When dramatic works draw upon historical events, is their primary responsibility to tell a good story or to tell the truth? It’s an overly simplistic question, I guess: The only right answer is “both,” and that’s before we get to the fact that historical truth is never neutral, unambiguous or fixed in place. Any fictional interpretation of what happened in the past is just that – an interpretation, conditioned by ideology and perspective, and subject to debate. Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is a landmark work of English drama – and a key moment in the ideological project of English nation-building – but no one today would seriously claim that it tells us much about the real King Henry’s invasion of France in 1415.
We hold a contemporary work like director Ava DuVernay’s sweeping civil-rights drama “Selma” to a different standard, and for good reasons. There are many living people who can vividly remember the dramatic events of 1965 in Alabama, and the historical and documentary evidence is voluminous. But we still aren’t sure what the relevant standard is, or who gets to decide. How much dramatic license is too much, and when does a reinterpretation or a shift in focus cross the line into falsehood? The controversy swirling around “Selma” and its portrayal of the relationship between the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo in the film) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), which began as an academic dispute and has now blown up into a full-fledged talk-TV and social-media event, has more to do with the cultural and racial conflicts of our own time than with the apparently straightforward question of “what really happened” back then.
But let’s not finesse this too much: For the most part “Selma” is a masterful achievement in popular history, a story about a historic confrontation between unarmed black protesters and violent white police that has arrived at an eerily opportune moment. Given Hollywood’s record of pandering and distortion when it comes to the civil-rights movement, the manner in which DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have approached this material is (mostly) defensible. But the historical nitpickers have raised valid points, and the movie’s reputation, not to mention its status in the Oscar race, has clearly been damaged.
Johnson was by all accounts a cranky and domineering personality as well as a ruthless and immensely compromised politician. His enormous accomplishments in domestic and social policy, where he was certainly the last man to hold the office who could be called a “progressive,” became swamped by his ruinous obsession with the Vietnam War. But to suggest that Johnson was in any way an impediment to enacting voting-rights legislation, or that he opposed King’s plan to draw media attention to the issue with a march from Selma to Montgomery, is grossly unfair, as Andrew Young and other activists of that era have agreed.
Numerous scholars and journalists have pored over the record of Johnson’s private meetings and telephone conversations with King, a partnership between a sitting president and a social activist not quite like anything else in American history. The historical record suggests something that’s impossible to capture in a few minutes of screen time: A pair of powerful leaders who viewed each other with mingled admiration and distrust, but who by at least January 1965 (two months before the Selma marches) were working together as strategic partners with the same goal in mind. That was when Johnson told King, in an oft-quoted phone call, that if they could get voting-rights legislation shoved through Congress it would constitute “the greatest breakthrough of anything … the greatest achievement of my administration.” That appears strongly at odds with the character of LBJ seen in “Selma,” who repeatedly urges King to back off and bide his time.
Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday has argued that a careful reading of “Selma” makes clear that DuVernay does not seek to cast Johnson as the villain. Instead, Webb’s screenplay compresses a sometimes companionable and sometimes adversarial relationship into a couple of scenes, and focuses on the stylistic and tactical differences between the consummate deal-making politician and the great strategist of nonviolent direct action. OK, yes; that’s the way I saw it too. But it's clear from the film’s reception that viewers unacquainted with the history will be led toward incorrect conclusions about the courageous and important role that the real Lyndon Johnson played in the civil-rights struggle. Even worse, the film seems to imply that Johnson approved or authorized FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented harassment of King and his family, a scurrilous charge that as far as I know has no historical justification.
One insider reading of the backlash against “Selma” – put forward by Chris Hayes of MSNBC and Chris Bailey of Flavorwire, among others – is that it’s Hollywood business as usual, all part of the sharp elbows and backstage whispers of Oscar campaign season. While I have no doubt that rival studios and their publicists have quietly nudged the “Selma” stories along when and where they could, that’s a remarkably small-minded and cynical interpretation, even by insta-journalism standards. Are we really expected to believe that Lyndon Baines Johnson Library director Mark Updegrove, former Johnson White House aide Joseph Califano and Pulitzer-winning author Diane McWhorter – all of whom have castigated “Selma” for its depiction of LBJ – were put up to it by the producers of “Unbroken” or “The Theory of Everything”? Even legendary Oscar strategist Harvey Weinstein doesn’t have tentacles that long.
Like almost every political and cultural dispute in recent American life, this one has an obvious racial dimension, and it does no good pretending to ignore it. With the apparent success of “Selma,” DuVernay has become one of the few African-American filmmakers near the top of the Hollywood ecosystem, and essentially the only black woman. She could quite likely have avoided this entire P.R. disaster by managing the on-screen portrayal of Johnson more cautiously – and considering that she spent many years as a Hollywood publicist before becoming a filmmaker, it’s a striking failure. But her most potent defense lies in the argument that she was not making a movie about Lyndon Johnson. She was making a movie about the black people who made the Selma march happen on the ground. It’s about Martin Luther King and his close associates, to be sure, but also their rivals and allies and the broad network of activists who made up the civil-rights movement, along with the ordinary citizens who showed up. That’s a story in which Lyndon Johnson is more or less a parenthetical figure.
DuVernay has specifically and repeatedly said that she wanted to avoid the kind of “white savior” picture we’ve seen over and over again, in which well-meaning and large-spirited Caucasian heroes ride to the rescue of stricken African-Americans. In Joseph Califano’s Op-Ed for the Washington Post on Dec. 26, which lit the match to the “Selma” firestorm, the onetime Johnson aide made the extraordinary claim that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” He could have said that King and Johnson cooked up the plan together, which would at least be partly accurate, or that Johnson was committed to voting-rights legislation and saw King’s march as an important strategic component, which would be entirely true. Instead he tried to claim full credit for his former boss, and DuVernay and many other African-Americans responded with social-media outrage, which pretty much drowned out Califano’s more reasonable objections. It sure did sound as if his understanding of history required a “white savior” to explain a mass action that was planned and executed over a period of many months by a group of activists who were largely if not entirely black.
That moment of startling racial blindness (and rhetorical tone-deafness) is not sufficient to explain everything about the “Selma” controversy, but it makes clear that the territory is full of land mines. We’re talking about a major Hollywood movie by a black filmmaker depicting a turning point in American history – in itself an almost unprecedented event – that is being criticized by a bunch of white people who would seem to have a vested interest in their version of the narrative. That doesn’t mean there is no such thing as historical truth, and it does not excuse DuVernay from her errors of dramatic judgment, especially the unfortunate and unfair suggestion that LBJ supported Hoover’s nefarious campaign against King. “Selma” is a document of its time – meaning 2015 more than 1965 – an exciting, urgent and, yes, flawed historical drama whose flaws may lead us toward new insights.