I think about this all the time. But most recently, a reminder of this – for me, more important than anything else issue – came flying at me from multiple directions.
I have not seen the movie 42, the 2013 incarnation of the Jackie Robinson story. The reason I haven’t is that, with rare exceptions – The Jolson Story (1946), Bound For Glory (1977) and Ray (2004) – three rarities in fifty-eight years of moviemaking – when I go see “biopics”, I almost never emerge satisfied. My lingering question being:
“Is that really them?”
Of course, it’s not really them, as in them themselves – it’s an actor portraying them. What the question means is, “Is that actor – and the writer who wrote the screenplay – portraying that person in any way that is reliably accurate?
A notable exception to the “them” on the screen not being the actual “them” is The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which the real Jackie Robinson played himself.
Or did he?
“It wasn’t me.”
“It sure looked like you, Jackie.”
“It was me physically. But what I said in the movie bore little resemblance to what I actually said. And the things that happened to me was severely cleaned up to conform to the strict content requirements of the American Motion Picture Code.”
“So very little of it is actually real?”
“The ‘fundamentals’ are real – I broke the Major Leagues color barrier. I played for the Dodgers. And there was one other thing that was real.”
“The money I was paid for doing the movie.”
Think about that. You went to The Jackie Robinson Story, you saw a person playing himself, and even then, there was little certainty of biographical accuracy.
The real Jackie Robinson was playing a made-up Jackie Robinson. Can we honestly expect a more truthful portrayal from somebody else? (In fact, The New Yorker movie reviewer David Denby opined that 42’s Chadwick Boseman provided a more persuasive portrayal of Jackie Robinson than Jackie did. Yikes! That’s like entering a “Look-Alike Contest” for yourself, and coming in second.)
The other recent occasion where I was confronted with the question of “What do we know?” was at the Louvre, during our recent visit to Paris.
You see these famous artists’ portraits of the notables of their era hanging on the walls, and the first thing you, or at least I – wonder is, “Is that really them?”
Going solely by those portraits, if we were to go back in time, would we recognize those notables if we passed them on the street? What if, in real life, they had a Witherspoonian chin, or a disfiguring carbuncle on their nose? How do you square the artist’s obligation to paint what they see with their responsibility to the subjects who are paying them? It’s a real dilemma:
“Do I paint them more favorably and become a traitor to the truth? Or do I paint them as they are and risk not getting paid, and possibly – if it’s a big shot, or a pope or something – worse?”
If their decision was the former – and the smart money says that it was – then what exactly are we looking at? Counterfeit portraits, hanging in the Louvre.
“The Countess’s face is really my girlfriend’s. But the dress and the jewelry are on the money!”
Finally, there’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews (by Jonathan D. Sarna, 2012.) In a nutshell, at the height of the Civil War, opportunistic Northern businessmen were discovered smuggling gold into the South to pay for contraband cotton, the gold then going to subsidize the Confederate war effort. Since a substantial number of those businessmen – including two partners of his own father – were Jewish, an irate Grant issued General Orders No. 11, banishing Jews “as a class” from his war zone. (When he heard about it, President Lincoln countermanded this order, and it was never put into effect.)
When General Grant Expelled the Jews strongly argues that the vociferous outcry against him by prominent Jewish Americans – Grant was compared with the iconic Jew-hater Haman – led Grant, either out of guilt or political expediency, to bend over backwards to disprove his antipathy towards the Jews throughout the rest of his life, including his two terms as president, during which Grant appointed more Jews to important positions than any president before him. The book’s message seems to be, “You don’t mess with the Jews.”
The problem for me, from an accuracy standpoint, is that When General Grant Expelled the Jews was published in collaboration which Nextbook, which, it is announced on the book’s first page, is “a project devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture, and ideas.” (The book’s second page offers a list of Nextbook’s other publications, including books about King David, Maimonides, and Spinoza, with forthcoming books about Abraham and Moses. This is indisputably a Jew-centric operation. Which triggers questions of bias in When General Grant Expelled The Jews storytelling. Including the book’s title, because, though Grant issued the order, the Jews were never actually expelled.)
General Orders No. 11 is an historical fact. The event is included in the book-on-tape I am currently listening to, The Man Who Saved The Union – Ulysses Grant In War And Peace, by H. W, Brands. The question is, “How significant was this anti-Semitic blunder in Grant’s future career?” When General Grant Expelled the Jews claims it was enormous. But the book’s dedication is in Hebrew.
By the way, wrapping things up, The Man Who Saved The Union arguably underplays the issue of Grant’s drunkenness. This seems like a subject at least as significant as Grant’s unsuccessful efforts as a farmer, though Brands devotes considerably more attention to that. Again, I worry about the balance. And, if Brands is unbalanced about the drunkenness issue, what else is he unbalanced about?
Historical accounts – cinematic, artistic and literary – abound. But if all they provide are manipulations, distortions and inaccuracies, what we know for certain…
Is really not that much.