This year, O.J.: Made In America — a documentary about the famous O.J. Simpson murder trial — won an Oscar in its category. Also released this year include the Netflix documentary Thirteenth and dramas Hidden Figures and Loving. All are productions that analyze or portray American historical events and people. And in years past, there are many many more dramas and documentaries sharing stories from our history.
Why do documentaries and dramas about conflicts in American life and history strike such a chord? Why would we want to revisit our darkest moments?
Most simply, conflict creates an interesting story. One of the most famous documentaries about American history is The Civil War directed by Ken Burns. Of course a movie about, arguably, the biggest conflict in American history would gain sweeping attention and popularity. In a way, learning about the Civil War demonstrates the resiliency of the United States. We were a country literally at war with itself, but today, the union still exists and remains strong.
We are still endeavoring to create that “more perfect union.”
However, that doesn’t mean every problem in America has been solved. We are still endeavoring to create that “more perfect union.” Another reason documentaries and movies about history become popular is their perspective. Those events that occurred decades ago still have an effect that reverberates today.
In terms of the Oscars, O.J.: Made In America is an unusual winner. It was originally broadcast as an ESPN docu-series. In total, the film is about seven hours long. But part of the reason it resonated with the Academy is its perspective. The documentary provides a deep look at the O.J. Simpson case inside the context of the mid '90s. The infamous car chase and subsequent trial took place a three years after one of the earliest eyewitness videos of police brutality. Rodney King was beaten by four police officers after being stopped for speeding. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?
The documentary about the O.J. Simpson case is less widely known and watched than the FX dramatization The People v. O.J. Simpson. The drama was probably more popular among younger viewers who didn’t actually watch the trial live back in the ‘90s. But it was still quite a sensation. After all, we Americans love our crime dramas. Netflix’s Making a Murderer made waves at the end of 2015. The Serial podcast investigating a possibly botched murder trial revived the podcast medium. And HBO’s anthology crime series True Detective is still going strong.
But is dramatizing or fictionalizing real historical events and people a good thing? There are downsides. With any movie or TV adaptation, some details are shifted around to create a better story. Screenwriters don’t quite have the same standard to stick strictly to the facts that documentary directors do.
...creating a strong drama based on a true story is the best way to educate the general public on an important event or issue.
In some ways, creating a strong drama based on a true story is the best way to educate the general public on an important event or issue. Both Hidden Figures and Loving did this in 2016. Hidden Figures tells the story of three black female engineers who helped get the first man into space. Loving follows the plaintiffs in the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage. Both are stories that are now widely known that are now accessible to audiences of all kinds.
A big picture film that gains acclaim and awards can inject itself into pop culture. Even if some of the details are wrong or fictionalized, at least more people will be aware of the main events and people involved. Maybe these fictionalized portrayals of history spread some myths of misunderstood facts, but at least more people are aware that these events happened in the first place.
Sometimes, fictionalization is the best way to tell the story of those who have been sidelined in American history. For most of the past, if you weren’t a white, straight male, your story just wasn’t told. There wasn’t much focus on the struggles of women, people of color and the LGBT community until pretty recently. And when any possible living subjects have long since passed, stringing together a powerful documentary can be a challenge. An easier route is to tell a poignant story backed with research and facts from history.
Sometimes, fictionalization is the best way to tell the story of those who have been sidelined in American history
NBC’s Timeless is a great example of shedding light on the less told stories in American history through fiction. The show features a group of time travelers going back in history to protect past events. The trio features a white woman and a black man and doesn’t shy away from discussing the discrimination women and people of color experienced in the past.
It is obvious that stories from our past interest many Americans. What is the next great history drama or documentary on the horizon?
Will be similar to The Civil War in examining a big event that affected all Americans — the attack on 9/11? Will it be like O.J.: Made in America and dive deep into the context surrounding an infamous event — the Pulse nightclub shooting? Or could the next drama follow in Loving’s footsteps and tell the story of the plaintiffs in the case that legalized same-sex marriage?
One thing is for sure: there are many, many more American stories left to tell.