Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Alabama town that became a flashpoint for the issue of black voting rights in 1965, has attracted a lot of attention the last few weeks, and not all of it positive. At issue is the question of historical accuracy, particularly in the film’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Selma depicts as taking a largely adversarial role toward King’s protests and the eventual march from the small town of Selma to the Alabama capital of Montgomery. Critics and historians have questioned some of the details of the screenplay, rewritten by DuVernay from a script by credited screenwriter Paul Webb that reportedly focused as much on Johnson as King: Did Johnson oppose the march? How complicit, if at all, was Johnson in the F.B.I.’s harassment of King? Was the voting rights bill that followed the march always on Johnson’s agenda, or an issue forced by the King-led protests?
DuVernay has remained a staunch defender of her film through it all, and she recently picked up a powerful ally in the form of Gay Talese, the veteran journalist who covered the events of the film for The New York Times nearly 50 years ago. At a luncheon for the film yesterday, Talese offered effusive praise, stating: “I was on the Pettus Bridge and I watched the mayhem, the madness of Sheriff Clark. She got it. I was there. I saw it. She wasn’t there, but she got it. When I was seeing the film, I was seeing what I remembered, truly remembered.” Talese expanded on that sentiment in a letter to the editor in today’s New York Times, one of several weighing in on the subject.
It’s an expected and somewhat wearying controversy that raises some interesting points about the particulars of DuVernay’s film while missing the larger point. At yesterday’s luncheon, DuVernay said, “I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don't begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.” There are two ways of parsing that: One as a wishy-washy statement that history means whatever DuVernay wants it to mean—incorrect, in my view—the other as a plea to get the same artistic license other filmmakers have in depicting history, and the right to tell history from the perspective of the black men and women on the front lines of the struggle, rather than the white politicians at a distance from it.
What’s lost in the sparring over whether DuVernay gets particular points right—and some of those points, particularly Johnson’s supposed complicity with Hoover, are certainly worth discussing—is the nuance that informs every aspect of the film. To say the film depicts the relationship between King (played by David Oyelowo) and Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) as complex is an understatement. Johnson is played as sympathetic to King’s cause, but also as a canny operator who has his own political agenda and who feels like he’s done his duty toward the cause with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When pressured, he turns hostile, and behind closed doors, he expresses some of the prejudices to which he’s ostensibly opposed. He’s shown as a reluctant, and perhaps momentary, antagonist, but hardly the villain of the piece. King, too, is portrayed as a savvy man who isn’t deaf to the criticism that his approach puts lives in danger, and who’s tormented when those criticisms prove accurate.
In the end, the film shows history as being moved forward by the push and pull between the two leaders, but also—and above all—by the grass-roots efforts of those doing the marching. It’s not, in other words, like any other depiction of the era, and it would be a shame if the controversy were to cast too great a shadow over Selma. Any depiction of history is sure to prompt debate, particularly depictions of recent history that remains remarkably relevant to what’s happening today, like Selma. It’s the responsible reaction to let those discussions enrich the experience of the film, not invalidate it.