Contrary to the portrait painted by “Selma,” Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for “Selma.” The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season. - Former LBJ Aide Joseph A. Califano Jr., Washington Post Op-Ed, December 26, 2014.
Does Historical Accuracy Matter?
With a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Selma is the best reviewed film of the year, even higher than Golden Globes winner Boyhood by one percent. It seemed as if the film would go on to become an Oscar favorite (along with Boyhood), but thanks to media controversy surrounding the historical accuracy of the film, it seems as if Selma will no longer be a serious threat this awards season.
Now, I suppose if you hadn't heard of this pending controversy beforehand, you would assume the historical accuracy in question would be regarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not so. The controversy, in the first major Hollywood film about MLK, regards the depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, played in Selma by veteran British actor Tom Wilkinson. Director Ava DuVernay is being criticized by multiple historians and film critics for suggesting that LBJ tacitly authorized J. Edgar Hoover's dirty trick to mess up King's plans. He's sympathetic to King, but his agenda for the year is his war on poverty. And he's infuriated King would go to Selma without his say so.
It's one thing to question the historical accuracy of a film, it's another to say that a film “should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season,” as former LBJ aide Joseph Califano did a couple of weeks ago. If we were to go on Mr. Califano's suggestion, however, we would have to eliminate almost every historical film ever made for awards.
Many films considered for major awards are often historical films or biopics. The first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 was a film called Wings, set during the First World War. The next two winners, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Cimarron, were also historical dramas. From my count, 49 of the 86 films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, have either been historical (set in the past), or biopic films. That's an astonishing 57 percent. Not to mention the hundreds of films over the years set throughout history that are positioned as Oscar contending films.
What do 48 of those 49 winners have in common? They do not have minority main characters, nor are they directed by minority filmmakers. Ava DuVernay is a female African American filmmaker, that's about as minority in a still Caucasian dominated Hollywood as it gets.
Of those 49 historical/biopic films that have won Best Picture, nearly all of them have historical inaccuracies, many of them have historical accuracies that are WAY more glaring than those in Selma. By all accounts, one of the most historically inaccurate films of all time, is 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart. More recently, Best Picture winners The King's Speech and Argo, faced numerous criticisms for their historical accuracy.
Indeed, right now in theaters, there are quite a few "prestige biopics"; The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, Foxcatcher, Unbroken, American Sniper, Rosewater, etc. are historical biopics. All have issues with historical accuracy and none have them have faced as much heat as Selma from outside criticisms (not from the subject(s) themselves like Foxcatcher).
The defense of these films is a common one that I often espouse myself, movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. As said by Bilge Ebiri in Vulture:
They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves — to the demands of drama, to the demands of (yes) entertainment, and even to the demands of the broader truths they’re trying to evoke. There are limits to that, for sure: A movie about Hitler that tried to play down or deny the Holocaust might not exactly fly. An Obama biopic that shows him as a secret Muslim would be rightfully ridiculed, though I’m sure a certain segment of the population would embrace it.
One of my all time favorite films is perhaps the most controversial historical film ever to be released by a major American studio, Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK. Upon JFK 's theatrical release, many major American newspapers ran editorials accusing Stone of taking liberties with historical facts, including the film's implication that President Lyndon B. Johnson was part of a coup d'état to kill Kennedy. Talk about an LBJ controversy!
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both thought of the film very highly (Ebert named it his number 1 film of 1991, and included it on his Top Ten Films of the 1990's), and what's important in their video review above, and in Roger Ebert's essay on the film for his Great Movies list, is that Stone had the right to interpret history, using dramatic license, in order to fit the overall narrative of his dramatic film.
Ebert, eloquently, had this to say regarding the film's controversy:
I don't have the slightest idea whether Oliver Stone knows who killed President John F. Kennedy. I have no opinion on the factual accuracy of his 1991 film “JFK.” I don't think that's the point. This is not a film about the facts of the assassination, but about the feelings. “JFK” accurately reflects our national state of mind since Nov. 22, 1963. We feel the whole truth has not been told, that more than one shooter was involved, that somehow, maybe the CIA, the FBI, Castro, the anti-Castro Cubans, the Mafia or the Russians, or all of the above, were involved. We don't know how. That's just how we feel.
Shortly after the film was released, I ran into Walter Cronkite and received a tongue-lashing, aimed at myself and my colleagues who had praised “JFK.” There was not, he said, a shred of truth in it. It was a mishmash of fabrications and paranoid fantasies. It did not reflect the most elementary principles of good journalism. We should all be ashamed of ourselves.
I have no doubt Cronkite was correct, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my assignment is different than his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that “JFK” is no more, or less, factual than Stone's “Nixon” or “Gandhi,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator,” “Amistad,” “Out of Africa,” “My Dog Skip” or any other movie based on “real life.” All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.
Given that standard, “JFK” is a masterpiece.
Bingo. The same can be said regarding the historical accuracy of the much more mild Selma.
To hammer home on the point once more, let's go back to Ebiri's review.
I’m not a historian, and I’m not interested in inserting myself into a debate over Selma’s veracity, but as a film, it’s a very compelling and gripping portrait of a group of men and women engaged in the dangerous, ground-level work of protest and political action. As David Edelstein says in his review of the film, it’s “about long-lived injustice, short-lived politics, and how to make the latter serve the former.” If Selma downplays or subverts LBJ’s efforts, that might be because its focus is elsewhere. And it not only shows Johnson struggling to find and assume his place in history, it also shows King struggling to do the same; that’s called good storytelling. Plus, the last thing we need is yet another White Savior movie about race: As Henry Louis Gates said yesterday, “any attempt to make this about the Great White Father is misdirected.”
Gates' comment brings me to another point, HIS-STORY. That's history broken down as a comment about the very nature of studying history; who's telling the story? Despite the fact we've been drilled in grammar school and high school that history can be broken down into fact vs. fiction; the real fact is that we will never know the full history until we get ALL points of view. Who writes are American history books? Predominately, the victors, white Americans.
In James W. Loewen's book Lies My Teacher Told Me, the author asserts that Americans have lost touch with their history. After surveying eighteen leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that not one does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.
Not only are we not receiving all the facts, the lack of perspective is incredible, and beyond narrow minded. In the US, this is usually constituted by heterosexual, white, young(ish), male, well-off, able-bodied, Protestants. Because of this, the experiences/plights of "minorities" (homosexual, non-white, old(er), female, poor, differently-abled/handicapped, and/or non-Protestant Christians) are largely underscored and often overlooked altogether. History, coming from a certain point of view, is often negligent to different or opposing points of view.
There is a trickle-down effect that exists from the lack of information being provided to our children in schools. This effect is ignorance and misguided information, which leads to stereotyping.
NPR's Peniel Joseph, presents something even more troublesome regarding the historical accuracy debate in Selma.
Many prestigious movies take dramatic license with historical events. Films are not scholarly books. For example, Steven Spielberg's acclaimed film "Lincoln" erases the iconic abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the story, even though Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln three times, including once during the period the film chronicles. Screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Spielberg made the hard creative choice, something that did not prevent that film from being considered an artistic achievement and worthy of awards.
So what exactly is at work here?
Taken together these critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized, and shaped in large part by African-Americans. White supporters and fellow travelers of the movement have had the license to dramatize both historical events (Mississippi Burning, which inaccurately cast the FBI as the heroes of Freedom Summer) and fictional accounts (The Help) of the era. But DuVernay's film — alongside Lee Daniel's The Butler and Spike Lee's Malcolm X – is one of the few black-directed efforts to ever grace the big screen.
The real problem many critics have with this film is that it's too black and too strong. Our popular reimagining of the civil rights movement is that it's something we all did together and the battle is over; that's just not true.
In other words, not only are white, male historians/critics (mostly, BTW, I am one!) not understanding of dramatic license, but a game of pick and choose is going on. Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emperor, Dances With Wolves, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The King's Speech, and Argo - historical films involving white male leads, while they received some flack, survived, and won Best Picture.
To be fair, not all films made by and starring white males, have been able to escape it's glaring single-mindedness. We've seen recently with Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings, which failed mainly because of the controversy surrounding the racial casting. Nonetheless, all the progress made has featured a set back due to the criticizing of Selma's portrayal of LBJ.
White Savior Narrative in Film
This is an important point I want to make, in WAY too many films portraying minority plights, the lead character is a white male outsider. While these films are well intentioned, some of them really good actually, it's a problem when you talk about minority stories being told and acted by the minorities themselves.
Lawrence of Arabia, The Green Berets, Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Glory, Dances with Wolves, Cool Runnings, The Air Up There, Amistad, Finding Forrester, Hardball, The Last Samurai, The Help, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and even last years' 12 Years a Slave, are examples cited on the topic's Wikipedia page.
In film, the white savior narrative is a cinematic trope in which a white character rescues people of color from their plight. The white savior is portrayed as messianic and often learns something about themselves in the process of rescuing. The trope reflects how media represents race relations by racializing concepts like morality as identifiable with white people over nonwhite people. White saviors are often male and are sometimes out of place in their own society until they lead minorities or foreigners. Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness labels the stories as fantasies that "are essentially grandiose, exhibitionistic, and narcissistic". Types of stories include white travels to "exotic" Asian locations, white defense against racism in the American South, or white protagonists having "racially diverse" helpers.
David Sirota at Salon.com said, "These story lines insinuate that people of color have no ability to rescue themselves. This both makes white audiences feel good about themselves by portraying them as benevolent messiahs (rather than hegemonic conquerors), and also depicts people of color as helpless weaklings—all while wrapping such tripe in the cinematic argot of liberation." Noah Berlatsky in The Atlantic said the narrative varies from film to film, though slavery films, including award-winning ones, lack range in theme. He wrote, "All of these critically acclaimed films use variations on a single narrative: Black people are oppressed by bad white people. They achieve freedom through the offices of good white people." The white savior narrative is considered a cliché in cinema of the United States; the narrative is especially common in films about white teachers in inner cities.
Selma is historically accurate in that the movie correctly portrays African-Americans as the drivers of the civil rights movement. That is actually remarkably refreshing.
Voting Rights Issue
It's interesting to note, that while quite a lot of historians/writers have come out against the film, there are also quite a few that have defended the film's historical accuracy.
Writing for USA Today, Sherrilyn Ifill defended the portrayal of LBJ and MLK's relationship in Selma, or at least to the point where whatever dramatic licenses the film takes is not nearly as bothersome as others have it.
In Selma, Johnson is portrayed as initially reluctant to take up a voting rights bill in early 1965. He tells King in the film that he wishes to focus on his anti-poverty agenda. As the Selma marches (there were three in all) unfold, beginning with the violent conduct of Alabama troopers who brutally beat marchers on Bloody Sunday, Johnson moves the voting rights bill to a priority position. He ultimately delivers one of the most powerful speeches on race in America has ever heard from a white president, including in it the words of the movement's theme song, "We shall overcome."
Detractors of the film argue that Johnson was a full partner with King and had no hesitation on the voting rights bill. In fact, the historical record confirms that Johnson's priority in early 1965 was, indeed, his anti-poverty agenda and not voting rights.
He told Vice President Humphrey, "if we don't pass anything but education, and medical care, and Appalachia, we have had a record that the Congressmen can be re-elected on." The reference to "Appalachia" was to his poverty bill.
To be sure, Johnson was a champion of voting rights and pushed for it in 1965. But the film also portrays Johnson as what he was, a man who was political to his bones, and who also had a deep understanding of the awfulness of Southern resistance on race.
Most importantly, Johnson was also clear about the historical legacy he was creating. He understood where he wanted his legacy to lie — on the side of progress, not repression. On the whole, Johnson is portrayed heroically in the film.
I've mentioned Steven Speilberg a few times, he's actually plays a role in this controversy in some ways. As Ebiri writes:
So, let’s also take a moment to soak in the irony of the fact that DuVernay specifically could not use any of King’s actual speeches in her film; those rights apparently have been licensed to DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg. In other words, she had to take historical liberties just to be able to make Selma in the first place. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.
My advice is to go and see Selma, as you would any historical film, with an open mind. Read up on the film's portrayals and multiple historical records on the subject. Ask, what does this portrayal of a figure do to serve the narrative of the overall scope of the film?
The problem is that so very often, when you deal with historical subjects, you’re also dealing with numerous stakeholders, some of whom have personal connections to the subject matter, and some of them who ARE the subject matter. It's sensitive. But sometimes in cinema, you can also reach a greater truth by taking some liberties with historical facts. Considering that it's nearly impossible to stick to all the facts and tell a compelling story, as Wilkinson says above, as long as you stay true to the historical figure to a degree, and the audience can buy that person as that subject, the dramatic license should catapult the story from there. A movie — a two- or two-plus-hour work of narrative — has its own rhythms, its own demands.
Historians and critics who have a problem with Selma's historical accuracy aren't necessarily wrong, per say, but their efforts are beyond misplaced, and it's costing a great film the opportunity to be deservedly recognized this Oscar season.