‘Selma’ Backlash Misses The Point

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The film Selma stars David Oyelowo (center) as Martin Luther King, Jr., and focuses on several unsung activists in civil rights history. But critics say it distorts the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson and others.

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The film Selma stars David Oyelowo (center) as
Martin Luther King, Jr., and focuses on several unsung activists in
civil rights history. But critics say it distorts the role of President
Lyndon B. Johnson and others.

Paramount Pictures


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Paramount Pictures

The film Selma stars David Oyelowo (center) as Martin Luther King, Jr., and focuses on several unsung activists in civil rights history. But critics say it distorts the role of President Lyndon B. Johnson and others.
The film Selma stars David Oyelowo (center) as
Martin Luther King, Jr., and focuses on several unsung activists in
civil rights history. But critics say it distorts the role of President
Lyndon B. Johnson and others.

Paramount Pictures

Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a cinematic masterpiece that
depicts one of the most important episodes in civil rights history. The
film presents history as a kaleidoscope, documenting the roiling
Selma-to-Montgomery demonstrations that turned Alabama into a national
symbol of racial violence and injustice in 1965. Many movie critics have
enthusiastically praised Selma for its complex and intelligent
screenplay and direction. David Oyelowo’s extraordinary performance as
King anchors a movie of unusual depth and breadth.

But Selma’s treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson
has sparked a controversy that could threaten the film’s legacy and, in
the short term, its chances for prestigious awards. As portrayed by
British actor Tom Wilkinson, LBJ is a beleaguered president and — at
times — exasperated with King on the issue of voting rights.
Historically, LBJ and King formed an effective political relationship on
the issue, although real tensions emerged between the two men when
Johnson suggested that voting legislation be pursued later, rather than
earlier, in the congressional session. Johnson feared an immediate push
for the black vote would undermine his ambitions for a “Great Society.” Selma’s
script hews close to the historical record on this point. Still, the
unsympathetic portrayal of Johnson suggests a president who was an
antagonist on voting rights rather than a supporter.

The
hyperbolic response from some critics includes the outrageous (and
false) assertion that the Selma protests were actually Johnson’s idea,
to suggestions that the film’s portrait of Johnson should disqualify it
from awards (read Oscar) consideration.

A new line of criticism outlined in the Jewish Daily Forward argues that Selma
disfigured the historical civil rights movement by “airbrushing” Jewish
allies from the film. That’s an argument that would carry more weight
if DuVernay had focused on other moments in civil rights history, like
Freedom Summer where white and Jewish allies played a more prominent
role. Historically, the events depicted in Selma were driven largely by the African-American activists portrayed in the film.

Many prestigious movies take dramatic license with historical events. Films are not scholarly books. For example, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film “Lincoln” erases the iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass
from the story, even though Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln
three times, including once during the period the film chronicles.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Spielberg made the hard creative
choice, something that did not prevent that film from being considered
an artistic achievement and worthy of awards.

So what exactly is at work here?

Taken
together these critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns
American history, especially the portions of that history that were led,
organized, and shaped in large part by African-Americans. White
supporters and fellow travelers of the movement have had the license to
dramatize both historical events (Mississippi Burning, which inaccurately cast the FBI as the heroes of Freedom Summer) and fictional accounts (The Help) of the era. But DuVernay’s film — alongside Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X – is one of the few black-directed efforts to ever grace the big screen.

Part of the controversy over Selma
stems not only from the film’s portrait of Johnson, but for the lack of
white protagonists in major roles. This is not to say that the movie
only shows whites as villains. If Alabama Governor George Wallace and
the brutal Selma Sheriff Jim Clark are depicted as unapologetic racists —
which they were — sympathetic white characters abound, including James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo,
two relatively unknown figures from the Selma protests who were killed
by local whites for their activism. And two Johnson men, advisor Lee C. White and Assistant Attorney General John Doar are portrayed as quietly determined allies of the movement.

Selma
is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led
by black women and men. Black women stand out on this score with subtle
and nuanced depictions of Coretta Scott King, Annie Lee Cooper, Diane
Nash, and Amelia Boynton definitively illustrating black women’s fierce
activist commitment and leadership in civil rights struggles. Intimate
scenes between activists in King’s Southern Christian Leadership and the
young militants of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC,
pronounced “snick”) showcase the generational tensions, bruised egos
and intellectual firepower that made the movement successful. King’s
trusted lieutenants Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams and
James Orange are all given their due, as are John Lewis – now
Congressman Lewis — and Jim Forman of SNCC. Cameo appearances by C.T.
Vivian, one of the movement’s most courageous and unsung heroes, and
Malcolm X give a fuller picture of the history than we’ve ever seen on
film.

Professor Peniel Joseph

Historian Peniel Joseph says criticism of the film Selma as historically inaccurate is misguided, and that the movie correctly portrays African-Americans as the drivers of the civil rights movement.

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Historian Peniel Joseph says criticism of the film Selma as
historically inaccurate is misguided, and that the movie correctly
portrays African-Americans as the drivers of the civil rights movement.

Kelvin Ma/Peniel Joseph


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Kelvin Ma/Peniel Joseph

Historian Peniel Joseph says criticism of the film Selma as historically inaccurate is misguided, and that the movie correctly portrays African-Americans as the drivers of the civil rights movement.
Historian Peniel Joseph says criticism of the film Selma as
historically inaccurate is misguided, and that the movie correctly
portrays African-Americans as the drivers of the civil rights movement.

Kelvin Ma/Peniel Joseph

The real problem many critics have with this film is that it’s too
black and too strong. Our popular reimagining of the civil rights
movement is that it’s something we all did together and the battle is
over; that’s just not true.

Selma’s two biggest set
pieces showcase the depth and breadth of institutional racism in America
then and now. The first depicts the brutal violence that police meted
out against peaceful protesters on “Bloody Sunday,”
the March 7, 1965 demonstration on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The second
highlights the triumphant March 25 speech by King in Montgomery before
25,000 people. The first instance reminds us, in the aftermath of
Ferguson and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, of the way in which
anti-black state violence can impact society even with a sympathetic
president in the White House.

The second instance, in this “Age of Obama” and #BlackLivesMatter, is remarkable for what DuVernay does not do and what so many critics have ignored. Rather than linger on King’s victory in Montgomery, Selma
drinks in the moment as a collective achievement, not only for black
Americans, but for democracy and human rights. She offers a courageous
and much needed corrective for our time.

Selma reminds
us to honor not just the heroic figure making speeches, but the
collective will of so many who made progress possible. Ultimately, the
beating heart of this film rests not with its portrait of LBJ, or even
King, not with what group has been left out or ignored, but with the
larger truth that the civil rights movement’s heroic period reflected
our collective strengths and weaknesses as a nation, something Americans
are loathe to recognize let alone acknowledge. Selma’s
greatest gift is that, even when it reimagines some moments of history,
it remains unflinching in its examination of America’s racial soul.

Peniel
E. Joseph is Professor of History at Tufts University and the author of
‘Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.’ You can
follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.

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