There is something at work in both the appearance itself of Ana DuVernay’s “Selma” and in the controversy over her depiction of President Lyndon Baines Johnson as an antagonist of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that deserves our profound interest – and gratitude.
Consider the fact that “Selma” has appeared in the midst of four racially-significant anniversaries: First, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in general, and, more specifically, the freedom struggle in Selma, Ala. that produced the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Secondly, it also comes as America continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and Black Americans’ emancipation from slavery.
Equally significant, “Selma” has appeared within a two-year framework of significant anniversaries of two of the most celebrated – and racist – films Hollywood has ever produced.
This year marks the centennial of the vicious “Birth of A Nation.” That film’s path-breaking techniques of story-telling have forever praised by film buffs and historians, a chorus of praise that’s generally downplayed or ignored altogether the film’s advocacy of lynching as a central plank of Jim Crow and the national protest movement that blacks organized against it.
And finally, 2014 was the 75th anniversary of “Gone With The Wind.” Its gauzy depiction of slavery and caricatured Black characters “modernized” the stock racist stereotypes of Black Americans and the false narrative about the antebellum South and the Confederacy that many White Americans still pledge allegiance to. The film won eight Oscars and, according to a Harris Interactive survey conducted last month, remains most Americans’ favorite movie.
Beyond the connection between “Selma” and these anniversaries, of course, is the great fact that this is the sixth year of the tenure of the first Black president of the United States. (The president and First Lady Obamas screened the film at the White House on Jan. 16, with DuVernay and 40 other guests in attendance.)
In one sense, “Selma” is just a movie in that it follows the tradition of all historical films and biopics: it takes liberties with the facts in order to produce what the director feels will be a compelling narrative.
For example, I understand why DuVernay poignantly notes the murder of Viola Liuzzo, the White Detroit-area housewife who had journeyed to Selma to volunteer as a worker on the triumphant Selma to Montgomery march but omitted mentioning that two Black teenaged boys not connected with the March were murdered by Whites in Montgomery that day in retaliation for it. It’s because her expertly crafted, powerful narrative can’t take note of everything that happened. That’s why I also accept her mis-characterization of President Johnson.
She’s actually made him embody aspects of President John F. Kennedy and the infamous J. Edgar Hoover as well. Hopefully, the controversy will spur at least some viewers to read the histories that more accurately depict Johnson’s extraordinary contribution to the freedom struggle.
That particular debate is part of the proof that “Selma” is more than “just” a movie – that the “something at work” in the controversy about “Selma” is the contest of History.
David Carr, the New York Times media critic, recently wrote that “This is not a movie that endangers L.B.J.’s legacy, it cements King’s at a near perfect moment in history and should be celebrated as such.”
He’s right about that, but I’m glad for both the celebration and the controversy because that’s what the discussion of history is: a debate over people, ideas, and, yes, even facts. Indeed, due in large measure to the challenge the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s hurled at the untrue version of the American past and the American present, we’ve had an ever-increasing flood of books over the last half century that have unearthed more of the true histories of all Americans – Blacks, Whites, Asian-Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, women as a group, gays and lesbians, White ethnic immigrants, etc.
In other words, what the Movement put at the top of the American agenda, and what “Selma” illustrates beautifully, was the right of Black Americans (and, by extension, other stigmatized groups) to express one’s views – by voice, by vote, by making a film, etc. – and have that be counted in the debate over what America was and is and will be.
In that regard, one can say of DuVernay’s “Selma” what one can say of the Civil Rights Movement itself: Mission Accomplished.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books. His new collection of columns, Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014, is available at www.amazon.com.