Selma Corrects Hollywood’s History of the Civil Rights Movement

tags: LBJ, MLK, Selma

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, has drawn considerable criticism for the picture’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson. Defenders of Johnson, such as his White House aide Joseph A. Califano, Jr., maintain that DuVernay’s script tends to misrepresent the President’s support for the Voting Rights Act. According to Califano and advocates for Johnson, there was no fundamental conflict between LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr. And Johnson’s legacy is certainly complicated, for the Texan does deserve credit for pursuing a civil rights legislative agenda and seeking to alleviate poverty with his Great Society. On the other hand, Johnson’s civil rights record as a Senator was modest at best, while the War on Poverty and Great Society failed to provide for any fundamental redistribution of wealth. Also, in the final analysis, Johnson sacrificed his domestic reform program on the altar of the Vietnam War. This focus upon Johnson, however, tends to obscure the essential corrective Selma makes to Hollywood’s history of the Civil Rights Movement.

While race relations have attracted the gaze of Hollywood, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 196s has not engaged mainstream filmmakers. The Butler (2013) certainly featured events such as the Freedom Riders, but the film was primarily a picture about resolving generational black family issues and values with the struggle for civil rights in the background. The most acclaimed Hollywood film dealing directly with the movement during the 1960s was Mississippi Burning (1988); a picture which earned nearly $35,000,000 and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Mississippi Burning concentrates upon the FBI investigation into the disappearance and murder of civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner during the 1964 Freedom Summer when volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attempted to resister black voters in the Mississippi Delta. While based upon a historically significant case, Mississippi Burning, directed by British filmmaker Alan Parker, depicts the Civil Rights Movement as a struggle between racist white Klan members and the while liberal FBI agents seeking to bring justice and integration to the South. Essentially, the film is a battle between good white guys and racist whites, while blacks tend to sit passively on the sidelines. In fact, the only black character developed in the film is a young boy, Aaron Williams (Darius McCrary), who seems to be the sole black Mississippian not intimidated by the Klan. This depiction of the civil rights struggle completely ignores the grassroots nature of the movement, which is corrected in Selma by the portrayal of blacks, as well as sympathetic whites, who were willing to risk life and limb to secure voting rights in Alabama by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and face the violent response of Alabama state troopers.

Ignoring the history of indigenous protest often led by ministers such as Dr. King, Mississippi Burning focuses upon the heroic efforts of FBI agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem DaFoe) to break the case and secure civil rights convictions against the Klansmen who murdered the young men. History is played with pretty loosely here. The big breakthrough in the case comes through Anderson’s involvement with the wife (Frances McDormand) of Klansman and Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif). In reality, the FBI was able to find the buried bodies of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner through information provided by a paid informant. The film also shows the agents willing to ignore Bureau procedure to solve the murders. But in the film these extraordinary measures only come after the beating of Mrs. Pell, a white woman, by her husband and other Klansmen. Earlier beatings, castrations, and violence against black victims failed to elicit a similar response. In fact, the ambiguous record of the FBI and the belief of its director J. Edgar Hoover that the Civil Rights Movement was orchestrated by communists to discredit the United States in the court of world opinion are missing from Mississippi Burning. The film concludes with an integrated group singing over the graves of the slain civil rights workers, while Agents Anderson and Ward look on approvingly, before getting into their car and apparently heading down the road to correct another case of racial injustice.

Mississippi Burning depicts a top-down Civil Rights Movement in which whites played the leading role. In reality, grassroots activists applied pressure which led President Dwight Eisenhower to finally order troops in support of integrating Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Following a narrow electoral victory in 1960, John Kennedy was reluctant to antagonize Southern politicians, but civil rights activists forced his hand with the Freedom Riders, integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith, and the March on Washington. In a similar fashion, King’s crusade in Selma, regardless of whether it was approved by Johnson, placed considerable pressure upon Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Accordingly, the debate about whether Selma is fair to Lyndon Johnson tends to ignore the important corrective the film makes to Hollywood history as perpetuated by a popular film such as Mississippi Burning. DuVernay deserves credit for restoring black agency to the core of the Civil Rights Movement with Selma. The story is more than Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and King (David Oyelowo). As historian William Chafe writes in The Unfinished Journey (2015 edition), “Precisely because whites refused to act on the black agenda, it became necessary for black Americans to seize the initiative, take control of their own lives, and create new vehicles for protest” (168). If DuVernay fails to adequately convey the details of Johnson’s commitment to voting rights legislation, she does apply an essential corrective to Mississippi Burning and conveys the big picture truth that the Civil Rights Movement originated from the bottom up in a grassroots manner.  

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