Back to IndieWire

The ‘Selma’ Controversy: Why Historical Movies Can, and Should, Leave Things Out

The 'Selma' Controversy: Why Historical Movies Can, and Should, Leave Things Out

In what we must now lamentably refer to as a controversy, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which focuses on Martin Luther King’s role in leading the 1965 march for voting rights that began in Selma, Alabama, has become the target of persistent attacks for the handful of scenes depicting King’s relationship with president Lyndon B. Johnson. The day after “Selma’s” limited Christmas opening, former LBJ advisor Joseph A. Califano, Jr. weighed in with a Washington Post Op-Ed in which he argued that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” and concluded, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”

One could easily argue a former Presidential advisor has no more place weighing in on the awards race than a Hollywood director has presenting an authoritative view of American history, except that DuVernay isn’t a Hollywood director; Hollywood had fifty years to tell King’s story, and it declined. Although “Selma” is distributed by Paramount, it began as a French production, and neither DuVernay nor credited screenwriter Paul Webb are members of the Writers’ Guild of America, which is why Webb receives sole credit despite the fact that DuVernay essentially threw out his script and wrote her own from scratch. Califano’s Op-Ed has been followed by a flurry of articles, too many to list, nearly all focusing on the narrow issue of King and LBJ, and willfully missing the forest for the trees. Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey ably summarizes the back-and-forth so far and further argues that the “Selma” controversy has more to do with awards-race maneuvering than a devotion to historical accuracy.

Whatever the motives of “Selma’s” critics — and, more saliently, the Oscar campaigners who put the appropriate bugs in their ears — historical accuracy matters. Viewers who come away from “Selma” believing that LBJ ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to meddle in King’s marriage have, by every account I have seen, been deceived, although not as much as Califano suggests. As Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg points out, there is no evidence to suggest that Johnson gave Hoover his marching orders, but there is plenty to suggest he had a general idea of Hoover’s tactics and allowed him to operate with relative impunity. “[Johnson] and King may have had a partnership,” she writes, “but Johnson gave Hoover latitude to harass his partner with the aim of driving him to suicide, as long as Hoover did so without embarrassing himself publicly.”

Moreover, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the first-ever movie about King is being criticized for insufficiently crediting a white man’s role in the Civil Rights movement. Let that sink in for a moment: the first theatrical feature about King, nearly half a century after his death. It’s not the only thing “Selma” has been criticized for — the New Republic’s Jesse McCarthy complains that it lionizes King at the expense of the movement’s grassroots ethos; the Forward’s Leida Snow says it “misses a great teaching moment” by downplaying the contributions of Jewish activists; Politico’s Josh Zeitz argues it diminishes King himself — but the Johnson claims are the ones bouncing around the media echo chamber. (Funny how slighting black activists doesn’t raise nearly so many hackles.) DuVernay told Vulture’s Jada Yuan she didn’t want to see the film reduced to “a single talking point,” but that’s exactly what’s in danger of happening.

Unfortunately, few of “Selma’s” critics are as adept at reading film as they are at reading history. (Some even aren’t good at that; Califano’s claim that the idea for a march from Selma originated with LBJ is, according to numerous other sources, a distortion as egregious as any in “Selma” itself.) They see the broad strokes, but miss the subtleties, and the way DuVernay consistently nods to elements beyond the scope of the film itself. Although the marches provide “Selma” with some of its most dramatic moments, DuVernay is, perhaps above all, an adept director of silences: The ten or more seconds that pass between King and his wife, Coretta, when she confronts him about his marital infidelities, is as agonizingly poignant as movies can get. When protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson is shot dead by an Alabama State Trooper at point-blank range, the suddenly silent theater seemed to reverberate with the injustice of his death.

Critics who offer laundry lists of things the movie fails to show neglect the fact that in the context of historical dramatization, omission is not just inevitable but necessary — even, I would argue, desirable. Cram in too much detail, and you end up with a factual, undramatic lump, the equivalent of “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’s” “What do you think, George Harrison of The Beatles?” (See Bilge Ebiri’s excellent article at Vulture on “the prison of historical accuracy.”)

DuVernay does gear the film towards those not well-versed in Civil Rights history, ensuring, for example that both the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee are referred to by their full names and quickly followed by their more commonly used acronyms. But it’s clear, or should be to an attentive viewer, that the few scenes depicting the tension between the SCLC and SNCC are indicative of a more profound and long-running conflict, one that both pre- and postdates the Civil Rights movement. The conversation in which King’s inner circle debates which pillar of Southern voting-rights obstructionism to attack first — should it be poll taxes, or the threat of violence, or the law that requires an already registered voter to vouch for each new one? — is as complex a discussion of political tactics to appear in any movie since Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom,” and in any movie release by a major American studio since, well, ever. If you don’t take from that scene that King had help, that he relied on the men and women around him to channel his vision into concrete action, you’re just not watching closely enough.

READ MORE: Why “Selma” Is the Most Politically Shrewd Studio Movie in Years

That goes for the Johnson scenes, too. King and Johnson’s relationship, as depicted in “Selma” is a volatile and at times antagonistic one, but there is never any question that they both want the same result. (The assertion that Johnson is the movie’s villain is utter nonsense.) Johnson makes it clear that voting rights are important to him, but having just passed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, his first interest is in launching his War on Poverty. He tries to persuade King that this can be a common struggle for poor people, black and white, awkwardly not-quite laying his hand on King’s shoulder in a tentative gesture poised between earnest fraternity and condescending paternalism. But King will not be moved, and the violence provoked — knowingly, “Selma” argues — by the activists’ presence in the deeply racist South creates a media moment Johnson cannot escape. 

It’s true that Johnson does use racial epithets in the film, a moment that provoked scattered gasps at one screening I saw. This is documented, and hardly surprising for a man born in Texas in 1908; Lenny Bruce famously parodied LBJ’s audible difficult in updating to the more acceptable “Negro.” But the context in which he uses it paints him less as a racist than a shrewd politician. When Johnson urges Alabama’s openly bigoted governor, George Wallace, to “Let the niggers vote,” he’s trying to find common ground with a man he plainly despises — vainly, as it turns out, but not unwisely.  

Although King is its central figure, “Selma” frequently frames the action through an outside lens, from the FBI surveillance reports that appear on screen with a violent strike of typewriter keys to the voice of a stricken New York Times reporter, filing his article over the phone as the first attempted march devolves into a harrowing spectale of violence, with fleeing protestors struck down by the relentless thud of State Troopers’ billy clubs. History matters, but the way that history is related to us — both how and by whom — matters just as much. “Everyone sees history through their own lens,” DuVernay said. “Selma” is hers.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged ,