Civil rights and wrongs: Assessing ‘Selma’

Alice Green doesn’t pretend to be a movie critic, so she’s not interested in debating just how good
Alice Green is shown at her home in Albany.
Alice Green is shown at her home in Albany.

Alice Green doesn’t pretend to be a movie critic, so she’s not interested in debating just how good a film “Selma” actually is.

“But if it teaches us some very good lessons, inspires us to educate and get out and vote, then it can serve a great purpose,” said Green, an Albany activist and executive director of The Center for Law and Justice.

“I don’t concern myself with whether or not it was the best film in the world or a great artistic success, or how much poetic license it took. I thought it was a fine movie, and it spoke to us about some very important issues in our history.”

“Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay and produced by a group that includes talk show host Oprah Winfrey, has been a box office and critical success since it opened around the country in December.

But it has also come under scrutiny for its portrayal of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and the role he played in the American Civil Rights Movement, in particular the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in March of 1965.

The film’s story centers on the effort by Martin Luther King Jr. and his group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to organize the Selma demonstration along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led by current U.S. Senator John Lewis.

While Alabama Gov. George Wallace is seen as the main protagonist in the film, at times it also paints a less than flattering picture of LBJ, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Joseph Califano, a former Johnson aide. Califano wrote in The Washington Post that DuVernay, a black woman, felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead.”

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, while a fan of the movie, also attacked the perceived slight of Johnson. “There was no need for DuVernay to diminish LBJ, given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him,” wrote Dowd. “Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.”

Others, however, have supported DuVernay’s claim that the film is not unfair to LBJ, and have suggested that Califano’s reading of history is just that: his reading.

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker wrote that Califano “misrepresents ‘Selma’ the movie and Selma the history. The movie does not, for example, portray LBJ as ‘only reluctantly behind’ the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed be a gross distortion.”

Davidson also pointed out that Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch wrote of the relationship between King and Johnson: “Johnson in the White House was intensely personal but unpredictable — treating King variously to a Texas bear hug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit.”

While the debate over history goes on, Green and The Center for Law and Justice at 153 S. Pearl St. in Albany will present a free screening of “Selma” at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Albany Housing Authority at 200 S. Pearl St.

“Getting the vote was a hard one, and that’s something I’m trying to get students to understand and appreciate,” said Green. “It’s still an issue left over from the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s what the movie was about. You watch ‘Selma,’ and you can see why it’s important to get involved. You can change things.”

Movies can make a big difference, according to David Kieran, a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Skidmore College who has authored two books on the Vietnam War, “The War of My Generation: Youth Culture and the War on Terror,” and “Forever Vietnam: How a Divisive War Changed American Public Memory.”

“When I was growing up in the 1980s there were a number of films about the Vietnam War, and seeing a movie like ‘Platoon’ or ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ really triggered my interest in Vietnam,” said Kieran, a native of Reading, Massachusetts.

“But what people have to remember when they see any film that shows a representation of a historical event, is that you can’t hold the film to the same high standard that you would hold a piece of scholarly work. A feature film is going to be selective and interpret the material. What’s more important is how the film shapes the larger debate. Why is this piece of history so important to us?”

While he enjoyed watching “Selma,” Kieran said he had a few small issues with the film’s historical accuracy, as did Union College history professor Andy Feffer.

“What happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a horrendous chapter of American history,” said Feffer.

“The treatment of African Americans was shameful, and I was happy to see Martin Luther King get a proper representation in the film, as well as John Lewis and Emily Boynton. What they did was tremendously important, but a film has to dramatize events, and when they do that they focus on the personalities involved, and the narrative has to be poignant and include an antagonist and a protagonist. Then they fit the history to their Hollywood story, and as a result the history isn’t always rendered accurately.”

Film critic and University at Albany professor Rob Edelman feels that movies like “Selma” and “American Sniper,” another huge box office hit based on even more recent history, are wonderful pieces of art and shouldn’t be expected to tell the whole story.

“If you really want to know the history, your best bet is to go read some 800-page tome about the subject,” said Edelman, a contributing editor to “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” and film commentator on WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

“Authors are supposed to do the research and get all the facts right. Films are made to entertain. Some may have a political agenda but they primarily exist to entertain, and the good ones don’t so much botch the history, they just have a narrative coherence to make the story entertaining in a little over two hours.”

There are many fine films, according to Edelman, that didn’t stick to the facts very well.

“One of my UAlbany students had just seen Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK,’ and this kid, born decades after the assassination, just assumed everything he saw in the movie was true,” said Edelman.

“We have to remember that when we see a Hollywood movie, we shouldn’t walk out thinking we know all we need to know about the subject. Hopefully you watch the movie, and then go find a good history book if you want to learn more.”

Skidmore sociology professor Jennifer Mueller, who teaches classes in racial and ethnic relations, social inequality and popular and media culture, said some of the criticism directed at “Selma” is overstated.

“I saw ‘Selma’ and I’ve read a lot about those marches, and I thought the movie was very well done,” she said.

“I felt like maybe SNCC’s [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] role was minimized, but I thought the portrayal of LBJ was pretty fair. In these kind of movies there is often the inclusion of the white savior, but things are always more complicated than we can imagine, and the director chose to focus more on King and the people of Selma than she did Johnson.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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