Who Owns History? Notes on Cultural Appropriation, Authenticity and the Historical Film

Mattias Frey, University of Kent

13 April 2017


How many times have you read a review – or just as likely a comment piece or a filmmaker interview – of a historical film or period television series that has not got it right? Consider the following scenarios:

  • Valkyrie (2008). US-American filmmakers are criticised for depicting other national histories in revisionist or reductive terms. Actors depicting Germans speak English dialogue with a put-on German accent.
  • Robin Hood (2010). An Australian-New Zealand film star is taken to task for playing a legendary bandit (who is said to have come from Nottingham) with an accent that sounds to English natives like Irish. A media furore ensues and said actor, Russell Crowe, storms out of press interviews muttering about ‘hours of intensive voice training’. The affair comes after similar theatrics regarding Kevin Costner’s barely veiled American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Errol Flynn’s too-posh turn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
  • Downfall (2004). In interviews and at festival Q&As producer Bernd Eichinger and director Oliver Hirschbiegel explain their motivation to depict Hitler’s last days as their desire (and their belief in Germans’ need) to take back control of their ‘own’ history. Eichinger states that:

We resolved to shoot this film in the German language, with German actors and a German director. Why? If one shines a spotlight on the most enormous physical and psychological collapse of a whole civilisation, namely our German nation, then it must also be possible for us to tell this story ourselves. In other words: Many other projects on Hitler have been made by the Americans, English and so on. . . . I think it is high time that we tell our own story with the means that we have ourselves, and have the courage to finally put the main protagonists up on the screen.

Such statements – and the ways of evaluating audiovisual historical narratives they imply – are ubiquitous. They take various forms, but they proliferate in every culture where film and television are produced and consumed.

In general, such views on media have to do with the pursuit of authenticity, the engine of mainstream historical film and television production. This mode has three key manifestations: an aesthetic strategy, a reception discourse and a production discourse. A presumption of rectitude based on a perception of knowledge, authenticity is the widespread answer to the fundamental question of historical film production (and historiography in general): How should the past be represented and how can history be transmitted in a credible form, as a vehicle of emotional investment?

To be sure, the audiovisual terms of authenticity, a descriptor deployed by filmmakers, critics, historians, philosophers, teachers and film audiences alike, may vary according to the speaker. Its meanings slip and seem to evade precise definition: for many authenticity is above all a feeling, an emotional state of harmony. Indeed, the only factor that seems to overlap among these commentators is its positive connotation and its salient function as means and end.

Smoothing over those rough edges, however, we are left with a general consensus: for most makers and audiences of period narrative media, authenticity signifies a realistic historical experience, an effective suspension of temporal-spatial disbelief. The aesthetic success of authenticity, and thus mainstream historical film and television, is assessed via the following question: Is the past conveyed in such a way that the spectator can reconcile it with her or his perception of that historical reality? Authenticity is, for it many proponents, ultimately a felt, sensual, even embodied historicity. Its detractors belittle authenticity as historicism, an arduous yet naïve representational form and artistic habitus that attempts to approach the past in an uncritical and affirmative manner.

The aforementioned cases of Downfall, Valkyrie and Robin Hood are surely cries for the warm, righteous certainties of authenticity. A more specific principle choreographs the examples, however: they are above all rejections of cultural appropriation.

Scholars have investigated cultural appropriation from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, anthropological, legal and aesthetic, written from the perspective of archaeologists, museum curators or artists. Cultural appropriation can refer to a white man choosing to wear dreadlocks and baggy clothes or a Chinese woman who drinks an espresso. Left-leaning Anglophone newspapers like the Guardian or the New York Times seems especially preoccupied with the phenomenon (and not coincidentally also attentive to discovering ‘authentic’ dim sum or Vietnamese baguettes). The Rachel Dolezal case – a US-American white woman who for years claimed to be black and ran a local chapter of the NAACP – is only one of the latest iterations of this perennial concern. Any number of moral questions – and determinations of relative economic and social power between the cultural groups borrowing and being borrowed from – fuel the discourse.

Cultural appropriation, of the sort that critics and audiences often reject in their reception of Robin Hood, Valkyrie and so many other historical films, concerns a perceived cultural borrowing, misrepresentation and commodification, a (mis)use of one’s ‘own’ history for another’s purposes. James O. Young provides perhaps the most lucid account of cultural appropriation and the arts, one that helps clarify what issues may be at stake in debates around the historical film. In Young’s succinct formulation (5), it occurs when members of one culture, ‘outsiders’, take ‘for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders)’.

Historical film discourse bears the scars of these representations – and visceral reactions. Take Little Big Man (1970) or Dances with Wolves (1990), where white US-American filmmakers borrow from, and even perform as, Native Americans. In the reception of Good Bye, Lenin!, many East German commentators objected to the West German director, screenwriters and actors who ‘didn’t understand’ the GDR experience, reading the film as a distantly observed fairy tale. Or Edgar Reitz’s stated intentions to take back control of German history in Heimat (1984), in the wake of US-American TV miniseries like Holocaust (1978). Or just about every Disney animated film, from Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955) – remember those Siamese cats? – to Pocahontas (1995). The outrage has abounded for the whole history of cinema and television. Jonathan Stubbs (164) details a 1923 episode in which the spokesman for the French Ministry of Education publicly berated Hollywood producers for their misappropriation of French history. He lectured them that it is ‘almost impossible for a foreigner to get the true significance of historical facts of a nation’.

There are several moral objections made against historical films’ and period television series’ use of the past. Cultural appropriation degrades its members’ identity or diminishes their economic or social opportunities. Their culture is diluted, reduced in order to cater to others’ expectations, tastes and abilities (in language and other cultural skills of perception), distorted into exaggeration and stereotypes that beget a further vicious circle of misrepresentations. Some commentators claim that the appropriation amounts to theft of a cultural commodity. They argue that the subject and content belong to a culture and should not be used by others. The source community not only knows its own culture better; it owns that history. These epistemological tyrannies then determine aesthetic evaluation: works informed by a perceived cultural appropriation are deemed inauthentic, misrepresentations per forza. But, one wonders, are these claims always justifiable? Would legal or de facto prohibitions of cultural borrowing and exchange bring about an overall salutary effect?

There is much more to say about the thoughts broached here, a discussion that scrutinises how beliefs surrounding feelings of authenticity and cultural appropriation inform marketing and other media paratexts and how they affect audiences beyond newspaper critics. For further, see my chapter, ‘The Authenticity Feeling’, in my forthcoming book (co-written with Winfried Pauleit and Rasmus Greiner), Audio History des Films/Audio History of Film. I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Leverhulme Trust, whose Philip Leverhulme Prize (PLP-2015-008) is funding this research project.

Dr Mattias Frey is Reader in Film Studies at the University of Kent, UK. His ongoing research concentrates on the historical film and popular period television, media industries analysis, arts criticism and digital media distribution. He is an editor of the journal Film Studies (Manchester UP) and his books include: Postwall German Cinema: History, Film History, and Cinephilia (Berghahn, 2013); Cine-Ethics: Ethical Dimensions of Film Theory, Practice, and Spectatorship (Routledge, 2014; co-edited with Jinhee Choi); The Permanent Crisis of Film Criticism: The Anxiety of Authority (Amsterdam UP, 2015); Film Criticism in the Digital Age (Rutgers UP, 2015; co-edited with Cecilia Sayad); Extreme Cinema: The Transgressive Rhetoric of Today’s Art Film Culture (Rutgers UP, 2016).




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