Thursday, September 06, 2018

Before We Begin, Part 2: Selma’s Historical Controversy

Yesterday, we summed up two of Selma’s biggest controversies, but we didn’t touch the big one: Is the movie playing fair in its rewriting of history?

Here’s another damning excerpt from that BBC interview with Webb:

  • BBC reporter: She wanted a film where black people take hold of their own fate. Can you sympathise with that?”
  • Webb: No, because that isn't what happened.

…but I’m being a bit unfair there by taking Webb’s words out of context, which is exactly what we’re about to talking about.

Complaints about Selma’s portrayal of Johnson started early, but then exploded with a “Washington Post” piece by Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. Not only does Califano say that Johnson, not King, was the true hero of the movement, he goes so far as to say, “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.”  In this view, LBJ literally gave King his marching orders.

Now, as it happens, Johnson bugged himself and recorded many conversations in the Oval Office (a system Nixon would continue to use), so Califano is able to dig up this quote to back his claim up:

  • LBJ to MLK: I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination … [If] you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, … and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’s say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.” … And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

This would seem to prove Califano’s point …but not really. Powerful people have a habit of taking credit for everyone else’s ideas, even the person they’re speaking to. How many times has your boss said to you, “Hey, I just had a great idea…” but then when he’s done you want to respond, “Um that’s the same idea I just pitched to you.” Of course, you’re glad he’s going with your idea, but you have to accept that he’s only going to do so if he can convince himself he thought of it. This seems like a pretty clear example of that.

Califano’s broadside led to a dozen more “think pieces”. The most infamous was from Maureen Dowd in “The New York Times” She complains that someone bought black teenagers a bunch of tickets to her screening, condemns them for talking and texting, then for cursing, oohing and aahing at what they see on screen, then she says, when Johnson tries to mollify King:

  • “Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens. And that’s a shame.”

“If only Spielberg had made his version!”, Dowd seems to say.

Amy Davidson in “The New Yorker” then eloquently came to the movie’s defense in an article called “Why Selma is More Than Fair to LBJ”, marshalling other quotes from the historical record, from Johnson and others, that fit in just fine with DuVernay’s portrayal.

As Davidson points out, the movie actually cuts Johnson a big break, saying that it was his war on poverty that was distracting him from the voting rights act, whereas, if you look at the dates for those weeks, it was actually Vietnam. In the movie (and in some quotes from the historical record) Johnson basically says “I’m too busy helping all poor people to help the black people of the South,” but it would be more accurate for him to have said (though he never would have said it) “I’m too busy initiating mass slaughter of people of color overseas to help black people in the South.”

Finally, “Entertainment Weekly” did the most comprehensive round up for evidence for both sides:

Every docudrama writer has the right and responsibility to simplify positions and reorder events into a more dramatic arc. Because this is recent history, and still an open wound (and possibly because she’s a black woman) DuVernay is being given less wiggle room than most filmmakers get.

So, ultimately, is she fair to Johnson …and, for that matter, to King? Next week, we’ll look closer at how she rearranged and tweaked events to complicate our perceptions of each man.

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