'Selma' Backlash Misses The Point

Roundup
tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma



Peniel E. Joseph is a 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.

... 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 is — 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 that 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, and 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, when white and Jewish allies played a more prominent role. 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 Lincolnerases the iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the story, even though Douglass met with President 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 hero 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 from the lack of white protagonists in major roles. This is not to say that the movie only shows whites as villains. If Alabama Gov. 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, adviser 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.




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