The Revolution Will Not be Televised: The risks of a 'true story'

Monday, November 6, 2017 - 5:30pm

Despite the phrase “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” countless films have sought to portray revolutions around the world, from “Les Misérables” to “The Battle of Algiers” and more. This phrase originated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, it gained popularity largely through Gil Scott-Heron’s jazz poem of the same title. In addition to distrust of mass media, Scott-Heron hoped to convey the indescribable power of revolutionary movements to change minds — something he believed films could not recapture. With the current turmoil in Europe over Catalonia’s decision to secede from Spain, I decided to revisit the 2009 biographical film “Invictus” to examine how films depict independence movements and if, indeed, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

“Invictus” follows South Africa’s transition post-apartheid under the leadership of Nelson Mandela as the first Black president, portrayed by his Hollywood doppelganger, Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”). The film takes place during the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted in South Africa, a sport deeply valued by white South Africans but viewed as a symbol of white supremacy by Black South Africans. Mandela enlists the help of Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, “The Martian”), captain of the national rugby team called the Springboks, to transform the event into a moment of unity for the country.

Historians have analyzed the accuracy of “Invictus” and commend it for sticking to facts and real events. Of course, the “truth” of an event largely depends on whose eyes it is viewed through. And a common folly of films about revolutions is the temptation to romanticize the time and its heroes. This raises a key question about cinema’s responsibility to history: How much creative liberty can be taken, especially if the movie is advertised as “based on a true story”?

For the sake of a cohesive narrative, many historical films have altered characters and the chronology of events. For example, in “Hidden Figures,” which shares the story of three Black women who contributed immensely to several NASA space missions, one character plays the role of a misogynistic white male coworker, combining many sexists into a singular villain. Having a single person to detest for repeated harassment allows the audience to concentrate their disapproval, but does this do an injustice to the scale of sexism these women faced? Similarly in movies about independence movements, the revolutionaries often deal with a few specific villains who dole out all the oppression and bigotry that in reality they received from a much larger group.

Combining several real-life figures into a single character to serve as the villain leads to many inaccuracies. Not only does it unfairly simplify what the revolutionaries had to overcome; it also does a disservice to the authenticity of the film. When characters are based off of real people, changing the decisions they make misaligns motivations and personal histories, resulting in confusion. Furthermore, having two-dimensional antagonists driven solely by ignorance and prejudices ignores the bystanders and people who were not as overtly oppressive, but still contributed negatively. It also fails to understand the source of this ignorance. “Invictus” tries to avoid this gimmick by showing the bond between Mandela’s white and Black security personnel over professionalism, while not disregarding the history of racism. Their gradual acceptance of one another mimics changes in the country and offers a nuanced take on race relations and reparations after independence movements.

Given the breadth and complexity of independence movements, it is rather egotistical of films to presume they can deliver a “true story.” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in the sense that being a part of a movement can never be represented through the medium just as watching a broadcast of a sporting event does not mimic the energy of sitting in the stadium. With brewing tensions between Spain and Catalonia right now, it is important to keep in mind how these incidents in history are characterized later in film. Though no film can recreate the feeling, timeline or absolute truth of such a movement, through faithfulness to the real people and events of the time, movies can serve an educational purpose and try to pay homage to the human will and struggles of those it seeks to honor.