My son had an extra day off from school this week, the day after MLK Day. To give him a break from his daily dose of manga and anime, I took him to the downtown Silver Spring cineplex to see Selma. I hadn’t planned to see it until after Selma had come out on DVD or streaming via Netflix or Comcast, because I knew my son would have questions. And he did — lots of them!
But I was also curious. Not about the history. As the historian I am, I really didn’t need to see Selma to confirm the brutality of Jim Crow racism and violence, that I’d in fact seen and lived much worse. I wanted to see how Ava DuVernay’s treatment of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bayard Rustin, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover and so many others would stack up against years of research, writings, lectures and discussions (some of which are my own) on the period. I wanted to know if the staunchest critics of the film were in any way accurate in their criticisms, or if they were just holding DuVernay and Selma to a double-standard.
In light of so many other films, from Mississippi Burning (1988) to Remember the Titans (2000), from The Untouchables (1987) to The Hurricane (1999), it’s obvious the art of film-making isn’t as exact as a scalpel. This may well be sacrilege, but I as a historian and educator do not expect movies to be 100 percent accurate depictions of historical events. A great film can educate as well as entertain, but education is far more than getting all the facts correct because some folks want to hold a “Black” film to a higher standard than Zero Dark Thirty (2012) or Schindler’s List (1993). Making a very good movie requires the right context for facts, whether the accuracy level is 50 percent or 98 percent. It requires the right language and words, the right intonations and inflections, the correct mood and emotions, not just accuracy levels only a scholar with 800 endnotes and 1,200 sources could meet.
Knowing this, I dismiss nearly all the critics who’ve been pissed that LBJ was portrayed as a racist. Well, he was! He grew up in rural Texas, ran as part of an anti-Black Democratic machine for Congress and the Senate. Still, he also cared about people, about eliminating poverty, and even about providing federal civil rights protections for Blacks. This may be a contradiction, but what else is new in human nature? We’re not simply black or white, evil or good. We’re gray and mercurial, obsequious and hypocritical. So yes, LBJ was a racist and a progressive and a warmonger, and as far as I am concerned, the best president since FDR.
The idea that we should completely discount Selma because DuVernay didn’t make rabbis obvious in the film is ridiculous. That argument has been based on the exclusion of one Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was front and center in the third Selma march on March 19, 1965, from the images in the film. As one person who actually saw the film, however, it seemed no single actor portrayed Heschel or any other yarmulke and robe-wearing rabbi. There were at least two scenes, though, in which David Oyelowo (who played Dr. King) appeared to interact with men of Jewish faith. They were rabbis, but not dressed obviously so.
So let’s put Selma right up there with Howard the Duck (1986)! Except that this outrage over historical accuracy is as false as American Sniper‘s (2014) depiction of Arab Muslims as blood-thirsty caricatures of real human beings. Long-ago released tapes (now at the Johnson Presidential Library) indicate that LBJ regularly used the n-word, and that he wanted to wait on the Voting Rights Act, with it coming so soon after the Civil Rights Act.
To complain about the lack of religious Jewish garb in Selma, though, would be like Blacks complaining about film directors not portraying them as liberators in holocaust films. And yes, there are at least two confirmed instances in which segregated Black Army units did in fact help liberate concentration camps in western Germany in the final weeks of World War II. When that film comes out about the segregated 761st Tank Battalion’s exploits and participation in liberating camps, then I will take much more seriously complaints about the lack of yarmulkes and tzitzits in Selma. As in, not seriously at all.
The only complaints about Selma that have made sense to me have come from Bill Moyers, press secretary under LBJ from 1965 to 1967. Moyers recently refuted the idea that President Johnson gave the go-ahead to J. Edgar Hoover to release the so-called sex tape to Coretta Scott King during the Selma march period, contrary to how this DuVernay portrayed this segment in Selma. Wow! Two minutes out of a two-hour movie! (The interplay between Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Dr. and Mrs. King over the tape was as engrossing as it was gut-wrenching).
I did enjoy the movie, found Oyelowo’s portrayal of Dr. King Oscar-worthy (if not as perfect as some believe), and actually found nearly all the characters real and truly representative of the times. It should be said, though, that excuses of inaccuracy are always made by those who really have no excuses for snubbing really well done films. Especially ones that aren’t White clichés. Like American Sniper. No question that the Academy Awards committee should’ve nominated Ava DuVernay for best director, but for their faux liberal racial sensibilities.