Truth, Fiction, ‘Selma’ and the Movies


Selma movie controversy
David Oyelowo in Selma
Photo: Paramount Pictures

“But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction.” – Elizabeth Drew – “Selma vs. History“, January 8, 2015

The words above come from Elizabeth Drew‘s “New York Review of Books” article “Selma vs. History“, exploring the controversy surrounding director Ava DuVernay‘s new movie Selma. I’ve mentioned this controversy in passing, but I think it’s finally time to address them head on, primarily because those nine words above trouble me a little bit. But before I get to that, let me make an effort to be fair to all involved.

Drew is writing in regards to the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) as seen in DuVernay’s new film. The full text from her opening goes like this:

By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Selma has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public. The film suggests that there was a struggle between King and Johnson over whether such a bill should be pushed following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law in July of that year. The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction. The remarkable story of the relationship between Johnson and King was that two such different men, from such different backgrounds, with such different constituencies, and responsibilities, formed a partnership to get the voting rights bill through. This is not to say that the two became pals: they were understandably wary of each other but managed to overcome that as well as other possible sources of tensions to get the job done. Ultimately, they had fallings out over King’s efforts to carry his civil rights campaign into the north, in particular Chicago, and his open opposition to the Vietnam War. But so far as the scope of the movie goes, Martin Luther King’s glorious role in the civil rights movement could have been kept intact without having to make Lyndon Johnson the heavy–a pure fabrication.

Drew is not the first to bring this up and nor will she be the last. It began with an op-ed in the Washington Post by Joseph A. Claifano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, which has made the rounds since. Everyone weighing in on the film’s accuracies vs. inaccuracies, including DuVernay herself, who first began addressing Claifano’s claims on Twitter.

“Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and black citizens who made it so.,” she wrote in response to Claifano’s claim stating, “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.”

DuVernay then linked to Louis Menand‘s article at The New Yorker headlined “The Color of Law“, which delivers this passage:

Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.

King thought that if you waited for the right time for direct action (as nonviolent protests were called) you would never act. So on January 2, 1965, he went to Selma, where efforts by local activists and members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to register African-Americans had been under way, with little success, for several years. Eight weeks later, Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed.

Now, this doesn’t entirely rule out the idea Johnson worked with King to find a place like Selma to lead a demonstration and there are other aspects of the film that have come into question such as the suggestion that Johnson told FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to play tapes of King with his girlfriends for Coretta Scott King.

The big question, however, is what to make of all of this “truth vs. fiction”, especially since we all recognize the importance of the events portrayed in the film, on top of the recent news Paramount is partnering with African-American business leaders in New York City to offer free admission to Selma to 7th, 8th and 9th grade students in New York City. Why is this important to mention? Because if there are certain historical aspects to be up for discussion they should probably be discussed.

Getting back to Drew’s quote at the beginning of this article and the suggestion “there was no struggle”, I’d like to bring DuVernay back into the fold. First off, this idea there was no struggle is ludicrous and just a terrible way to word the situation. Secondly, I am at odds with how to interpret DuVernay’s treatment of the controversy.

In a piece at The Washington Times in which Karen Tumulty took a follow-up look at the charges waged against the film, DuVernay refused to be interviewed on the record. I can understand the want to protect herself in such a situation as words can easily be misconstrued, but it doesn’t necessarily look good in this instance. She did, however, offer up some thoughts recently at an event at the Manhattan Club, during a conversation moderated by Gayle King, co-anchor of “CBS This Morning”.

Indiewire reports from the event at which DuVernay said “everyone sees history through their own lens,” and stressed she doesn’t “begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see.” She continued:

“This is what I see, this is what we see… [a]nd that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history. I could, but I won’t. I’m just gonna say that my voice, David [Oyelowo]’s voice, the voice of all the artists that gathered to do this, [and] Paramount Pictures — which allows us to amplify this story to the world — [are] really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be I think reduced — reduced is really what all this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, I think is unfortunate.”

There’s a lot to unpack there and I’ll get to the most important part in a second, but I think she continues to leave the film open to scrutiny when she says, “I’m not gonna argue history. I could, but I won’t.” I’m sorry, this is just too important a topic in this case to be so flippant. If you consider the reductive nature of the argument against the film as unfortunate then let’s settle this, but don’t say what is essentially, I know the answer, but I don’t think I have to tell you what it is, even though you’re wrong.

Now, to what I see as the most important part of her statement is when she says, “This is what I see, this is what we see… [a]nd that should be valid.” To me, this reads as a statement asking for respect in the interpretation of the black voices behind the making of the film, and yes, I do believe that should be valid, especially since I think it opens the door for a new way of looking at things, a way I, specifically haven’t considered as much as I have as of late.

Was there really no struggle for Dr. King to march in demonstration? Was Johnson really so easy for King to work with and vice-versa? Through what lens are we answering these questions, the eyes of the oppressors or the oppressed?

First of all, no film is going to capture the whole of the story in 128 minutes. I wonder, why is no one talking about the portrayal of King in this film? Was DuVernay 100% fair to King? Were the recent Oscar-winning films The King’s Speech, Argo and 12 Years a Slave 100% accurate? Did the Revolutionary Guard really chase the plane to the edge of the runway in Argo? No, and oddly enough when it comes to the accuracy of Argo you get headlines such as “‘Argo’ Is Totally Inaccurate – Which Is Exactly Why It’s Great” while Selma gets “Why You Should Care That Selma Gets LBJ Wrong“. Interesting.

Movies definitely owe audiences a certain amount of truth when it comes to films based on true stories, and the more “important” the story the more important the truth of the matter is. Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler faced similar issues as I detailed in my own article. I don’t always have a problem with inaccuracies in movies “based on true stories” and while I do think it’s odd DuVernay chose to include the bit with Hoover and the tapes in Selma (especially since I don’t think that really does anything for the film narratively, though it does help in getting to the heart of the relationship between King and his wife), I don’t think she overstepped her boundaries in relation to King’s relationship with LBJ.

Selma is about the struggle and no matter what Elizabeth Drew may assess, there was a struggle and that struggle continues today to the point we get comments such as the following one on the review of Selma on this very site:

Selma review comment

Let that simmer for a minute and once you’ve cooled down…

Watching Selma you feel the struggle King and those he was working with closely faced. You even feel the struggle LBJ was up against, torn between what he knew was right and the fact he was still a politician. And once we arrive at his speech before Congress at the end of the film I believed every word and was appropriately moved.

The fact of the matter is, this is a movie called Selma, not LBJ and if people are interested in the whole truth of history there are plenty of ways to find it. Movies evoke feelings and anyone that goes to them searching for the whole truth (even documentaries and perhaps especially documentaries) are looking in the wrong place.

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