How many times have you seen "based on a true story" before a feature film? The truth is often the basis for some very successful Hollywood films. Films like Milk, The Social Network, and The Queen are just a few from recent memory. Inevitably, the truth in the true story becomes something that critics and audiences debate.
This summer comes a film based on a popular novel, The Help. This film doesn't carry the "true story" mantle but the book was inspired by the white author's own upbringing in a racially divided Mississippi. The press and online debate about this film starts there. Entertainment Weekly, in a cover story, talks about the "crooked culture of storytelling when it comes to the black experience." In its review, the Boston Globe says, "The Help joins everything from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Blind Side as another Hollywood movie that sees racial progress as the province of white do-gooderism." Variety calls the film "A stirring black-empowerment tale aimed squarely at white audiences."
It seems that a film not based on a true story but rather based on what a novelist and a film director see as the truth can raise just as many questions. What is the truth? Whose history is it anyway? Who has the right to tell a story? What if I see the truth in a different way than you do?
All good questions. All questions that don't have simple answers. But sometimes just asking the questions is where the truth gets revealed. I don't know if I will see The Help but I am glad that in a summer where Smurfs, aliens and superheroes are ruling the multiplex that there is a movie that might just be a little more challenging -- a movie that might reveal a little truth.
Jim Dunford is the series manager at AMERICAN EXPERIENCE and has always been interested in how history is treated by Hollywood.
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