Rewriting The Story Of Selma

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 5 2015 @ 2:19pm

Selma, the new MLK film, has been criticized for its inaccurate depiction of LBJ. Last week, Yglesias defended the movie:

Both a Politico article by LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove and a Washington Post article by former senior Johnson aide Joseph Califano charge the movie with serious historical inaccuracies. Like any biopic, Selma does condense and somewhat depart from the actual historical record. But Califano’s charge that the movie “should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season” goes well beyond standard-issue nitpicking.

But when you read these pieces closely, it seems that the big problem they have with the film is that it doesn’t cast LBJ as the hero of the Voting Rights Act. But the fact that Selma doesn’t do this is part of what makes it important. Hollywood too often gives us films about race in America where the real heroes are conveniently white. Selma doesn’t.

Bouie argues along the same lines:

[I]t’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. …

Selma, simply put, is about the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda, and it engages history from their perspective. By hardening Johnson—and making him a larger roadblock than he was—DuVernay emphasizes the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—[filmmaker Ava] DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.

Ann Hornaday joins the debate:

The correct question isn’t what “Selma” “gets wrong” about Johnson or King or the civil rights movement, but whether we are sophisticated enough as viewers and thinkers to hold two ideas at once: that we’re not watching history, but a work of art that was inspired and animated by history. That we’re having an emotional and aesthetic experience, not a didactic one. That the literalistic critiques of historians and witnesses can co-exist — fractiously, but ultimately usefully — with the kind of inspiration, beauty and transformative power that the very best cinema such as “Selma” can provide.

But Josh Zeitz finds the film wanting:

[F]or a film about a pivotal moment in MLK’s life, it obscures too much of King’s political and personal genius. The events at Selma stood at the juncture of every theological and practical dilemma that King grappled with in his public career: The limits and utility of nonviolence. The balance between civil disobedience and civil society. How an activist stays politically relevant. Selma skims the surface of these questions, but it never gets to the core.

Gary May calls Selma “a flawed film”. However:

DuVernay has partly succeeded in presenting a more human King, warts and all. But ironically, this only increases King’s stature, making us admire him all the more for overcoming the political and personal problems that would have defeated a lesser man. Selma becomes a biopic in which the hero shines while those who worked beside him are overlooked or relegated to the sidelines. This is especially important because, as King often said, the essence of the civil rights movement was not one man’s actions but collective action, the work and sacrifice of many.

Prospero found it “hard to watch the film without thinking not just of the lead-up to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but also of the unrest that followed recent fatal police actions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.” National Review editor Rich Lowry rejects that comparison:

The protesters who faced off against the police in Selma didn’t shout abuse, although they would have been amply justified; they didn’t burn down local businesses; they didn’t randomly fire guns, or throw rocks or stones. The difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear (that Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown as he surrendered).

Weigel puts Lowry’s criticisms in historical context:

This is a risky subject for National Review. William F. Buckley, the magazine’s founding editor, did not respond to the Selma marches by calling for universal voter rights. He wondered if immediately giving the vote to all black Alabamans would lead to racist vengeance, and cited Egypt, Ghana, and Algeria as despotisms “life for the dissenter is far worse than life for the Negro in Selma, if only because he has hope.” He also asked whether, if universal suffrage wasn’t possible, it made more sense to limit the franchise by education instead of race—to people with high school diplomas, possibly. …

From the vantage point of 2015, Selma looks like “as clear a conflict between right and wrong as we get” and a “righteous cause.” In the spring of 1965, it wasn’t so clear to everyone. Selma doesn’t do much with the doubters, though; it portrays the violence against the marchers as so heinous that it serves the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s purpose in pushing the Voting Rights Act to the front of the national agenda. Critics of the march, such as Governor George Wallace, are shown to be obviously, humiliatingly defeated.

That’s the history everyone has come to prefer, even the people arguing that no current “civil rights” cause should be compared to Selma.