Friday, 20 February 2015

Does 'Selma' Distort History?

by James Burkinshaw

Selma: MLK (David Oyelowo) and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson)
In the lead-up to Sunday's Oscars, one of the nominees for Best Picture, Ava Duvernay's Selma, which portrays Martin Luther King's 1965 civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, has been criticised for historical inaccuracy.  

Should films be judged according to their historicity? Certainly, the vast majority of "historical" films, from Braveheart to Zulu are primarily produced as entertainment and are not supposed to be taken seriously as a presentation of historical fact. Even films with a more serious, educational intent (and Selma certainly seems to fall into this category) are surely entitled to some poetic licence in order to shape complex and often chaotic events into an aesthetic whole. However, what responsibility, if any, does a director of a serious historical film, such as Selma, have to balance aesthetic choices with historical accuracy?

Duvernay herself has asked critics to look at the bigger picture: "For this to be I think reduced . . . to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, I think is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices, black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths, to do something amazing." The "one talking point" Duvernay refers to is the film's characterisation of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) as the main antagonist, blocking Martin Luther King's (David Oyelowo,) attempts to achieve voting rights for African-Americans. The "small contingent of people" she mentions include not only academic historians but former LBJ aides and colleagues and supporters of MLK such as Andrew Young (who is himself portrayed very sympathetically in the film), all of whom point out that Johnson, far from being an obstructionist villain, was actually a driving force behind the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, helping King use events in Selma, Alabama, to achieve that goal - and, therefore, one of the people who did "something amazing". Any film needs an antagonist to provide dramatic tension and conflict; however, Lyndon Johnson seems uniquely ill-suited for this role. 
1965: MLK and LBJ, in the Oval Office

It is not as if there is a shortage of deserving candidates for the job of arch-villain in the story of Selma. There were many members of Congress who tried to block civil rights and voting rights legislation, whether out of racist conviction or electoral cowardice. There was the swaggering, thuggish Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (played in the film by Stan Houston), the fervidly racist, intellectually pretentious local judge James Hare (not portrayed in the film) and the ambitious, demagogic governor of Alabama, George Wallace (Tim Roth). The most terrifying figure of all, perhaps, was J Edgar Hoover, the all-powerful director of the FBI, a vicious racist and paranoid anti-Communist who spent years vindictively and obsessively harrassing MLK through constant surveillance (including hidden microphones and wire taps), smears leaked to the press and anonymous, threatening phone calls and letters to King's friends and family as well as King himself. These activities reached a critical mass during the period leading up to Selma, at one point almost driving an exhausted MLK to suicide. Adding a further layer of dramatic irony which should be a god-send to any film director, Hoover, who used the extra-marital secrets of MLK and others in an attempt to blackmail or destroy them, was himself a closeted gay man. However, this extraordinary figure only appears once in the film (played by Dylan Baker), in a relatively brief scene in which he appears to be doing President Johnson's bidding. In fact, it was Johnson's predecessor, President Kennedy, who had authorised Hoover's surveillance activities. And, far from controlling Hoover, LBJ, like all of his presidential predecessors (including Kennedy) had to treat the autonomous FBI director with caution and deference- aware of the destructive power Hoover had amassed over half a century running the Bureau.
J Edgar Hoover

In another key scene in the film, LBJ is shown in a meeting with MLK at the White House a few weeks before the March on Selma, refusing to pass Voting Rights legislation. This is based on an actual meeting in which Johnson told King (all of LBJ's meetings and phones were recorded on tape), "I need the votes of the southern bloc  (i.e. members of Congress from segregationist Southern states) to get these other things through. And if I present a voting rights bill, they will block the whole program." This is shown by Duvernay as an act of obstructionism on Johnson's part. However, as Nick Kotz notes in his excellent book, 'Judgement Days', "On the subject of voting rights, as on most topics, Johnson's aides knew that one conversation with the president seldom revealed all that he was thinking. Johnson liked to keep his options open . . . Four days before letting King know that there could be no voting rights law in 1965, he had told (his attorney general) something quite different . . . instructing him to start drafting a voting rights law." Only three weeks later, on January 15th, Johnson phoned King to say, "We have got to come up with (voting rights legislation) . . . I think the greatest achievement of my administration was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but I think this will be even bigger because it will do things that even that '64 act couldn't do."

Whereas Duvernay portrays Johnson as aggressively opposed to the march on Selma, in the January 15th phone call he explicitly encouraged King to demonstrate: "If you can find the worst condition that you can run into in Alabama . . .if you take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings - every place that you can - then pretty soon the fellow who didn't do anything but drive a tractor would say, "Well, that is not right - that is not fair" Then that will help us in what we are going to shove through in the end." LBJ understood the power King's activism had to influence not only politicians in Washington but moderate white voters in the South. Three weeks later, Johnson harnessed the disturbing images from Selma being broadcast into American living rooms, holding a press conference in which he urged passage of voting rights legislation. He knew the limited window of opportunity: "Every day that I'm in office . . . I'll be losing part of my ability to be influential . . . (a president) uses up capital. Something is going to come up . . . something like the Vietnam War or something else where I will begin to lose all that I have now." 

Driven to despair
by Vietnam, 1968
Johnson's haunted reference to 
Vietnam reflects the irony that, at the very moment that he was achieving his greatest triumphs in passing historic civil rights and anti-poverty legislation, he was also dispatching two battalions to Vietnam, initiating the escalation that would, ultimately devastate South-East Asia, tear America apart and destroy his own presidency and its political legacy. Adding to the sense of tragedy was his impotent awareness from the beginning that the war (a situation inherited from his predecessor, John F Kennedy) was unwinnable: "I can't get out (of Vietnam) and I can't finish it with what I've got. And I don't know what the hell to do." It has become something of a cliche to compare political figures to Shakespearean/Greek tragic heroes, but in the magnitude of his political accomplishments, the enormity of his personal flaws and the cruelty of the Cold War fates that shattered his presidency at the moment of his greatest domestic achievements, LBJ remains, for me, the most fascinating political figure in American history. He is as complex, contradictory and compelling as any character in literature - someone the writer Greil Marcus immortalised as a combination of Huck Finn and Captain Ahab. It seems, therefore, all the more of a waste to see him reduced to such a two-dimensional caricature in Selma.

Growing up in Texas
Further cementing his credentials as chief antagonist in the film, Johnson is presented as coldly refusing to send Federal troops to protect King's civil rights marchers after the vicious 'Bloody Sunday' assault by Sheriff Clark's goons. Again, the truth was more complex. As Johnson, himself a Southerner, noted at the time: "If I just send in Federal troops with their big black boots, it will look like Reconstruction (the hated occupation of the defeated South by Northern troops at the end of the Civil War) all over again. I will lose every moderate . . . all over the South . . . That will force them right into the arms of extremists and make a martyr of Wallace." To prevent this, he had to force Alabama's Governor Wallace into taking responsibility for protecting the marchers, something Wallace had no intention of doing as he stood to benefit politically by portraying white Alabamans as victims of federal aggression (something that would only lead to further violence). In the film's presentation of the meeting that took place between Johnson and Wallace, Duvernay seems to suggest that Johnson supports the Voting Rights Act to save his own political skin, growling that he'll be damned if he lets history put him in the same category as Wallace. In reality, as the White House tapes make clear, Johnson appealed to Wallace's long-dormant idealism: "George, why are you doing this? You came into office as a liberal*  . . . What do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads 'George Wallace - He Built'? Or do you want a little piece of pine board lying across that harsh caliche soil that reads, 'George Wallace - He Hated'?" One of the things that makes Johnson such a distinctive figure is that, despite growing up in the 'Jim Crow' South, he himself had chosen such a different path to Wallace and so many other Southern, white politicians of the same generation. LBJ had made many compromises along the way, but now, with Wallace reluctantly guaranteeing safe passage for the Selma marchers without LBJ needing to resort to federal troops, the last significant obstacle to voting rights was removed.   

Two days later, urging passage of the Voting Rights Act, Johnson gave what is surely one of the greatest speeches in American history, described by Martin Luther King himself as "the most moving, eloquent, unequivocal and passionate plea for human rights ever made by any President of the nation." As he watched Johnson's speech on television, King, a man usually in careful control of his emotions, famously wept. Although Johnson lacked the oratorical power of MLK, his speech to Congress had a quiet authenticity, not least when he described how growing up in poverty in segregated Texas had shaped his political ideals (see video below, from 22 minutes). It is often seen as ironic that it was the first US president from the Southern states in a century who was responsible for the greatest civil rights legislation since Lincoln, but it was his very rootedness in the South that drove Johnson's commitment to the cause of civil rights - even though he knew that, in the process, he would be condemned as a "turncoat" by many of this fellow-Southerners and that he was sending the Southern states into the arms of the opposing Republican party (where they still remain half a century later).  

Does Selma's failure to reflect all of this make it a bad film? Of course not. Firstly, it is Martin Luther King's story, not Lyndon Baines Johnson's and David Oyelowo's performance as King is brilliant (it is extraordinary that he was not nominated for Best Actor). Ava Duvernay is a gifted film-maker and the scenes presenting the events in Selma are particularly powerful; the film offers a much-needed reminder (fifty years on) of what the Civil Rights Movement achieved and the brutal injustice that its members had to overcome. Duvernay has argued that, instead of focusing on the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the film, people should "focus more on the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act" by Republicans in the current Congress and in individual states (particularly in the South). The film will indeed have achieved something significant if it succeeds in raising people's awareness of current attempts to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters from racial and ethnic minorities and to reverse what Martin Luther King fought for in Selma half a century ago. 

And what Lyndon Johnson fought for, too. His presentation, in Selma, as a two-dimensional, conniving, hack-politician seeking to block MLK almost every step of the way seems to me a great injustice, neither supported by the historical facts nor justified by the need of the film to find someone to fill the role of "villain". Perhaps the fault lies not with the script or the director's choices but with the limited, two-hour format of a standard cinema movie. The 1960s was such an extraordinary, transformative decade in American politics, full of such multi-layered, often contradictory and conflicted characters - from JFK to MLK, RFK to LBJ, not to mention Malcolm X, George Wallace, J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon - swept up in moments of triumph (the Civil Rights movement, the War on Poverty, the Moon Landing) and tragedy (Vietnam, race riots, political assassination) - that perhaps the only visual art form that can really do it justice is an HBO series. The story of Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys has all of the moral complexity and nuanced characterisation of The Sopranos, The Wire or Game of Thrones and perhaps deserves the same artistic treatment. 

* When I studied at Troy State University, in Alabama (1984-85), I took a class in State Government taught by former Alabama governor John Patterson, who had beaten Wallace for election back in 1958 on a hard-line segregationist platform. In the 1958 race, Wallace had had the support of the black civil rights organisation the NAACP, while Patterson had the support of the Ku Klux Klan. In defeat, Wallace vowed never again to be seen as too liberal; in the words of one commentator, "to get ahead politically in the 1960s, (Wallace) sold his soul to the devil on race."


Robert Dallek - Flawed Giant
Nick Kotz - Judgement Days: Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King

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