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Beware the Visor

Vince Wasseluk

How ‘Selma’ Got Smeared

On historical drama and its malcontents

If you want to understand the impossible bind in which the makers of serious historical dramas now find themselves, consider two headlines, both alike in indignity, and both used to bludgeon Ava DuVernay’s film Selma for its departures from historical fact. “Not Just a Movie,” columnist Maureen Dowd declared in the New York Times. “That’s Just Not True,” admonished historian Julian Zelizer in Salon. To the scholars, commentators, interested parties, ideologues, and point-scorers that now make it an annual sport to dismantle these films and their creators, this is the head of the pin on which historical dramas are forced to pirouette: They must first be elevated to a status greater than that of mere movies — after all, think of the innocent children who might see them and mistake them for books — but only so that they can be knocked down because they are less than true.

This season, no film has been punished for its perceived sins more than Selma. There is a brand of criticism that is, to its marrow, not just anti-Hollywood but anti-culture; it’s a rare patch of ground that’s shared by the anti-MSM right, the doctrinaire left, political cynics, and opportunistic ax-grinders. Some of its practitioners no longer even bother to give lip service to the idea that historical fiction is permitted to be anything other than actors mouthing raw facts; to them, any discussion of the special role artists play when they examine real events is just airy-fairy malarkey. “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth,” Dowd writes, dismissing, in a sentence, an entire genre as a form of glorified lying. Others are outwardly gentler, nominally endorsing the general idea of artistic license in historical fiction before condemning its actual practice. In a piece for Politico titled “What Selma Gets Wrong,” Mark Updegrove, who runs the LBJ Presidential Library, professes to understand the difference between what historians like him and writer-directors like DuVernay do. “The former builds a narrative based on fact,” he explains, “while the latter often bends truth for the sake of a story’s arc or tempo.”

That definition may sound reasonable on the surface, but it proceeds from an enduring fallacy about historical drama shared by almost everyone who complains about it — namely, that the reason drama “bends truth” is that it requires shortcuts to keep things moving swiftly and neatly. There is no acknowledgment — because there is no understanding — that sometimes historical fiction departs from facts in order to reach for abstract, thematic, or complexly intuitive truths that even the most diligently fact-checked histories and biographies can fail to illuminate. A baseline belief that history books and historical fiction are both after truth but use different means to reach it would be a more respectful place to start a discussion of Selma (or any other film that deals with real events). But instead of a conversation, what we have now is a ritual awards-season indictment, one that starts from the self-regarding premise that Hollywood writers and directors are by and large too lazy, stupid, pandering, or corner-cutting to do the nitty-gritty work of historians or journalists, and that they must therefore be caught out and scolded because otherwise the public — which in this line of thinking is also lazy and stupid — will be hoodwinked by them. This makes a response from artists almost impossible, since a filmmaker called to the docket to defend and justify her choices can rarely do so without sounding, you know, defensive and self-justifying.

LBJ & MLKHulton Archive/Getty Images

In the case of Selma, the most heated accusations have focused on the film’s treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s portrayed as being in alliance with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about voting rights for black Southerners but in conflict with him about its urgency, as well as about the timing and strategy of the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery in the first three months of 1965, when Selma takes place. The outrage has landed specifically on one scene that nobody, including DuVernay, seems inclined to defend, in which it is strongly implied that Johnson approved FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s use of tapes implicating King in an extramarital affair in order to undercut his leadership. The attack on this scene, which has been used as a wedge to delegitimize the entire film, began with a Washington Post op-ed by former Johnson aide Joseph A. Califano Jr. (his first sentence, “What’s wrong with Hollywood?” pretty much set the tone) in which he claimed that the entirety of the Selma strategy “was LBJ’s idea,” argued that DuVernay “fills the screen with falsehoods,” and charged that Selma shirks its “responsibility to the dead” (by which he presumably meant to the dead president who employed him, not to King, Malcolm X, or the many who died as a direct result of their work for civil rights). Califano ended with the broadside, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”

The need to refute Selma’s presentation of history before the cultural establishment — namely, the Academy — might confer a permanent endorsement on it was echoed in the same newspaper just over a week later by columnist Richard Cohen, who complained that the film “tarnishes Johnson’s legacy [in order] to exalt King’s” and ended by invoking the Oscars and claiming that “if it wins, truth loses.” On Salon, Zelizer, the author of a just-published book about Johnson, claimed that the movie makes the president seem “hostile to civil rights” (it does not). Updegrove wrote on Politico that it “humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (an odd phrase to use about someone already widely seen as human) while turning Johnson into “an obstructionist” (it does not). And in the Times, Dowd charged that the movie turns Johnson into a “faux … vile white villain,” a charge that is, at best, so uncomprehending of or inattentive to Selma, and at worst, so dishonest that in either case it ought to disqualify anyone who makes it from writing authoritatively about issues of truth or accuracy in the pages of a national newspaper. As the film critic Sam Adams noted on Twitter, “the only way to come out of Selma seeing LBJ as the movie’s villain is if you expected him to be its hero.”

I would add that the only way to come out of Selma viewing it as a pack of lies is if you walked in expecting to see a documentary. It’s a bit like the axiom — popularized just a year after the Selma protests — that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail: If you define historical drama as a failed, sloppy version of history, then of course the natural way to discuss it is in the language of preemption and condemnation, a language that is also ideally suited to a click-driven, bullet-points culture: “What [X] Gets Wrong About [Y]” or “What’s True and What’s a Lie in [X]” or “How [X] Distorts Reality.” But treating drama as an inadequate half-stab at truth by underqualified dilettantes is a bad-faith starting point that completely avoids any deep or serious examination of why dramatists make the changes that they do. That requires an approach to pop culture that is both sympathetic and interested — an attitude that would deprive any number of Selma’s critics of the straw-man targets of “Hollywood” and the con men and casual defrauders those critics conveniently imagine populate it.

Selma is, among many other things, a movie about tactics, and about how disagreements between men who see themselves as ideological comrades with strategic differences play out in the struggle for social justice. Those tensions are enacted on different fronts and in several pairings — not just in the scenes between King and Johnson, but in those between King’s men and the on-site leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (including future U.S. Representative John Lewis); between Johnson and Governor George Wallace (a smug racist who nevertheless views himself as the reasonable middle between Johnson’s softheartedness and the outright thuggery of Dallas County, Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark); and, by implication, between King and the less pastorally inclined, more outspoken Malcolm X. One of the most brilliant and honest connections that DuVernay draws between King and Johnson is that, like so many leaders, each man sees himself as a righteous warrior caught in the middle. But King’s “middle” is between what he views as the politically motivated incrementalism of Johnson and the angry urgency of Malcolm, whereas Johnson sees his “middle” as between the angry urgency of King and the troglodyte resistance of a cadre of unreconstructed white Southern politicians a world from which he himself had emerged. In outlining these dialectics in Selma, a movie in which street action alternates with negotiating-table hardball, DuVernay doesn’t create false equivalencies, but she does offer a perspective that many establishment historians and journalists cannot — an outsider’s view of how men in power think about themselves.

SelmaAtsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures

Before taking a closer look here at what exactly Selma has to say about Johnson and how the film says it (obviously, spoilers follow), I want to talk about one scene that illuminates DuVernay’s approach to history that involves neither Johnson nor King. About a third of the way into Selma, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) has a private meeting with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in an Alabama church (this is not an invention of the movie; the two met in Selma on February 5, 1965, two weeks before Malcolm X was assassinated). The scene is introduced with a shrewd recurring device — an onscreen teletype legend that tells moviegoers what’s happening, but only through the warping prism of FBI surveillance. “C. King in Selma to meet with Negro militant Malcolm X. 03:46 p.m. LOGGED.” The description denotes the assumption of white law enforcement that a conspiracy of one kind is taking place — a clandestine meeting in which King may be moving closer to throwing in with a more militant, potentially violent faction of the movement. In reality, the “conspiracy” that’s unfolding is exactly the opposite; Malcolm tells the wary Coretta that he is not in Selma to impede her husband’s work, but to allow himself to be used, even to be misrepresented, to further King’s goals.

“Your husband and I, we do not see exactly eye to eye on how to achieve progress for the black man,” he tells her (a line that positions him at exactly the same distance from King as LBJ). “But because we don’t agree … does not mean that I am the enemy.” In fact, he says, his image in white America as a dangerous menace could be of help: “Allow me to be the alternative to your husband — the alternative that scares them so much they turn to Dr. King in refuge.”

DuVernay’s view of the uses of history and of (mis)representation is not careless in this scene or in the movie; it’s clearly thought through. The onscreen typed summary is a perfectly deployed example of how something can be factually correct (meeting with a “Negro militant” is, literally, what Coretta King is doing) without being true; the movie, by contrast, finds many ways of being true without being strictly factual. That is exactly what good historical drama must sometimes do, and must be given permission to do, including in this scene itself, in which DuVernay has a character express an understanding that his presence and his motives may have to be slightly distorted in order to achieve a greater truth and justice.

So what, exactly, are the liberties Selma takes with President Johnson? When one examines, scene-by-scene, the way he is portrayed, they appear, with one exception, barely to be liberties at all. In his first appearance in the movie, Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is introduced not as a “vile white villain” but as a leader who is so frustrated with the slow pace of progress after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that his adviser Lee White (Giovanni Ribisi) must remind him that “the act was only passed six months ago.” Johnson, a politician who nobody would dispute is used to having his own way, is heading into a meeting with the even more frustrated Dr. King (David Oyelowo). In that meeting, the friction the movie will explore between the two is established: King wants immediate legislative action, and Johnson wants to advance anti-poverty legislation — which he correctly saw as intrinsic to civil rights — before moving on to a voting rights act.

This is not an exchange that paints Johnson as obstructive, let alone as an enemy of the cause; he calls the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which he signed on July 2, 1964, “the proudest moment of my life.” But it foregrounds a divide between politics and activism, and also suggests that in 1965, a black man might have felt what King called “the fierce urgency of now” with a little more fierceness and urgency than a white president. (By the way, it speaks volumes about how much of King’s legacy has been appropriated by Johnson’s advocates that Zelizer lifted those five famous words of King’s for the title of his book, which is called The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.)

Selma next depicts Johnson in a meeting with J. Edgar Hoover (whose vile white villainy has been so thoroughly corroborated by historians over the last 50 years that nobody is complaining). In the scene, even though Johnson states explicitly that he wants King to “go on leading the civil rights movement,” Hoover offers to shut him down, presumably by either blackmail or entrapment (“We can weaken the dynamic,” he says, “dismantle the family”). DuVernay does not show us Johnson’s reaction to that proposal; she cuts directly from Hoover to the next scene. But she has planted seeds that will grow into Selma’s one indisputably problematic sequence.

First, though, a couple of other plot points unfold. We witness Johnson reacting with silent exasperation to the simultaneous input of newspaper photographs of black citizens being beaten in Selma and the defiant voice of George Wallace on the radio. It’s a glimpse that nicely enhances DuVernay’s conception of the nature of Johnson’s caught-in-the-middle status. That’s followed by a second scene between Johnson and King — one in which Johnson sharply warns him against the march, which he thinks will be “too damn far and too damn dangerous.” This is a deepening and toughening of their first quarrel, and although DuVernay has King reply, “It cannot wait, sir,” she lets Johnson fully articulate the dilemma he’s facing. “You’re an activist, I’m a politician,” he tells King. “You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one … That’s OK. That’s your job. That’s what you do … Meet me halfway on this, Martin.”

That line offers a great example of what historical drama can accomplish beyond its ability to be moving and immediate. I have no idea if Johnson ever said those words to King, and I don’t care. Any historian or biographer would concede that Johnson had a complicated array of reasons — practical, pragmatic, logistical, egotistical — for wanting to handle the advance toward the Voting Rights Act his own way. But while Selma allows him his view, it isn’t bound by it. This is the rare movie about civil rights told from the perspective of the oppressed rather than from that of their putative benefactors, and it’s largely about how maddening it is to have those rights treated as part of a larger political scheme when what’s at stake is your life. What DuVernay is doing in that moment — which may not be factual but is both honest and accurate — is illuminating the chasm that can open up between allies who approach the same goals from different positions of authority, identity, personal experience, and responsibility. If you want to understand the nature of uneasy alliances in activist struggles, then or today, you can learn a lot from that dialogue; there are entire well-regarded history books on the era that never quite find their way to those ideas. That’s one of the great purposes and values of “dramatic license,” which is so often dismissed as a pretext rather than as a considered means to a valuable end.

That fight leads to DuVernay’s one real, and costly, error: the strong suggestion that, as a result of King’s intractability in that showdown, Johnson gave Hoover approval to blackmail him. It seems to arise out of an understandable desire to share the important information that King was blackmailed by the U.S. government — and also to offer us a peek into King and Coretta’s imperfect marriage. But it’s a weakly handled idea, in part because it attempts to make its point solely via transition (DuVernay cuts directly from Johnson telling Lee White, “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” to Coretta King listening to the insinuating recording), and in part because within the dramatic context DuVernay has set up, it doesn’t make much sense. We’ve been made to understand that Johnson firmly supports maintaining King as the leader of the movement, so it’s an odd time for Johnson to decide to undermine him. It’s not surprising that the plot thread is not further pursued.

The accusation doesn’t belong in the movie, but critics who are treating it as vicious libel are themselves painting a far less accurate picture of Johnson than DuVernay’s, even in that moment. The scene is a stretch, but a stretch is all it is. It’s important to note that most of the facts contextualizing that episode are indisputable. Here’s what’s not in question: The FBI, from the first month Johnson was in office, zealously pursued a program of wiretaps and “mi-sur” (microphone surveillance, or room bugs) with the goal of “neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader.” Hoover had a particular hatred for King; the first time he heard a compromising audiotape, he burst out, “This will destroy the burrhead.” Coretta King did indeed receive a tape that purported to be evidence of her husband’s extramarital affairs in January 1965 and could only have come from the FBI. And Johnson was aware of the Bureau’s surveillance of King and — even though he was opposed to it — did not shut it down completely until more than a year after the events described in Selma.1 The Johnson partisans so concerned about who might be misled by the film haven’t had much to say about that baseline information; instead, they’ve focused on the scene’s only invention, which is that Johnson either explicitly or tacitly approved what the FBI was doing with that tape.

Ava DuVernayAtsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures

Even so, DuVernay is still not showing Johnson to be anything like an obstructionist — a man so hell-bent on preventing African American voting rights that he’s willing to destroy King’s reputation. Selma never loses sight of the fact that the two men are on the same side. The film’s Lyndon Johnson is a man who is used to getting his way and throwing very sharp elbows when he doesn’t, and that squares with history far more than Johnson’s deifiers would care to admit. As readers of Robert Caro’s Johnson biographies know, Johnson was quite comfortable blackmailing his opponents. And Caro himself has said that Johnson “really had compassion, he really wanted to help. But whenever ambition collided with compassion, it was the ambition that won.”

The suggestion that Johnson approved the blackmailing falls outside the boundaries of what an artist working in a primarily realistic mode should allow herself. But if we condemn it, then we must hold non-artists — historians and journalists — to at least as high a standard of accuracy. By that measure, DuVernay’s most strident critics have failed not only the movie but history. Califano’s risible claim, for instance, that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” is a great-white-father view of civil rights history that would do far more damage to veracity if it were to enter a high school curriculum than this movie would; it is thoroughly debunked in At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968, the last of a definitive three-volume history of America in the King years by the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Taylor Branch. In addition, as the progressive media-watchdog group FAIR has noted, the White House tapes from 1965 demonstrate Johnson’s growing impatience with and mistrust of King and the protesters in the days and weeks before Selma; that is not a figment of DuVernay’s imagination.“He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail,” Johnson warned. “I think that we really ought to be firm on it myself. I’ve been watching it here, and looks like that man’s in charge of the country and taking it over.”

Branch also writes in extensive and well-documented detail about Selma, including Johnson’s fulminations against King and White House negotiators’ all-night efforts to get King to call off the march. “I would take a much tougher line than we’re going to,” Johnson told his then-aide Bill Moyers.2 That context is either all but ignored or denied outright by the anti-Selma faction. So you have a choice: the fictional version of Johnson that is created in one moment of a dramatic movie, or the different, more fictional version of Johnson being retailed as fact by some of the movie’s detractors.

The remaining scenes in Selma involving Johnson offer a sketch of the 36th president that is both honest and, in the end, flattering. With King determined to proceed with the march, LBJ recalibrates his strategy and tells his advisers to put pressure on both King and Wallace. Johnson and King are then shown having a heated telephone conversation in the fraught aftermath of the murder of James Reeb, a white minister who had come down from Boston to participate in the march and was beaten to death by white segregationists. In that conversation, Johnson reiterates their common ground and common goal but expresses fury that protests have now come into the White House itself, during a visitors’ tour: “We’re getting close to figurin’ something out on this votin’ thing,” he tells King. “But I will not have this! This bill has been almost impossible to craft. You think you’re juggling, Martin? I’m juggling too.”3

The last words DuVernay, and Selma, give Johnson are his own, and among his most powerful — the stirring March 15, 1965, address before both houses of Congress in which he proposed the Voting Rights Act. Selma’s harshest critics have declined to explain why, if DuVernay was so invested in turning Johnson into a bad guy, she chose to honor this speech, a pinnacle for him, by using portions of it almost verbatim.

Those critics have also skipped over one of the film’s most important scenes — one just preceding that speech, in which Johnson decisively breaks with Wallace, telling him, “We shouldn’t even be thinking about 1965. We should be thinking about 1985 … I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let history put me in the same place as the likes of you.” That may sound too on-the-nose — as some of Selma’s dialogue undeniably does — but it’s actually a canny and thoughtful moment, resonant in both funny and painful ways. Despite Wallace’s opportunistic embrace of African Americans in his later years (he died in 1998), he will always rightly be remembered as the man at the schoolhouse door vowing “Segregation forever,” whereas the least tarnished part of Johnson’s legacy resides, as he always knew it would, in his advancement of civil rights.

DuVernay’s understanding of the importance of legacy to men in power is profound — she grasps it not just as an aftereffect, but as a motive. And the issue of legacy may be why so many of Selma’s attackers, who speak the language of establishment power, are bent on invalidating the film. The old saw that history is written by the victors is particularly relevant here, because Selma is the first mainstream movie about this era to raise the question of who, exactly, gets to claim ownership of that victory. To many historians and politicians, the triumph of civil rights is that, after much toil and strife, they were bestowed from above; to many African Americans, however, the victory is that those rights were taken — wrenched, with tremendous will, persistence, and effort, out of a system that was not in an immense hurry to offer them up. The former stance has long been the vantage point offered by most white filmmakers who have tackled this history. So it’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who, even 50 years later, would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King. They are unnerved not only that Selma threatens to become “official” history, but that it represents a sea change in who has custody of that history.

It’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who … would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King.

And so, to venerate Johnson and themselves, they have defamed this film and advanced a counter-myth about LBJ that is, in many cases, shamefully disingenuous. Rebuttals are beginning to appear — last week, The New Yorker published a detailed one by Amy Davidson called “Why ‘Selma’ Is More Than Fair to L.B.J.” But the damage has been done. While Selma managed a Best Picture nomination, its Oscar chances, whatever they had been, are diminished (never let it be said that Johnson’s men don’t know how to get what they want). And although, over time, movies as good as Selma always survive this kind of piling-on, the asterisk that attaches itself to them can be long-lived as well. A spurious, discrediting taint — “Isn’t that the movie that lied about LBJ?” — may cling to Selma for years in references, hyperlinks, and stories about whatever next year’s victim of this process turns out to be, while the prevarications of its accusers, if recent history is any indication, may be shrugged off as part of the Oscar news cycle.

It is, I think, profoundly sad that a movie that focuses so intelligently and specifically on King not as a martyr or plaster saint but as a brilliant tactician should have occasioned less discussion about him than about a president who was — in both the movie and in this specific chapter of the struggle it depicts — a supporting character. The rush to defend Johnson’s reputation is, among other things, a way of not talking about King, and the need to sternly repudiate a movie that does not enshrine LBJ speaks volumes about who gets to do the talking and who is, even today, still viewed as an interloper.

But since that is the way things have unfolded, perhaps it’s fitting to give Johnson the last word. On December 12, 1972, the former president made his final speech, before an audience that had assembled at his presidential library for a symposium on civil rights. Johnson began by remarking that when he assumed the presidency in 1963, he could not have imagined how quickly progress would unfold over the next 10 years. Nonetheless, he said, “the progress has been much too small. We haven’t done nearly enough. I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more than I did.”

I don’t think that assessment was applause-baiting false modesty — and, in fact, the assembled listeners took in those particular words in silence. I believe Johnson meant it, and I believe he was probably right; it sounds like the clear-eyed self-assessment of a man at the end of his days. Johnson knew he was dying when he made that speech; he opened by telling the audience that his doctors had advised him against talking (you can see him put a nitroglycerin tablet, meant to ease the symptoms of angina, under his tongue). Six weeks later, he would be dead.

The man who spoke that day is the man in Ava DuVernay’s movie — a strong and true believer in the cause of civil rights, and a man who probably could have done more. And the doubt with which he seems to grapple in his twilight — the question of who will be better remembered in any struggle for rights, the incrementalist or the insurrectionist — is central to both the power and the present-day reverberations of Selma, a film that asks us to understand that a black man, standing, arms raised, before white authorities in the middle of a street can be a more powerful agent of change than even a president. It is not surprising that there are still many who take that contention as a threat.

The Lyndon Johnson who gave that final speech also conforms to the movie’s version of LBJ in another regard: He is fiercely competitive, never more than when staring ahead at the histories he imagines will one day be written about him. Despite his physical weakness, Johnson stood and spoke that day for 30 minutes. During his remarks, he praised and thanked any number of African Americans whom he believed had places of honor in the struggle that, along with Vietnam, had defined his presidency: Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and SNCC cofounder Julian Bond. Newly elected representatives Barbara Jordan and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Roy Wilkins, Vernon Jordan, Whitney Young. And he ended his speech with what, by then, he had appropriated as his signature closer: “We shall overcome.” But, perhaps mindful of the one man whose legacy threatened to cast his own into shadow, he stopped there. In 30 minutes of talking about civil rights, Johnson couldn’t quite bring himself to speak Martin Luther King Jr.’s name. 

Filed Under: Movies, selma, Oscars, Academy Awards, best picture, Ava DuVernay, New York Times, Washington Post, 2014 Awards Season, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Nigel Thatch, david oyelowo, Giovanni Ribisi