It’s not just “Selma”: Hollywood’s history problem

Roundup
tags: LBJ, film, MLK, Hollywood, movies, Selma



Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are Professors of History at Louisiana State University and coauthors of "Madison and Jefferson"  (Random House).

On a recent CBS Sunday Morning, the generally insightful David Edelstein defended the film “Selma.”  He imagined, as one can almost understand, that by reading a biography or two of Lyndon Johnson, he could establish the degree of historical accuracy in this much-heralded Hollywood production.  He reached the conclusion that “90 percent” of the film was accurate.  He was comfortable in stating that the filmmakers’ decision to portray LBJ, for dramatic effect, in a historically irresponsible way–as one who stood opposed to voting rights–was of minor concern only.  Revising the record did not undermine the larger historical message meant to be conveyed by the movie.  Or so Edelstein judged.

But it’s time to stop claiming that films are history when they are stories meant principally to entertain and inspire.  Our point is not to diminish the daring of Dr. King, but to call attention to the claims made by those who credit imaginative filmmakers with the power to capture historical truth–when professional historians are themselves conflicted, even after reading scores of deeply researched texts, listening to White House tapes, and interviewing veterans of the civil rights movement.  We want to understand MLK.  But is this the way?

The King estate refused to give the filmmakers the rights to any of Dr. King’s speeches, a fact that should not go unnoticed.  The writer/director Ava DuVernay–who was (not inconsequentially) trained as a publicist–liberally recast Dr. King’s words after inheriting a complete script composed by the white British screenwriter Paul Webb.  She admits that she did not like how Webb emphasized LBJ’s leadership, and wanted a more African-American-centered story.  At the same time, though, she refuses to believe that she has sacrificed historical truth in her reconstruction of events, recently expressing confidence that she “knew the history” when she embarked on the project.  DuVernay rationalized that because her mother works in Selma today, she is herself somehow–mystically–connected to the city’s past.  In the end, having criticized Webb’s script as a “traditional biopic” that needed revision, she in fact produced a different “traditional biopic” that showed King on his best day instead of Johnson on his. And that is not history.  LBJ intimate Joseph Califano and the LBJ Presidential Library, among others, have pointed out how DuVernay’s vision is badly skewed.

In a story of this magnitude, living participants will invariably disagree. But are we not supposed to care that there are widely divergent LBJ biographies?  Some revel in his proactive style of governance, while others paint him as an ogre, a crude power-monger, and make claims about his motives that still other historians have proven wrong.  Rather than tackle these core elements of the story, “Selma” offers a singular caricature of Johnson.  Hollywood will not complicate a story by declaring multiple heroes.

Movie scripts of this kind are bound to follow a particular sequence.  Drama unfolds in a well-timed, circumscribed manner, which history does not do.  That is the flaw of “Selma” and like-minded films that compress the past. As brilliant as Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln was, it focused on a tiny slice of one possible Lincoln, while leaving the desirable impression that Lincoln’s personality was in some way “knowable” to us.  We can like the acting, and feel a sense of communion; that’s art.  But it’s certainly not history....




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