May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Let’s Talk About “Selma” | Consider the Source

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Let’s talk about Selma—the movie. There’s the film, and the reactions: the Oscar snubs, protests from the members of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s cabinet and a number of historians, and defense from the filmmaker and some of the key figures in the 1965 marches. Beyond all of this friction there’s the question: What can we learn from the film and the controversy?

If you haven’t been following the conversations, Selma was the personal passion of Ava DuVernay—who not only directed the movie but also helped to write and produce it, and of David Oyelowo, the marvelous British actor who plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped find the funding to make DuVernay’s dream a reality. Originally, as DuVernay explained to Rolling Stone, the script was more about Dr. King and President Johnson working toward what would become the Voting Rights Bill. That, at times uncomfortable and confrontational, but nonetheless real, partnership is indeed what recent historians have emphasized. But, DuVernay felt the picture needed a different focus. “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.” To craft the film she had in mind, DuVernay and her scriptwriter chose to change history.

I want to pause a moment before talking about Selma and history to consider the second part of that sentence: “a movie centered on the people of Selma.” The real power of the film is precisely in its humanity. Yes, it is about race, violence, politics, and voting rights. Yet the artistry, the grace, and the depth of the film is in how it takes names out of textbooks, and off posters and postage stamps, and creates living, breathing people: laughing, eating, doubting, and suffering. Moviegoers see Dr. King and Coretta Scott King weighing, battling, and struggling to deal with his infidelity. The cinematography even casts many interior scenes in a soft brown light. Those who immerse themselves in this powerful and human experience of true courage will love the movie.

On seeing the film, though, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., who was for a time President Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, found it so false that he stated in a Washington Post opinion piece, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” As Califano recalls the events, Dr. King and LBJ were partners and, indeed, even the idea of marching in Selma was the president’s idea. Perhaps given cover by Califano, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to largely ignore Selma in its Oscar nominations. It was nominated for Best Picture—but there were no nominations for director or for leading or supporting actor. David Carr of The New York Times thinks this has to do with the nature of the Academy: it’s 93 percent white, 76 percent male, and averages 63 years of age. Carr quotes the film blogger Sasha Stone as saying that a year after giving best picture to 12 Years a Slave the academy has snapped back, like a rubber band, to what they know, to films that are made in their own image.

Is Califano correct? Is the history in the film so distorted that the Academy was right to largely ignore it? I begin my book Master of Deceit (Candlewick, 2012), a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, with the blackmail letter and tapes of Dr. King’s sexual encounters that the FBI sent to his wife. I know that story well. The film has it that Johnson told Hoover to send that package, in order to sow dissension and undermine Dr. King’s message. That is not true. Hoover had played the tapes for president, but Johnson, who had his own extramarital affairs, did not find them disturbing and had no role in the FBI plot to use them. Indeed, the tapes were sent on November 24, 1964 while the King family was in Oslo, Norway, and Coretta listened to them in early January 1965—long before the events in Selma. Further, while I am not an expert on the Johnson presidency, I do know that he was a master politician, and that recent historiography has emphasized his partnership with Dr. King. In several important ways the film decided to choose its narrative over what we know about history. One the one side, we have the director’s image of her film, on the other, divergence from known history. To me this is a lesson in perception, expectation, and beliefs—and how we speak at cross-purposes across racial lines.

There are at least three Selmas. First, there is the film honoring and exploring the African-American population of Selma, which DuVernay succeeded brilliantly in crafting. Second, in order to tell that story, DuVernay felt she needed to alter the history of the FBI tapes and recast the role of the President Johnson. As educators, we should make sure to discuss this shift with students—to use the story the film chose to tell as a prompt to investigate the evidence of past. Indeed, there is a larger lesson in this: the difference between a powerful human story that we can tell in historical or cinematic fiction, and the historical record, which is often more complex, nuanced, and fragmentary. Finally, there is the story of how DuVernay’s film and its divergence from history feed into already existing views across racial lines. The story of a confrontation with racism 50 years ago becomes the occasion for rehearsing and re-asserting anger, bias, prejudice, and judgment now.

It is hardly surprising that Califano, a man who worked beside a LBJ to change racial laws, would be upset to see the president cast as a devious and calculating obstruction to change. It is hardly surprising that Andrew Young, who marched along with Dr. King, exclaimed, “I think they did a magnificent job of telling the story. It’s 90 percent factually accurate. They got the whole story right.” To one person 10 percent wrong is all wrong; to another, even with that blurring, the big story, the whole story, is right.

Selma gives us the opportunity to appreciate DuVernay’s cinematic achievement, to explore actual historical events, and then to step around our immediate impulse to blame, condemn, or judge—and to imagine how the picture comes across to a different viewer, a different audience. Let us use Selma not as a chance to attack and talk past each other, but as an opportunity to see the world from another perspective. That is the modern day bridge Selma asks us to cross.


Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.



  1. I completely agree that it is the conversation that is important, one that transcends the movie, Selma. It also has reminded me of the controversy years back that arose over Oliver Stone’s Kennedy movie in which he also did some fictionalizing of the factual past, especially as regards Johnson.

    • marc aronson says:

      as well as the current The Imitation Game — see Daryl Pinkney’s article on Selma in the current NYRB — though he begins on the wrong foot by getting his own characterization of Hoover wrong (neither cross-dressing nor closeted as he claims)