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‘Selma’s’ Anti-Culture Critics

'Selma's' Anti-Culture Critics

With a paltry two nominations, “Selma’s” Oscar chances have more or less evaporated. It’s frustrating to see a good example of the kind of biopic Academy voters usually like stumble in favor of “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” but the silver lining (aside from its robust performance at the box office) was that maybe now it’d be possible to talk about it as a film instead of a part of the awards horse race that needed it to conform to one version of history. But even as the film’s awards prospects dwindled, criticisms that it was unfair to President Lyndon B. Johnson have lingered, to the point where the film’s supporters still have to mount defenses for it.

Grantland’s Mark Harris, easily the clearest and coolest head in the awards season analysis game, has watched the “Selma” fallout closely, and his latest column takes a look at “How ‘Selma’ Got Smeared,” with particular emphasis on how the likes of Maureen Dowd and Mark Updegrove have more or less viewed any artistic license as an attack on history:

There is a brand of criticism that is, to its marrow, not just anti-Hollywood but anti-culture; it’s a rare patch of ground that’s shared by the anti-MSM right, the doctrinaire left, political cynics, and opportunistic ax-grinders. Some of its practitioners no longer even bother to give lip service to the idea that historical fiction is permitted to be anything other than actors mouthing raw facts; to them, any discussion of the special role artists play when they examine real events is just airy-fairy malarkey. “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth,” Dowd writes, dismissing, in a sentence, an entire genre as a form of glorified lying.

Harris continues by tracking how the film’s detractors claim LBJ is represented as a white villain, apparently ignoring the character’s emphasis that he’s juggling more than one issue at a time, or the late-film scenes that show him rebuking the racism of George Wallace and coming down in favor of the Voting Rights Act.

Harris continues by showing examples of how “Selma” seems to acknowledge that it’s taking liberties with facts while staying true by showing how one character, J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker), does the opposite as he tracks Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) meeting with Malcom X (Nigel Thatch).

DuVernay’s view of the uses of history and of (mis)representation is not careless in this scene or in the movie; it’s clearly thought through. The onscreen typed summary is a perfectly deployed example of how something can be factually correct (meeting with a “Negro militant” is, literally, what Coretta King is doing) without being true; the movie, by contrast, finds many ways of being true without being strictly factual. That is exactly what good historical drama must sometimes do, and must be given permission to do, including in this scene itself, in which DuVernay has a character express an understanding that his presence and his motives may have to be slightly distorted in order to achieve a greater truth and justice.

The same logic can apply to the LBJ scenes. Johnson isn’t portrayed as a reluctant supporter of the Civil Rights movement so much as a too tentative and cautious one, someone who believes in the cause but who’s too worried about other issues to push one through. Whatever dramatic license DuVernay takes speaks to the fact that, no matter how quickly Johnson and company moved, it still feels too slow to the people who were actually experiencing racial hatred and prejudicial treatment firsthand.

Harris allows that “Selma” does make one error in suggesting that Johnson gave Hoover the go-ahead to send Coretta Scott King incriminating tapes of King’s philandering while arguing that A. it’s less a flat-out lie than a big stretch, and B. that Johnson supporters don’t seem to care that he was awfully lead-footed in his decision to terminate Hoover’s surveillance of King, which he knew about. 

More troubling is the blatant sentiment in support of white patriarchy that suffuses these arguments:

To many historians and politicians, the triumph of civil rights is that, after much toil and strife, they were bestowed from above; to many African Americans, however, the victory is that those rights were taken — wrenched, with tremendous will, persistence, and effort, out of a system that was not in an immense hurry to offer them up. The former stance has long been the vantage point offered by most white filmmakers who have tackled this history. So it’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who, even 50 years later, would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King. They are unnerved not only that “Selma” threatens to become “official” history, but that it represents a sea change in who has custody of that history.

The attacks on “Selma” don’t amount to much more than an attack on an artist’s ability to use history as a jumping-off point to find greater truths, especially if those truths don’t support the traditional victors. They don’t allow for nuances like point-of-view or tone, and they definitely don’t allow any room for the idea that history is made up of more than one or two voices. There’s room for criticism of “Selma,” but only if it allows room for a real cultural conversation about race, art, history, and how the three intertwine. Anything less is just a power play for who owns history and who’s allowed to talk about it.

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