Historical Fiction

Cindy Casey
8 min readApr 26, 2021


Pandemic Diary Entry:86

Image by lea hope bonzer from Pixabay

April 26, 2021

Bridgerton is a series presently running on Netflix. It is set in an England that never was, ruled by a Black queen with Black royalty. The show is a great opportunity for a diverse cast but it is also fantasy, it is a history that never existed, and yet many think it is true.

I agree that there is a “white” problem with Hollywood, and there should be far more movies that reflect our diverse world, but are younger people able to distinguish between escapism and reality when it comes to historical fiction in film?

When watching shows such as Bridgerton, 300, The Patriot, or even Shakespeare in Love if one does not know their history and does not realize that it is a fantasy, do they develop a misunderstanding of history?

After the 2012 release of Lincoln, U.S. Representative from Connecticut, Joe Courtney, wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that the film falsely showed two of the state’s legislators voting against the 13th amendment which abolished slavery. In 2012 with the release of The Iron Lady a story of Margaret Thatcher, Rob Wilson, a member of parliament, called for a debate in the British House of Commons, claiming that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, painted an “intrusive and unfair” picture of the former prime minister.

I was first bothered by this question in 1991 when James Cameron produced JFK. The film earned hundreds of millions of dollars, varying degrees of critical acclaim, and numerous honors, and yet it was horribly inaccurate.

In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin does a masterful job of portraying the trial but he takes artistic license altering the history and removing some of the cultural points. When asked about this Sorkin’s reply was honest, and also gets to the crux of the matter. Sorkin felt that it was not his job to illustrate Wikipedia. I agree, but sadly, most people will never go to Wikipedia to learn the truth.

When taking artistic license the history being altered is more than dates and times, artistic license also devalues the culture that the event occupied.

In the case of The Trial of the Chicago 7, in the movie, Tom Hayden reads the names of Americans killed in the War in Viet Nam. In reality, Dave Dellinger was the person who read the list, and he included the names of Vietnamese as well. Sorkin, by leaving that out, also leaves out the fact that Vietnamese died in the war at staggering rates, as though only American deaths are important to history.

300 portrays the Persian Empire as barbarians and lauds the Spartans. And yet, the Persian Empire prohibited slavery because of their Zoroastrian beliefs and the Spartans were one of the largest owners of slaves in Greece.

The Patriot left out the difficult fact that Mel Gibson’s character Francis Marion hunted Native Americans for sport and frequently raped his female slaves.

I left the theater after The Last Samurai ready to commit seppuku, gorgeous scenery, but the assumption that a white American could walk into the country and “improve” their warfare is insulting.

One of the larger problems with these often white-washed, historically inaccurate movies is that they remove the uncomfortable subjects such as extreme poverty, racism, and slavery. Until recent history, when Blacks in Hollywood were not singing or dancing, they were often cast as maids, butlers, porters or other servile, peripheral figures. Native American’s were also cast in submissive roles, usually shown as uneducated, dirty, non-humans.

So what? These are movies, doesn’t everyone know that we go to get away from reality, so what difference can it make?

“People learn the correct material in films really, really well,” said psychology researcher Sharda Umanath of Duke University, who has studied student learning in historical films. “But the problem is they also learn anything that’s false in a film.” According to Umanath’s research, students tend to remember the Hollywood version, even if they already know the true history. And when asked to spot the flaws, most students only notice about 35 percent of them.

The adage, a repeated lie becomes truth, is core here. According to a 1977 study in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, people who were repeatedly presented with lies over several weeks were more likely to believe they were true.

This is disturbing because these lies are implanted even if people know the truth. David Neil Rapp, a cognitive psychologist at Northwestern University, has found that when people are told stories that include facts they know are wrong, they will nonetheless use that wrong knowledge on a quiz.

“When people think about the issues, they draw upon all the knowledge they have, including things they’ve seen in movies, history books, the news, or even “The Daily Show, all this stuff gets mixed up in your head, it’s like a blender.” A statement by Rapp that we can all relate to.

I found some good news in two studies, one from the US and another from Australiasuggesting that people are more inclined to trust books and the work of academic historians and museums than they are to believe movies or TV shows.

And yet, media, movies, TV, and videos are how we learn today. The brain responds to visuals better than text or any other kind of learning material. Things learned this way are retained longer as well.

Videos in the classroom or YouTube have been recognized as a powerful tool for learning in classrooms. The problem is, how do we filter fact from fiction?

It is nearly impossible to instantly know fact from fiction in history. In STEM subjects there are rules to follow to reach a conclusion. In history, rewriting the past, disputing other experts’ claims is what studying history is about.

Studying history as a linear concept does not include a study of its adjacent culture. Without understanding the culture of the time, the consumption of history is only a very small piece of the picture.

This is why many will accept that Blacks in Britain were kings and queens rather than slaves. The lack of portrayal of Asians in Hollywood has completely wiped their lives from history if media is your only form of learning.

So are we doing a disservice to the learning population, especially those that are spoon-fed the pre-digested pap of our American textbooks?

If they rely on movies that masticate history to supplement that pap, yes we are.

History is not just a collection of facts. It is also the interpretation of a collection of conflicting expert analyses. This conflict is what should really be the focus, learn the many different histories, and be open to learning more, and knowing that what you learn will change as we as a society evolve, and as more information becomes available.

In an analysis for The Atlantic. Jacoba Urist points out that history is “about explaining and interpreting past events analytically. If students are really to learn and master these analytical tools, then it is absolutely essential that they read a diverse set of historians and learn how brilliant men and women who are scrutinizing the same topic can reach different conclusions”.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” Thomas Jefferson 1816

Many column inches and news hour time is spent on how the internet is causing divisiveness because people are not filtering what they learn, they are accepting false truths and running with them.

One can not blame it all on the internet. This country has a crisis of civic education. We are not truly understanding the cultural issues we face today or how America fits within the world view.

Sixty percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment. Fifty percent don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.

Even after graduation forty-three percent of Americans didn’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to free speech

A 2016 American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showed that, even though nearly all twelfth-grade students took a course in civics, less than a quarter of them passed a basic examination at “proficient” or above.

In a survey of over 1,000 liberal-arts colleges, only 18 percent include a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirements.

A 2005 survey by the American Bar Association, found that almost half of all Americans could not identify the three branches of government. That same year a FindLaw survey found that only 57 percent of Americans could name any Supreme Court justice.

What is even more frightening is that these studies showed that most Americans not only do not retain basic facts about civics they also fail to grasp why understanding these things even matter.

Learning civics and history is the only way to get well-informed citizens. Something this country desperately needs in these troubled times.

Historians Sheldon M. Stern and Jeremy A. Stern in a Fordham Institute paper wrote that only history can teach students “how hard our predecessors fought for advances such as free speech, religious tolerance, the right to vote, minorities and women’s rights, and constitutional restraints on government power — advances that were daring and radical in their time, even if we now take them for granted.”

As a lover of history, I have found that the reason to learn history and civics is that those subjects help us to understand how our time is different from or similar to other periods in history. These subjects help us see the world around us in new ways, something that is imperative for any country that wants to move forward.

Historical movies can play an important role in whetting the appetite of those who want to learn history. If the genre is not taken at face value but instead encourages people to read books by true historians such as David Brion Davis, William L. Shirer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James Oakes,and others, I am all for them. If they are the only form of learning history, we have a real problem on our hands.

Trivial Things

San Francisco weather: 52 degrees with a chance of rain

NYSE DOW compared to one year ago: +10268

COVID cases in the US: 32,824,389

Deaths from COVID in the US: 586,152

Vaccines administered in the US: 228,661,408

OED word of the day: haimish — Reminiscent of home; pleasantly familiar; cosy, comfortable

Days since Shelter In Place was initiated: 413

Reading: The Folklore of the Freeway -Race and Revolt in the Modernist City by Eric Avila

My Black and White Picture of the Day

Something Silly From the Internet:



Cindy Casey

My travel blog www.PassportandBaggage.com and my www.ArtandArchitecture-sf.com blog are quiet due to the Pandemic. I need to write, so here I go.