Often, the incorporation of preexisting actuality footage into fiction films – even those based on actual events – feels like a rather cheap trick, a means of superficially authenticating the fictionalization regardless of how many liberties the film has taken with the historical record. In three recent films dealing with social and political protest, actual existing protest footage has been inserted into fictionalized accounts of real historical events, not simply to authenticate but, rather, as a powerful reminder of the embodied stakes of the real. In Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014), Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018), and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020), appropriated actuality footage serves to actively rupture the diegesis so as to make ethical demands on the viewer. What Vivian Sobchack has referred to as the “charge of the real” is transformed into the embodied shock of the real – of real bodies being threatened, assaulted, and/or killed.
In Selma, the archival footage near the end of the film of the actual 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches does serve the standard authenticating function, asserting that the film is based on real events and that these things actually happened to real people. However, the unusually long duration of the inserted footage – two full minutes – brings the viewer entirely out of the fictional diegesis. Rather than integrating the footage into the film, the extended sequence seems to stand alone. Further, the space of the archival footage seems to extend into our own space: the white supremacist giving the camera the middle finger, for instance, appears to be aiming at us. With his look and gesture, we are directly implicated into the historical scene as if it were happening now.
In BlacKkKlansman, this experience of diegetic breach is even more pronounced. The footage of neo-Nazis marching in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – attacking counter-protestors and killing Heather Heyer – appears only at the very end of the film after the narrative conflict has been happily resolved. After laughing at the humiliation of the fictionalized David Duke (Topher Grace), we suddenly witness the real Duke, alive and well, giving a speech calling for his racist supporters in Charlottesville to “take back our country.” The distance established by the fiction collapses as we watch James Fields Jr.’s car slamming into a crowd of left-wing counter-protestors and murdering Heyer.
Finally, The Trial of the Chicago 7, by interspersing footage of the 1968 anti-war protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago with the staged recreations of those same protests, both authenticates and ruptures the historical diegesis. While the archival footage does serve to indicate that “this really happened,” it simultaneously points to footage of contemporary protests, which look so eerily similar. In each, heavily armed police officers attack unarmed protestors exercising their First Amendment rights, openly using the power of the state against its own people. Even though recent protest footage is not present nor mentioned, the 2020 protests against police violence are clearly invoked, saying: “this is happening now.”
In these three films, the appropriated footage shows real bodies being threatened or harmed, insisting that the viewer be seduced neither by the pleasures of fiction nor the epistephilic charms of documentary. Rather, by establishing and then rupturing the diegesis with the charge of the real, they call to viewers to put our own bodies on the line. Authentication gives way to activation.
Vivian Sobchack, “The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness,” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (2004): 258-285.
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