more on Selma


A few weeks ago, I posted on the brewing controversy over Ava DuVernay's film Selma. Since then, I finally saw the movie. By coincidence, I wound up seeing it on the King holiday. Others must have had the same idea, because the theater was pretty crowded. Selma is over two hours long, but I didn't see anyone look at their phones (my theater bête noire) and the family in front of us with three small children did not make a peep. The audience applauded at the end. It was good to see people being so excited about the country's history.

I, like all of the critics of which I am aware, found the film to be moving, riveting and educational. It reminded me a great deal of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, another very good movie. (Paul Webb, who wrote the Selma screenplay, also wrote an early draft of Lincoln. Spielberg must not have been too happy with it, though, as he hired Tony Kushner to write the final script. It might be that very little, or perhaps none, of Webb's original treatment was left in the final version of Lincoln.) Both did a great job of presenting an unruly history by concentrating on a specific political accomplishment (the 13th Amendment in Lincoln and the Voting Rights Act in Selma) and then filling out that choice with a compelling backstory.

For historians, though, the big question has concerned whether Lyndon Johnson was portrayed fairly in the movie. Many have said that the film presents LBJ as an opponent of the voting rights bill when he was actually a supporter. Most recently, Julian Zelizer, who has a brand new book out about Johnson's role in the landmark legislation of the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act, said in an interview that "the depiction of LBJ" is "off" and "not correct."

Johnson and King

Johnson and King

Having now seen Selma and read the testimony of a small army of historians that the movie misrepresents Johnson's position, I think all parties should concede the point. On the other hand, historians always find things not to like in movies about historical events, so their objections should not necessarily damn a movie. I do tend to think that mischaracterizing the position of the president of the United States poses a larger historical problem than is typical for these sorts of films. This basic misrepresentation of Johnson might keep me, for example, from showing this movie in class, and that is a real shame.

But I am a political historian, and so it's hardly surprising that this sort of mischaracterization would bother me. Even other historians who do not study electoral politics (which is to say, most of them) might not have a big problem with this particular point. And a filmmaker, I would think, has even less of an obligation here. Her primary commitment is to neither history nor politics, but to the story she wants to tell and the vision that she wants to present.

In offering to the viewer a specific conception of the nature of political change, DuVernay executes both of these missions in a fashion that is both compelling and accurate. In a democracy, organized groups pressure their leaders to put items on the agenda, and the politicians work the legislative process to change that energy into legislation with the power of the state behind it. While it would be foolish to discount the significance of either party, movies (like books and everything else) are never able to tell the complete story. Selma is clearly more interested in the role played by the interest groups. The movie presents the moment of triumph as getting Johnson to submit the bill to Congress. A few minutes later (in movie time) the Voting Rights Act is passed, giving no sense of the Congressional arm-twisting or horse-trading that constitutes most of the politician's job. Since most depictions of American politics (The West WingLincolnHouse of Cards) tend to overemphasize the legislative maneuvering of elected officials, Selma provides some important balance in this regard. 

Zelizer actually agrees with this characterization, saying that "politicians...were not prepared to push [voting rights] forward...in early 1965 and the Civil Rights Movement forced them to." This is Selma's central message. So if historians can agree with the film's basic premise, but disagree about its depictions of Johnson, it seems as thought there could have been a not-too-difficult way to dramatize the movie's point without distorting something as significant as King's relationship with the president of the United States. But that is Monday-morning-quarterbacking. Overall, the movie brings alive a vital period of our history. In this regard, it provides a valuable service to historians and the public alike.