Memorial Day, 2014: Do Facts Matter?

Clif's legendary grilled bread
Clif’s legendary grilled bread

The weather forecast for Memorial Day weekend turned out to be wrong, and for the most part, the weather was pretty nice—sunny on Saturday and Sunday and good enough on Monday for us to have our first outdoor gathering on the patio. This meant that on Memorial Day, there were 6 happy people at the little house in the big woods because Clif was able to serve his legendary grilled bread. I had a backup plan—biscuits—and although I make pretty good biscuits, they can’t compete with grilled bread, fresh and warm and dipped in olive oil.

Shannon and Mike came, as did our friends Joel and Alice. We spent most of the time on the patio as we enjoyed Clif’s grilled bread (along with other nibbles); potato salad; corn; and grilled teriyaki chicken. For dessert, Alice made some oatmeal cookies spiced with ginger and cinnamon. It was all pretty darned good, as Clif would say, and made even better because we were able to eat most of it outside. (When it was time for dessert, we came inside.)

We are all movie buffs, and one lively topic of discussion was Belle, a movie Clif and I had recently seen with Alice and Joel at Railroad Square Cinema. Belle is based—very loosely, as it turns out—on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman whose father was white and whose mother was black. Fortunately, by today’s standards, this is not especially noteworthy, but Dido was born in 1761, and she was the illegitimate daughter of the English Admiral Sir John Lindsay. When she was young, Dido was sent to live with her great uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

Now, anyone with even just a passing knowledge of English society in the late 1700s would realize that Dido was in a difficult social situation—she was illegitimate and she was black, but she was also the great niece of an earl. While the movie accurately acknowledges some of the realities of Dido’s life, it blithely ignores other aspects, some of which are known and recorded. (I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of the ways the movie disregarded the known facts. I don’t want to turn this post into a spoiler.)

However, I can safely write that while I did enjoy the movie, which was well acted and well filmed, as I thought about the movie afterwards, I realized that parts of it didn’t make a lick of sense, given the realities of eighteenth-century England. When I read a little about Dido’s life and what was known about her, I could see how the filmmakers had decided that some of the facts didn’t matter and how they went their own foolish way with Dido’s story. David Denby, from the New Yorker, called the movie “a fraud,” and he is right.

I am of the firm opinion that facts do matter, and when making a movie or writing a book about real people, the film makers or authors have an obligation to stick to the known facts. Obviously, there is going to be a great deal of unknown details that will be imagined and recreated. I understand this. But to blatantly change the known facts seems, to me, just plain wrong, and it makes me a little cranky to think about it.

However, to end on an upbeat note: Clif and I are lucky to have family and friends with sharp intellects, and our discussions are always spirited and interesting, whatever the topic.

And that, readers, is a fact.

Addendum, May 29: My friend Joel Johnson rightly pointed out that I only included a snippet of the sentence of what the film critic David Denby wrote about Belle. Here is the whole sentence: “Factually, the movie is probably a fraud, but it’s crisply entertaining, and Mbatha-Raw, born in Oxford and acting since she was a child, delivers her increasingly confident lines with tremulous emotion and, finally, radiant authority.” Denby is right about  Belle’s good points, but there is no probably about it—the movie is certainly a fraud.

4 thoughts on “Memorial Day, 2014: Do Facts Matter?”

  1. I completely agree with you, Laurie. Books and movies based on truth owe it to the reader/viewer to at least attempt to remain true to known facts.

    1. Yes, indeed, Mary Jane. I feel very strongly about this, as I’m sure you gathered from my piece 😉

  2. In the interest of factually representing David Denby’s opinion of the movie “BELLE,” it may be helpful to see more of what he wrote. Railroad Square Cinema has for possibly its entire existence printed film reviews by critics addressing each film that they have shown on single sheets under the heading of “Square Times.” David Denby’s review was the one chosen by Railroad Square Cinema for “BELLE.” As a longtime fan of Railroad Square Cinema, I know that on occasion the reviews chosen may be edited so that the reviews of two films can fit on two sides of a single page. I am not aware that David Denby’s review was edited, but it could have been. In checking film reviews through the Rotten Tomatoes website (, I was directed to a shortened abstract of his full review. It is in this abstract that he states “Factually, the movie is probably a fraud.” Although that particular statement does not appear in the Square Times printing of his review, a few deviations from the established known facts of Belle’s life were pointed out. The Square Times version of Denby’s review describes the film as “a moralized historical fantasy, mixing love and politics in Old Hollywood style.” This is followed directly by this statement: “Yet I can’t bring myself to be indignant about its inventions.” As befits a film that addresses Jane Austen’s recurring themes of love and property, the Square Times version of David Denby’s review closes with this statement: “Austen, I believe, would have been thrilled.”

    Films, alas, have a checkered history as vessels of truth about real people and real events. Probably about as good as they are in accurately turning any book into a film. Any filmgoer should be somewhat skeptical about how accurate a film is about real people and real events. Some filmmakers are quite concerned about being accurate in telling a story and others may choose to follow the dictum: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Whether one is or is not concerned about these deviations from known facts is a personal issue. It certainly is significant and good for the film in that people want to know more about the person at the heart of this film and about the broader context in which the film places her and in which she lived. When a film inspires one to learn more it has more than done its job.

    1. Joel, in an addendum, I added the full quotation. Should have originally included it in the post, but as usual, chores were calling, and I wanted to wrap things up. A good example of haste makes waste. However, I don’t think Austen would have been thrilled at all with this film. Astonished, yes, that anyone would have come with such a whacky plot that was so tone-deaf to the period, but not thrilled.

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