Netflix Is A Questionable Historian

The Mechanism Netflix
Antonio Saboia and Carol Abras in The Mechanism
Karima Shehata/Netflix

#CancelaNetflix (#DeleteNetflix) is cropping up on Brazilian social media, an angry response to one of the media giant’s newer shows, The Mechanism. The show is depiction of the infamous Petrobras scandal, when the government was found to have laundered billions through manipulation of a major oil company. The operation, dubbed Operation Car Wash, rocked the country and made headlines worldwide. But Brazilians have been outraged at liberties taken with the story, with former President Dilma Rousseff slamming it as “underhanded and full of lies.”

It isn’t a new complaint. Latin America has a long, uneasy history of questionable representation on film, enough to produce a book of essays, Based on a True Story: Latin American History at the Movies. Two scholars who reviewed the book came to the same conclusion: Film is a difficult way to represent history. The complexities, nuances, messiness, and slow pace of events spanning decades is impossible to adapt perfectly in a compelling story with a restricted runtime. Scholar Eric Zolov notes, “Holes in the narrative, questionable representations of events and personages, and outright falsehoods all characterize even the most faithful of efforts to dramatize the past.”

Despite some liberties, film and television remain compelling ways to retell history.

Scholar Victor M Uribe points out how far misrepresentation can stretch a story. In the film 1492, for example, Christoper Columbus is presented “as a hero, a symbol of nineteenth-century America. In the film he appears as a visionary, a learned man, a sort of innocent bystander unaccountable for colonialist abuses, a friend and protector of the natives.”

Of course, Netflix was likely already aware of these difficulties. The Mechanism’s director, José Padilha, produced the wildly popular series Narcos, which dramatized the rise and fall of drug cartels in Colombia. One of Netflix’s most popular series, it seemed dedicated to realism and kept most of the dialogue in Spanish. Nonetheless, the series drew ire from Pablo Escobar’s son for its inaccuracies.

Still, film and television remain compelling ways to retell history. Uribe notes that people are more likely to want to sit though a history lesson if it comes packaged as entertainment. “To be sure, a fair number of people today learn history through television, documentaries, and films,” he writes. “Films are also valuable introductions and incentives to study the past, and they convey emotions in appealing ways that elude professional historians.”

Overall, Zolov argues, “cinema can be a useful tool…no matter how egregious the historical flaws,” although he cautions that these flaws nonetheless should be highlighted, examined, discussed, and put into context. Still, the field of history can benefit from shows like the Narcos and The Mechanism. Zolov points out that people enjoy watching movies, even if they have to be reminded and taught about “unraveling (and rectifying) some of the embedded historical complexities while exposing the dramatic effects for what they are: sheer entertainment.”


JSTOR Citations

Review

By: Eric Zolov

The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 515-516

Oxford University Press

Review

By: Victor M. Uribe

Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 139-142

Cambridge University Press

Farahnaz Mohammed is a nomadic journalist, based wherever there's an internet connection. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Women's Media Center and others, and her work has been referenced by Quartz, The Washington Post and El Colombiano. Farah holds a Masters of Science in Journalism from Northwestern University and a Masters in Spanish and English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. You can find her on twitter @FarahColette, or at www.farahmohammed.com.

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