Should We Judge the Past Differently?

Should We Judge the Past Differently?

Should we judge the past differently?

When Meryl Streep presented Emma Thompson with an award at the National Board of Review Awards for Emma Thompson’s role in Saving Mr. Banks, Streep proceeded to slam Walt Disney for his tendency to be very sexist and very racist (spoiler alert: he was, if you weren’t already aware of that). I thought that was an interesting thing to do when presenting a fellow actor with an award for her work portraying a character who worked closely with Walt Disney for many years, but whatever.

It brought up a broader point for me, though. Specifically, I feel that most people judge the past through a different lens. The more distant the past, the more different the lens.

This is reflected in the film industry in many, many ways. For example, in the film The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character didn’t rape his slave women — even though the real character he was based on totally, totally did. The filmmakers chose to leave that out, and we chose to ignore that they left it out, because the IMPORTANT part of his legacy is that he fought for freedom against the British — at least according to the lens through which we view history.

Is this the right way or the wrong way to go about this?

If you’ve ever read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the subsequent books, there’s a religion in there called the “Speakers for the Dead.” These guys talk about people at their funerals, and they give you the straight dope. They don’t pretty up the person’s life, and they don’t needlessly slam them either. They tell you exactly what the person was like and exactly what they did, and they try to find some sort of deeper meaning in that.

Wouldn’t that be an interesting way to view history? Of course, we might be headed in that direction already.

It seems like we can look at more recent history more objectively, but sometimes not even then. For example, people tend to get offended when you talk about the fact that Gandhi had many, many of his students leave his teaching because of the ways he was sexually inappropriate toward women.

And people tend to get offended when you bring up the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. only had one documented exchange on the subject of homosexuality, and in that exchange he called it a “problem” that could be “solved” — something that would be political suicide today.

What’s the best way to go about this? What’s the “right” thing to do here, if there is one right way?

Should we represent the past as it actually was, or do we have license to modify it to make a broader point in the story we’re trying to tell? But if we do that, are we whitewashing history?

Is it right to take the novel Huckleberry Finn and replace every instance of the n-word with the word “slave” instead (which some people have done)? Are we whitewashing the book and sweeping transgressions under the rug, or are we making it more assimilable and removing a possible trigger word that could really upset people?

I know why the majority of Walt Disney’s misogyny and racism was taken out of Saving Mr. Banks. It’s a serious subject — far too serious for a lighthearted film about the creation of the Mary Poppins movie. It was a very deliberate, conscious decision by the filmmakers.

If you’re dealing with similarly sensitive subject matter, go into it with both eyes open. If you’re going to represent the past, do so faithfully, or be fully, fully aware of WHY you’re modifying it, and be willing to defend your decision to modify it that way. You’ll almost certainly get into a battle about it with someone, big or small, so have your arguments worked out ahead of time.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at garrettbrobinson.com.

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