This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a film featuring Dr. King is making news. The recent controversy surrounding Ava DuVernay’s Selma has been the sense that it was snubbed in last week’s Academy Award nominees: The film received a Best Picture and Best Song nod, but no other nominations, with director DuVernay, star David Oyelowo, and screenwriter Paul Webb among those left out. People have made various arguments for why the film received so few nominations—from a relative lack of quality to an overall trend that saw no actors of color included among any of the 20 acting nominees—but it’s quite possible that the controversy over Selma’s portrayal of history contributed to the snubs.
A few weeks ago, just after the film’s initial release on Christmas, former Lyndon Johnson chief domestic aide Joseph A. Califano, Jr. wrote a scathing Washington Post op ed entitled “The movie Selma has a glaring flaw.” Califano’s argument, that the film distorts history in order to portray his boss as an opponent of the Selma marches and Dr. King, needs to be understood in the context of his role in and attachment to the Johnson administration. Yet in the subsequent weeks, many other figures, including historians and scholars of the era and the Civil Rights Movement, have likewise argued that the film portrays Johnson and his relationship with King as more adversarial than they were. Even if Johnson did not actually come up with the idea for Selma, as Califano argues, the scholarly consensus is that he was much less hostile to it than the film suggests.
Having seen Selma, I have to agree that it does distort history, making Johnson into more of a villain than seems justified by the historical record as it exists. And I believe doing so was a correct and necessary choice. For one thing, every prior Hollywood film about the Civil Rights Movement and era has used white characters as the lens through which to view African American histories and identities: from the FBI agents in Mississippi Burning to the lawyer in Ghosts of Mississippi, the housewives in The Long Walk Home and Fried Green Tomatoes to none other than Miss Daisy herself, time and again it has been through the perspective of white characters that these civil rights histories have been portrayed. And as a result, those histories have always been distorted, quite literally: viewed differently than they would be from African-American perspectives.
So by using African-American characters such as King and many other Selma leaders and marchers as its protagonists and perspectives, Selma likely, indeed inevitably, distorts other histories, such as those of the Johnson administration. Every work of historical fiction has to make such fundamental choices of emphasis and perspective, and in every case there will be benefits and limitations. What is perhaps so surprising about Selma for so many audiences and critics is that it has made a different choice from every prior civil rights feature film.
Moreover, in doing so, Selma does a much better job capturing the era’s deeper histories than any of those prior films. In the preface to her historical novel Hope Leslie (1826), which offered a stunning revision of existing histories of Native American and English encounters in Puritan New England, author Catharine Maria Sedgwick writes that her “design … was to illustrate not the history, but the character of the times.” That is, Sedgwick departed from the dominant public and official histories, imaging an alternative vision of the Puritan era. Historians have since discovered and confirmed that her historical fiction of events such as the Pequot War was indeed far more accurate than those prior histories.
I am not suggesting that our official histories of Johnson and the Civil Rights era are inaccurate, necessarily. But like the films that have viewed the movement through white perspectives, those histories are, when it comes to their portrayal of African-American identities and experiences, necessarily distorted by their choice and emphasis. And in Selma, we finally have a Hollywood feature film that distorts history in precisely the opposite direction—a long overdue, and very welcome, choice and effect.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.