Winston Churchill with his cigar / Wikimedia Commons
Some movies give you chills for a good reason, like brilliant cinematography or acting. Darkest Hour gave me chills because of its blatant ignorance of Churchill’s racism. During a scene where Churchill interacts with a black man, I felt physically uncomfortable. I had to fight the urge to stand on my seat and yell “CHURCHILL WAS A WHITE SUPREMACIST”. Instead of a warming portrayal of the flawed leader learning about his people, it felt sinister.
There is a special pedestal reserved for white men when we tell historical stories. That is, at least in part, because they are the people who wrote our history. But there’s another side to it. Retelling historical stories today is a conscious choice, and one that can change the perspective of audiences by showing them new information.
My issue with Darkest Hour is that it did nothing to challenge our perceptions of Churchill. In fact, the film barely even acknowledged his many flaws, presenting personality ‘quirks’ (like making his typist cry) in a barely critical way.
By including a scene that jarred with his real attitudes towards people of colour, the filmmakers showed that they were willing to rewrite history to glorify their protagonist. Not just to keep the narrative moving, but to actively imply that Churchill was not classist or racist. That would be an issue on its own, but it’s also part of a larger pattern in Hollywood.
Rewriting history to glorify problematic white people should not be a popular film trope. And yet it is. Whether it’s The Help or The Blind Side, stories are often manipulated in ways that can damage real communities for the benefit of their protagonist. When rewriting history, storytellers need to consider what they’re changing and who it benefits or harms.
Dallas Buyers Club plays with the facts in a way that makes straight men, rather than the LGBTQ+ community, protagonists in the fight against AIDS. The Crown reduces colonial relations in Ghana to a single dance. Saving Mr Banks glosses over Walt Disney’s many problems and celebrates the morally dubious way in which he took PL Travers’ story.
Instead of another addition to the Wikipedia page of films about Churchill (currently there are 12), why don’t we tell a different story? There are women and people of colour with stories to tell. The success of Hidden Figures showed that audiences want to see a wider range of true stories. Close to home, Ettie Rout needs a movie. As does Dame Whina Cooper. Nancy Wake deserves an accurate portrayal without a false romantic plotline. British filmmakers should tell a story about the monarchy that accurately portrays the damage colonialism has caused. American directors should show us the civil rights movement without a fictional white saviour.
Blurring the line between fact and fiction is sometimes a necessary part of filmmaking, but it is too often used to sensationalise well-established heroes. Choosing the same stories to tell again and again has a significant influence on our perception of history. There are interesting stories left to tell, but filmmakers need to look beyond a whitewashed version of history to find them.Support Villainesse