Beware writers and entertainers the world over. Slapping a “Based on True Story” or “Adapted From Real Events” may not be enough to protect your art when you blatantly lie about what really happened or about the people said events happened to. Honestly, it’s about time. Movies like “Remember the Titans”, “Glory Road”, “Cool Runnings”, and countless dozens have been making a mockery of history in the name of drama for years, particularly when it comes to sports movies.
Upselling the drama by making racial tensions greater than they were, lying about whether or not a team was the underdog, or just plain creating entirely new circumstances have been “tools” of the craft for years. Disney’s “true-stories” about various high school, college, or even collegiate level teams have been widely exaggerated and dramatized leaving people with a very skewed understanding of history.
Queen’s Gambit is a show on Netflix about a female chess player in the sixties named Beth Harmon. The character herself is entirely fictional (though loosely based off real-life chess champion Bobby Fischer) but the time in which she exists is not. Nor are a myriad of chess players mentioned or portrayed as a competitors for Harmon.
So where did Netflix mess up this time?
According to Vanity Fair, the big mistake was mentioning a real-life Soviet Union chess player by the name of Nona Gaprindashvili. A character tells Harmon that Gaprindashvili “never faced men” in an episode that takes place in 1968. Well, Nona got wind of the episode and needless to say she was infuriated, especially considering she’d already faced 59 men by 1968!
Nona Gaprindashvili, who rose to prominence as a chess player in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, sued Netflix in federal court in September. She took issue with a line in the series in which a character stated — falsely — that Gaprindashvili had “never faced men.” Gaprindashvili argued that the line was “grossly sexist and belittling,” noting that she had in fact faced 59 male competitors by 1968, the year in which the series was set.
Netflix sought to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the show is a work of fiction, and that the First Amendment gives show creators broad artistic license.
But in a ruling on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips disagreed, finding that Gaprindashvili had made a plausible argument that she was defamed. Phillips also held that works of fiction are not immune from defamation suits if they disparage real people.
The entirety of the line was: “Elizabeth Harmon’s not at all an important player by their standards. The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.”
Because Netflix argued that it was all fictional and that they used one of those “the characters and events depicted in this program are fictitious. No depiction of actual persons or events is intended” disclaimers, they assumed they were protected. After all, how many movies, tv shows, and books have gotten away with far worse. And isn’t it funny that shows like this use “Based On a True Story” and tags similar to it to draw people in, to catch the interest of the audience, only to turn around and at the very end of the credits remind you that it’s probably all made up and they didn’t actually intend to make their story based off reality?
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Which is it? Do you want your audience to watch the show because it’s true or mostly true or partly true? Or is it not to be taken as intentionally true at all?
Either way, Judge Phillips wrote in her decision:
“An average viewer easily could interpret the Line, as Plaintiff contends, as ‘disparaging the accomplishments of Plaintiff’ and ‘carr[ying] the stigma that women bear a badge of inferiority’ that fictional American woman Harmon, but not Plaintiff, could overcome,” the judge wrote. “At the very least, the line is dismissive of the accomplishments central to Plaintiff’s reputation.”
“In context, therefore, Netflix ‘creat[ed] the impression that [it] was asserting objective facts,’” Phillips wrote. “Plaintiff sufficiently pleads falsity because the Line is ‘reasonably susceptible of an interpretation which implies a provably false assertion of fact.’”
If you don’t think that Netflix is really trying to make Beth Harmon’s story seem completely true and factual, check out the trailer below. Nothing about the trailer indicates that Beth Harmon isn’t real. As a matter of fact, they go out of their way to make it appear as if some artist captured a crucial moment in the fictional character’s history.