The Fog Of History: Selma

My default position on movies about historical events and people is that they’re more likely to be inaccurate than not. That was my assumption when I saw Selma, especially since the primary complainant, Joe Califano, is someone I admire and who was an integral part of everything good about the Johnson administration. This time I was wrong. Selma is not only historically accurate, it’s well above average in that regard. That’s why I see things before criticizing them.

One bone of contention has been the first scene between MLK and LBJ. According to the Guardian’s reel history columnist, Alex von Tunzelmann,

However, the scene in the film is very close to the account in The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr, a volume of King’s own writings collected by Clayborne Carson in 1998. King remembered that he had told Johnson that the voting rights issue was serious and immediate. “Martin, you’re right about that. I’m going to do it eventually, but I can’t get a voting rights bill through this session of Congress,”Johnson replied. “Now, there’s some other bills that I have here that I want to get through in my Great Society program, and I think in the long run they’ll help Negroes more, as much as a voting rights bill.”

King pushed him, and Johnson continued: “I can’t get it through, because I need the votes of a southern bloc to get these other things through… it’s just not the wise and the politically expedient thing to do.”

These words may have been said confrontationally or calmly, but they’re a lot like what Johnson says in the movie. King’s account makes it clear that he was not satisfied by Johnson’s response and that he started the Selma campaign despite Johnson’s cold feet. The film portrays this accurately.

There you have it, the scene reflects King’s take on the situation and since there were only 3 people present at the meeting, his account is as valid as anyone else’s. In a nutshell, the film itself presents the perspective of King and his movement colleagues and not that of President Johnson and his people. It’s a major strength of the film: the African-American characters drive the plot instead of being secondary to the white characters. I call that tendency the Great White Man approach and it’s typified by 1987’s Cry Freedom wherein Denzel Washington as Steve Biko plays second fiddle to Kevin Kline as reporter Donald Woods. I much prefer Selma director Ava DuVernay’s approach.

The other detail I expected to pounce on like a hungry tiger eyeing an antelope was the meeting between LBJ and J Edgar Heehaw. Some have claimed it showed that Johnson initiated the wiretap on Dr. King, which he did not. I found the scene much more ambiguous than that. It certainly imputes *knowledge* of the wiretap to LBJ, but given his own experiences with Hoover, we can assume that he would have figured it out on his own if he didn’t know about it. As far as I can tell. the wiretap was either authorized by Hoover or Robert Kennedy, not Johnson. Again, the scene is ambiguous so the hoopla over it seems misplaced.

The strength of the film is its steadfast refusal to present MLK or anyone else as a plaster saint. Paul Webb’s screenplay depicts him as a sly and crafty operator who was deft enough to outmaneuver Lyndon Johnson; something very few people ever did. I also like the way the movie gives proper credit to many of MLK’s colleagues; most notably Ralph Abernathy, CT Vivian, and Hosea Williams.

I brushed up on my Selma march history by pulling Taylor Branch’s At Canaan’s Edge and David Halberstam’s The Children off the the bookshelf, which confirmed my gut reaction that Selma is not only historically accurate, it is unusually so. Alex von Tunzelmann gives it an A in historical accuracy and a B+ for entertainment value. I quite agree.

3 thoughts on “The Fog Of History: Selma

  1. I thought “Lord of the Rings” was very accurate, but then…

    ..oh wait, I’ve said too much. Never mind.

  2. LBJ was certainly savvy enough to be able to assume Hoover had EVERYONE of interest’s phone tapped. He wasn’t born yesterday, and he understood Hoover’s brand of hardball as well as anyone.

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