Fictionalizing History: Helen Keller, Al Capone, and the Wild, Wild West
The majority of cowboys in the supposed “wild west” era of US history weren’t white; words like “bronco” and “stampede” came from Spanish; and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries many Western towns barred you from entering if you were carrying a firearm.
The image portrayed in Western films of the clean-shaven, but rugged white man protecting towns from Indian raids and outlaws with quick draw shootouts largely comes from Wyatt Earp selling his exaggerated life story to Hollywood.
Western films are usually fictional, though some are based on actual events, like the shootout at the OK Corral (which only lasted 30 seconds), but this idea of the Western and the image of the cowboy has entered our collective consciousness to the point where people probably associate John Wayne with the “American West” more than they do vaqueros, settler colonialism, and sex work. John Wayne grew up in SoCal.
And maybe it’s not an important detail to remember that cowboys in the 19th century wore facial hair and didn’t wear cowboy hats, but it does matter that they weren’t all white and that cowboy culture came from Mexican vaqueros.
It matters because mainstream history is widely told by white people in the service of a hierarchical social structure that puts white people at the top, downplays the extent of colonization, erases the existence of non-white people and takes credit for their social contributions in order to maintain the hierarchy — and there’s often a healthy dose of patriarchy mixed in.
It matters that women in the West weren’t following men as wives and homemakers. They were prospectors and gamblers, musicians and actresses, bronc riders and politicians, and part of the reason women moved west at all was because of sex work. They were also settlers and not blameless for the atrocities of settler colonialism, and that matters, too.
It matters that the relationship between the indigenous people and the people trying to exploit occupied land for precious metals or to raise cattle was hostile on the part of the colonizers and was not the benign “migration west” that I was taught in school. There were occasional (and understandable) raids from indigenous people on the Oregon Trail, but those raids accounted for 1–4% of all deaths. You were more likely to be trampled to death by your own cow.
In the west, there were also violent battles instigated by colonizers, forced labor via the Spanish encomienda system, and starvation that occurred as a result of the gold rush ruining traditional indigenous hunting and agricultural practices.
But somehow the Hollywood image of the cowboy still prevails from that era as a hero.
In the Magnificent Seven (which is actually a remake of a Japanese samurai film), with real people like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday being portrayed, what you get is a dramatization that portrays a hostile, lawless world of bandits and shootouts, which is an unrealistic portrayal not just of the west, but of people. The real violence — toward the indigenous people (most devastatingly via smallpox and measles brought over from Europe in centuries prior) — gets covered up in favor of glorified criminality where the white “hero” never suffers any consequences for his violent refusal to live in a world with other people.
Still today, the image of the cowboy is one of the things people outside the US associate with “America.” And to this day, when some USians say “real American,” what they mean is this aggressively macho white “good guy” with a gun.
This is a problem because that image is at the center of other narratives that reinforce a white-centric, hypermasculine world. The movie industry has historically been a target accused of corrupting impressionable minds with salacious material (probably unfair), and has more recently been called out for lack of representation on screen and behind the scenes (definitely fair). But I think it’s also fair to say that Hollywood has contributed to a narrative that erases a whole lot of history and a whole lot of people, and I think this matters.
WHAT IS HISTORY?
History is an investigation into the past. The etymology of the word links it back to storytelling. Recounting the past started as an oral tradition of passing down stories. Of course, there is also material evidence of past peoples, but history is a piecemeal analysis based on artifacts and narratives, is full of speculation, and is dependent upon who is doing the recounting.
History was eventually recorded by those who could write — that is, not everyone. Monarchies had court historians as far back as the Han Dynasty in China. Thucydides famously wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Methods of recording history vary: Do you try to ascribe human motivation or cause and effect? Do you simply try to record what happened as neutrally as possible? Do you treat history like telling a story? Do you interpret the significance in a broader context? Do you approach history based on material conditions?
Recorded history isn’t neutral. It is written in a framework particular to the time of the writer. So beyond basic facts that nearly anyone would agree on like “Vesuvius erupted and destroyed Pompeii” and “Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot,” history is always recorded and retold through people with particular perspectives and their own context.
You can watch videos of recent figures and events and still not get to what actually happened. Even the 24-hour news you see on CNN is told through reporters and editors. I remember watching Desert Storm footage on TV as a child, but I was too young to understand optics, that what I was seeing wasn’t being presented as “neutral.”
So, too, with any history. We non-historians treat historians as experts of the past, but the mistake we make is taking their authority to mean objectivity. It just doesn’t work that way. A historian should try to minimize their own perspective, but the curse of being human is being embodied, socialized, and contextualized.
History is a story. Narrative structures simply are one of the ways we convey information to each other, and you can see why filmmakers are drawn to pre-existing narratives.
But when history is told through a fictional adaptation, the lens of perspective is being bent even further. Of course there are facts about each one of us, but to assume you know the inner life of another person well enough to make them the main character with whom the audience is supposed to connect and root for in two hours is presumptuous. Even if you have diaries and autobiographies, we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives, there is always someone else’s side of the story.
And if we don’t consider how variable history can be even when recounted by a historian, we certainly aren’t going to keep that in mind when we’re watching a movie. And maybe that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things — but maybe it does.
WHO COUNTS AS WORTH REMEMBERING?
The biopic is an entire genre of Oscar-bait filmmaking that has included: William Wallace, Robert Gould Shaw, Johnny Cash, Freddie Mercury, Neil Armstrong, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Chesley Sullenburger, Abraham Lincoln, Dick Cheney, Frida Kahlo, Freddie Mercury, Elton John. These are real people who existed, some of whom are still alive, or at least have immediate family and close friends who are still alive.
Only a handful of individuals get films made about them, and these are the people that someone in a Hollywood studio decided were important enough that money can be made off them. Most of the people I listed above come from a similar demographic, much the same demographic as Hollywood studio executives.
I hate to point out the obvious, but when I think about the US history education I received in grade school and the individuals it featured, I think mostly of white men, exceptions being George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. I can also count on one hand the number of women who were included in my US history education not in association with the man they married — Sacajawea, Betsy Ross, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, and Helen Keller. In world history, we added Anne Frank. (I shudder to think at Hollywood making an Anne Frank biopic.)
In 3rd grade we had a unit on inventors. Not included in this were: Mary Anderson (windshield wipers), Josephine Cocrane (automatic dishwasher), Mary Van Brittan Brown (home security system), Melitta Bentz (coffee filters), Katherine Blodgett (non-reflective glass), Grace Hopper (the computer), and Margaret Knight (27 patents, including one for an internal combustion engine).
I don’t know what a cotton gin is, but I have known since I was 8 years old that Eli Whitney invented it.
Of course, it isn’t just inventions — but that’s often a point of anti-feminist rhetoric that men still use today — “what have women really done?” (Other than, you know, perpetuate human life and care for it.) And there’s clearly a problem with that narrow, “accomplishment”-driven criticism, too. Inventions are never single accomplishments divined out of one person in a vacuum.
Helen Keller is a particularly interesting case, because a Tony award-winning play and several biopics derived from her autobiography of her early life have been produced. Keller has been in the news recently, because she will no longer be included in the state of Texas’ history curriculum, on the grounds that “you can’t include everyone” (and to save teachers 40 minutes). Keller’s early life is ripe for dramatization and “the triumph of the human spirit,” but when you learn more about her later life, it makes sense why Texas was willing to cut her from history.
We all know Keller was an advocate for people with disabilities, but what you didn’t learn from The Miracle Worker was that Keller was a socialist, a member of the IWW, a supporter of birth control, and a pacifist.
Many people are either silenced from or sanitized within the history we learn in school — Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-capitalism also comes to mind — so maybe movies and biopics are an opportunity to learn about people and events that aren’t covered in limited curriculum.
I did learn more about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, which was loosely based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly. But the film was co-written, directed, and produced by a white man (the co-writer was a white woman). And the story contained heavy-handed white savior tropes like the scene where the white male boss triumphantly “desegregates” the women’s restroom by taking down a sign. See more about this here.
It’s not to say that any of the biopic subjects I’ve mentioned aren’t worthwhile or didn’t do interesting things, but who gets to make that determination, who profits from their stories, and how their stories are portrayed isn’t a story of history so much as it is a story of power — and the power of whiteness.
By mostly telling the stories of white, straight, cis-men with achievements that matter economically or in the service of war, it reiterates the message that only this type of person is interesting for doing these types of things. And the underlying message is that they are the only types of people who matter.
This isn’t a surface level plea for “diversity.” When people say that representation matters, they mean it matters because having a story like yours told comes along with a message of worth and value. And when you’re talking about history specifically, the message is that these white guys are the only people who are empowered to affect lasting social change — which isn’t a great message if you find yourself in an oppressed group.
MAKING HEROES OF VILLAINS
And then, of course, sometimes movies get made about people who skew more toward infamous than famous. Even when you portray the main character as “flawed,” even if the actor hates the character they are playing, it still centers that character, that person, as important in some way, as worth talking about, as worth considering.
Satire is one thing, but dramatic fictionalizations can turn horrible people into folk heroes.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but Al Capone wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t Robin Hood. He was greedy and violent and responsible for killing a lot of people. The ways he expanded the Chicago Outfit’s bootlegging business involved blowing up the establishments that didn’t buy from him. He essentially fixed a mayoral election by bombing polling places during the “Pineapple Primary” (killing at least 15 people) and having Octavius Granady killed. (Granady was a challenger to current mayor William Hale Thompson with whom Capone had an alliance.) Capone was responsible for the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Even back when he was 14, he was expelled from school for hitting a teacher in the face.
Capone and characters based on Capone have been portrayed in numerous films and television shows. The most famous of these, of course, is Scarface. Although it’s not directly a biopic, Tony Montana was based on Antonio “Tony” Camonte from the 1932 film, which was based on the book Scarface, which was Al Capone’s nickname.
Meanwhile, posters of Scarface (the movie) are ubiquitous in boys’ dorm rooms. Scarface has been so iconic in hip hop there’s a documentary about its impact. In a recent episode of “Patriot Act” on police violence, Hasan Minhaj interviewed a police officer who had two pictures of Scarface in his office.
I do understand that there’s something appealing about a poor child of immigrants working his way up into being able to afford copious amounts of cocaine. (Seriously, part of me gets it.) But it’s alarming that supposed officers of the law are idolizing a gangster whose real life counterpart killed seemingly without remorse and saw people as disposable in search of his own personal monetary gain with the aim of living a lifestyle of excess — jewelry, cigars, brothels. Yes, fine, Al Capone gave to soup kitchens. (And not for a write-off, since he didn’t pay taxes.) But he did that because of his image, not because he cared.
It makes you wonder about the type of person who is drawn to law enforcement if the person they admire was a violent, organized crime leader with a chip on his shoulder. It makes you wonder about men generally that they all seem to dig this guy. It really makes you question the myth of upward mobility under capitalism if the take away from Scarface is that the way up is violence and if you go out in a blaze of “glory,” so be it.
If the only way you feel like you have self-determination is by killing people in the service of organized crime, then this really just points to the fact that there are some sweeping societal problems that are due for a reckoning.
Even if movies are meant to offer critique, even if they aren’t meant to glorify things like violence and war, even if you’re not supposed to come away feeling great from Scarface or one of the more than 1,300 World War II movies that have been made, it’s not always clear that this intention is met, especially when you dramatize violence for entertainment while not problematizing societal norms as you’re reducing everything to “good guys” and “bad guys” so moviegoers can be entertained with spectacular sound editing and cinematography for two hours.
SANITIZING THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The emphasis on notable individuals in biopics especially perpetuates the hero narrative we see in fiction — the idea that there are individual saviors of social problems or that war is a story of heroes on the front lines.
Maybe it’s meant to be encouraging, maybe it’s meant to push the narrative that you can make a difference (and thus have social value), but it feels more like another damaging feature of liberalism — the idea that things only get done (for the benefit of a group) by individuals acting alone and not by collective action, cooperation, shared goals, group decision-making, and community building.
The idea that war is primarily acts of bravery and not of exploitation on nearly every level (perpetrated by people who aren’t Hollywood war heroes), that to have worth you have to do something great, that your worth comes from your labor power and not simply from being alive, these are the myths that get perpetuated with the idea of the hero.
This kind of storytelling has always occurred, long before motion pictures were even in the human imagination. Myth plays an important role in human culture. Though this exact purpose is highly contested, a culture’s myths do say something about what they deemed socially important, what they deemed as truth. In some myths, individuals serve as examples to teach lessons about behavior.
It may be a step too far to say that movies have taken the place of myth, but it’s disingenuous to say that movies are only for entertainment, because movies take place in a broader social space. You cannot control the takeaway that everyone gets from a myth or a movie. Not everyone is going to consider broader cultural narratives or operating systems of power or what this means about society generally, especially in a movie that focuses on a specific individual.
Look at Green Book, a biopic about Don Shirley, a touring Black pianist who was driven around for eight weeks by a white guy from New York City. The criticism of Green Book from Black Americans was vast (here, here, here). Again, it falls into the category of a white savior film, made for white audiences to perpetuate the white narrative that Black people in the US are in need of a saving from a friendly white helping hand, and that you cannot possibly be racist or perpetuate racist social structures if you are nice to one Black person.
By focusing on personal relationships, films like Green Book erase the power dynamics that exist at all levels of society and extend well beyond personalized racist attacks (what white celebrities like to call “hate”) or one-on-one treatment. Things like: being turned down for a bank loan, the sabotage of intergenerational wealth, over-criminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, simply existing in a space where a white woman is “uncomfortable” (including college dorms, city parks, one’s own yard), being told that achievements were not earned, being murdered by police for doing absolutely nothing other than existing while Black.
When those at the top of the social hierarchy are the ones who tell the stories we see at the movies, their perspective leaks through in their interpretations. History books are told by the victors, by the white men, by the rich. The main myth that gets perpetuated in hero stories in the US is a myth of American exceptionalism — which is both a globally harmful lie and a lie that gets embedded in individuals who think their goal should be to get rich by doing something “great.”
In school, I was taught “western expansion,” not “genocide and colonization.” I was taught “spreading democracy,” not “profits for energy executives.” I was not taught a single thing about the Korean War, possibly because it’s hard even for history book propagandists to make the US look good coming out of it. I was taught that Hilter was evil, but I was not taught all the conditions in Germany that led to Hitler’s rise or that the US turned away refugees on the St. Louis or that IBM was involved in the Holocaust.
By telling history through individuals and singular narratives instead of through broader social contexts, “not all men” and “not all white people” is the story we’re told instead of the corruption that comes from race-based hierarchies and additional operations of power. We’re told that certain people are just bad and not that the capacity for doing bad things is part of being human and that social conditions, fear, and money seriously affect the good or bad we are willing to do. We’re told we need exceptional heroes to come through for us in dramatic moments in the nick of time — the steady work of collective action is never the hero.
And I’m not sure Hollywood even does this intentionally. It’s part of the neoliberal zeitgeist to look at everything through the individual lens; Hollywood just reinforces it using pretty people and film scores.
DRAMATIZING AND BENDING REALITY
When you have a historical film or a biopic about a person or an event, the film introduces an alternate timeline, an alternate universe, a truncated two-hour reality with dramatic music, snappy dialogue, and filmmaking tropes. And when you put a real person into a film “adaptation,” then they become a character. They become likable or not, relatable or not, based on other people’s interpretation of them.
And maybe it doesn’t matter that by most counts, Alan Turing was a nice, reserved man and probably not as arrogant and condescending as he was portrayed in Imitation Game.
But maybe films like this really do distort reality in a harmful way. There are some philosophers who argue that film is “real,” that what transpires in a film is a reality. And in some ways it is. Films exist in a common, shared reality and shared epistemology that makes any communication or society possible. Some films disrupt that common reality, inviting you into worlds with aliens, space travel, street scenes in major US cities that contain no people of color or people of size, and single people who can afford to live alone in Manhattan. Some “cerebral” films even play with space and time.
Biopics and historical adaptations always skew toward the dramatic. There’s a falseness to the drama of movies — articulate shouting matches, single tears rolling down cheeks, improbable timing, impassioned speeches — things that don’t happen in real life. So maybe I’m wrong about all of this, maybe the excessive drama is the saving grace that enables us to distinguish biopic reality from lived reality.
But in a world where I feel like I live in different reality than anyone who watches Fox News, I’m not so sure.
I still remember in 2012, when the buzz on the internet was that it was the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and one thing I remember clearly from this time was some people were genuinely surprised to learn that the sinking of the Titanic was an actual event and not just a movie — so maybe not.
You do learn from movies of all kinds. You also connect emotionally, feel entertained, and escape the drudgery of existence. Some movies give you a positive takeaway — a little hope that maybe human beings value each other and aren’t completely selfish and cruel. But fiction gets us to those places, too.
Even after all this, I’m not sure what the takeaway is from a historical adaptation. All too frequently, these films look a whole lot like profiting off death. The popularity of the true crime genre feels like television studios (i.e., giant media conglomerates headed by men rich enough to be protected from consequences) profiting off what is usually violence against women — did we really need a Ted Bundy movie? This fall, Lionsgate tried to profit off the Battle of Midway and Universal Pictures’ 1917 is up for Oscars. War might be a for-profit enterprise at this point, but it’s traumatic for the people in it, not entertainment.
Maybe we do have to confront the horrible. Maybe it helps us cope. But maybe at the same time, because we know that life isn’t a drama, isn’t well-timed, isn’t triumphant, isn’t great for anyone but a few, then maybe instead of giving us hope, these films keep hope a fantasy, too.
And the thing about all of this is — if you want to make a movie about a real event or a real person, there’s already an entire genre for it. Of course, documentaries aren’t bias free, but dramas limit perspective in a way that a documentary can try to avoid by providing different perspectives, by not being so myopic. (Though, of course, documentaries don’t make as much money as dramas.)
Going to the movies is one of my favorite things to do, which is why I’m being so critical here, why I think among Hollywood’s numerous problems, getting history wrong is one of those. Because it’s not just the trivial facts of history that get misunderstood, it’s also people, systems, how the world operates. Adaptations allow us to perpetuate a sanitized, whitewashed version of history that doesn’t reflect the past or confront historical trauma that never gets dealt with — colonization, slavery, war. We plow forward in the service of “progress” that only feels like progress to a few and leaves everyone else behind.
And so these films perpetuate myths like the cowboy, the war hero, the gangster, and take us all a little further away from what it’s really like to be human.