Controversy over what’s fact and fiction in Selma film

Dispute over portrayal of relationship between Martin Luther King Jr and Lyndon Johnson

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The film Selma, released in Ireland today, sparked heated controversy in the US. The backlash against its supposed historical inaccuracies may have led the Oscars to snub its director, Ava DuVernay and lead actor, David Oyelowo. (Selma was nominated for best picture.)

The film concerns the dramatic confrontation between civil rights protesters and police in Selma, Alabama, that led to Congress passing the Voting Rights Act that enforced blacks’ right to vote. Appearing 50 years after those events, Selma has generated debate about American – and now international – memory of the African American civil rights movement.

Filmgoers may be surprised that the dispute over accuracy centres on a minor aspect of the plot: the relationship between Martin Luther King jnr and President Lyndon Johnson. In the film, Johnson first stalls on King’s demand for a voting rights Bill but later champions the legislation – after police violence against Selma protesters.

Critics, including some historians, claim the film unfairly depicts Johnson as an opponent of the Selma demonstrations. Former Johnson aide Joseph Califano charged in the Washington Post that the film so falsely portrayed Johnson that audiences should stay at home.

There are factual errors in Selma. To create dramatic conflict, film-makers exaggerated Johnson’s opposition to the Selma marches and to the immediate passage of voting rights legislation. Most egregiously, the film suggests Johnson instructed FBI director J Edgar Hoover to use King’s marital infidelities against him. (The FBI notoriously did so, but not on Johnson’s orders.)

No great injustice

Film-makers have a responsibility to history. However, presenting every fact accurately is less important than getting the bigger story right. Selma’s inaccuracies are mostly minor in nature and result from telescoping the major events of the civil rights movement to focus on the drama in Selma. On cinematic grounds, the decision was excellent, and it does history no great injustice. At the time of Selma, Johnson had already come out for civil rights, pushing the landmark Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964. But Selma’s image of Johnson as a belated ally of the movement is correct. Johnson was hardly known as an advocate of black civil rights before becoming president in 1963. Like most white Americans in a nation founded on slavery and white supremacy, Johnson was a late supporter of racial equality.

The civil rights movement needed white allies and Johnson deserves considerable credit for advocating historic legislation when he did. As Selma makes clear, there was a vast difference between Johnson and Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace.

Demanded

Yet, as the film gets right, Johnson’s role should not overshadow the central part played by African Americans in advocating for their own freedom. Before Selma, generations of African Americans had demanded full civil rights. DuVernay has history on her side when she explains that she resisted making Selma into a “white-saviour film” in which African Americans were granted rights because of beneficent powerful whites such as Johnson.

If Selma has a flaw, it is the focus on King. Activists organised in Selma long before King arrived, but the film begins with King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize and tells the story of Selma from his perspective. King was indeed inspiring but he was a product of the movement. At its best, Selma captures this.

In depicting the past, Selma speaks to the present. Johnson and other white liberals, even as they played vital roles in passing key civil rights legislation, failed to back the full agenda of the civil rights movement, which promoted programmes to enact full economic and social equality.

Sadly, 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, African Americans are hardly equal. On average, African Americans earn only three-quarters of what white Americans do. The recent police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York are but extreme manifestations of a criminal justice system that unfairly targets blacks.

The incarceration rate of African Americans is outrageously high; one in six black men has been imprisoned. And in 2013, a conservative supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act, leaving many black Americans at risk of disenfranchisement.

Despite its factual inaccuracies, Selma brilliantly captures a broad truth: African Americans, like oppressed peoples everywhere, only get justice when they organise to demand it.

Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott assistant professor of US history at Trinity College and the author of Beyond Civil Rights

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