man behind the Dollars Trilogy. Spaghetti Westerns, so-called because they were filmed in Italy at low cost, frequently featured plenty of violence. They attracted, and continue to draw, a cult following. Tarantino is heavily influenced by the genre.
It was a holocaust
‘The Holocaust’ refers only to the mass murder of Jews which took place under Germany’s Nazi regime in the 1940s. But the word 'holocaust’, without a capital letter, can also apply more generally to slaughter and destruction on a mass scale, such as in other cases of genocide, or in war.
US President’s campaign
Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States from 1861 until his death in 1865. At the time America was at war: slavery was still legal in the South, but it had been outlawed in the Northern states. Lincoln had long expressed his opposition to slavery on moral grounds, and he used his powers as President in a time of war to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing millions of slaves.
1980s Iran
Argo is based on the Iran Hostage crisis, which took place during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to 1980. A group of Islamist students, in protest at American influence in Iran, stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking those inside hostage for 444 days. When the Embassy was stormed, six diplomats managed to escape, seeking refuge in the Canadian Embassy: theirs is the story behind Argo.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.