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Feeling Versus Fact: Reconciling Ava DuVernay’s Retelling of Selma

The film Selma is not honest, according to Julian Bond, civil rights leader, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and former chairman of the NAACP. “There has never been an honest movie about the civil rights movement,” Bond wrote in an email to The Politic. For that, he says, “We will have to wait a long, long time.”

Bond is one of many critics to question the historical credibility of Ava DuVernay’s film about the marches in Alabama that preceded the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Bond faults the film’s portrayal of the relationship between the SNCC and SCLC; many have critiqued its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson; others call into question its very mode of storytelling. The critical debate converges on the question of what makes for an “honest” historical portrait and whether the film’s narrative is the one that needs, for political and historical reasons, to be told.

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Annie Lee Cooper (portrayed by Oprah Winfrey) stands up, alone, in a dark lobby. Cooper walks from her bench to the registration booth, where a balding white bureaucrat in black vest and white shirt awaits. The exchange is slow, drawing out the pain. “Recite the constitution’s preamble,” sneers the man. Cooper pauses, braces herself, and begins reciting. Not more than a sentence in, the man interrupts. “How many county judges in Alabama?” The camera flips back to Cooper and lingers, watching her face drop not with dismay but with gritted teeth. Eyebrows raised in defiance, she responds, “67.” The man’s head quivers up and down with hateful pleasure: he is willing to push until she breaks. The nod turns into a smirk, anticipating Cooper’s reaction to his next words. “Name them.”

Selma opened in limited release on December 25, 2014 to rave reviews. Critics praised the film for its poignancy, its jarring use of violence, its inclusion of so many other movement leaders who had long since fallen out of the public eye, and its humanization of King. “Ms. DuVernay has stripped away layers of fond memory and retroactively imposed harmony to touch the raw, volatile political reality of the mid-1960s,” wrote A.O. Scott of the New York Times. “I have rarely seen a historical film that felt so populous and full of life, so alert to the tendrils of narrative that spread beyond the frame.”

In an interview with The Politic, Scott said Selma depicts less the history and more the feeling of the political and social turmoil of the mid-1960s. “Feature films are not history, feature films are historical fiction. That doesn’t mean they have a license to invent every event or misrepresent history, but it does mean that they do have great latitude. They’re telling fictional stories based on history,” he says. “In a case like this, it’s about capturing the mood, the feeling, and to some degree the meaning of what was happening.” For those like Scott, who argue that telling history is more than getting the facts straight, well-made historical films depict the mood of a time period more vividly than a textbook ever could; the scene of Cooper in a courthouse voter registration booth is one of the many ways that the film accomplishes this.

The stock, “white” narrative, as critical race theorists call it, is the go-to popular image of civil rights: it depicts President Johnson as the savior of a movement led only by King. Mark Harris of Grantland, writing much later than Scott and well after the firestorm of criticism about Selma’s treatment of history erupted, defended the film on these grounds: “This is the rare movie,” he wrote, “about civil rights told from the perspective of the oppressed rather than from that of their putative benefactors.” Yale African American Studies professor Crystal Feimster, seconds Harris. “This is about memory,” she said at Yale’s panel on the film. “The civil rights activists remember it [Selma] differently [than white politicians].” For many, the film exposes a perspective on civil rights that is normally excluded from public discourse.

For Feimster and others, Selma’s subjects and storyteller reclaim the memory of civil rights for a black audience. “Those of us who have been so excited about this movie in many ways have been plowing in other people’s fields, gleaning cotton from other people’s fields, and now we can finally have a little acre of our own. This is kind of a first in some ways,” said Feimster. The slavery metaphor is hard to miss.

In an interview with The Politic, Feimster emphasized that Selma is not licensed to tell a completely fabricated history –  “Don’t get me wrong – the historian in me loves accuracy,” she said. But, she explains, there is a legitimate place for historical memory that sacrifices exact accuracy in exchange for an unheard perspective. “For DuVernay, the central driving force of the narrative was about black people, and that’s an important narrative to tell,” Feimster argued. Thus, to combat historical misrepresentations of the civil rights movement, Selma may have to twist the facts. It might not deal LBJ or SNCC a fair hand, but it is very upfront about its goal: to be a film about black agency and movement strategy, from the perspective of the movement itself.

That narrative can be told, in part, because of the perspective of Selma’s director—a black woman who spent summers in a small town in between Montgomery and Selma. At the panel, Feimster noted, “We really do see a black woman telling the story.” With Selma, DuVernay clearly claims her own acre.

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President Johnson is barking to his secretary about King. “Are we not done…will this ever end?” he asks exasperatedly, referring, presumably, to the civil rights movement King is leading. When Johnson and King meet, minutes later, the camera lingers on Johnson’s hand as it gently forces King’s shoulder lower in his couch. Johnson patronizingly tells King that he will have to wait “just for a while” for his voting rights act to become part of the agenda. The scene clearly establishes a fraught relationship between King and Johnson: as King pushes Johnson, Johnson resists.

A wave of criticism about Selma’s treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson crested soon after glowing reviews like Scott’s had appeared.  Scott told The Politic, “I don’t think Johnson’s a villain – I think he’s there to represent partly the strangeness of King’s position at that time. I think what the movie shows, very clearly and very well, is the way that power worked in the United States.”

On the other hand, critics such as Mark Updegrove in Politico and Joseph A. Califano in the Washington Post blasted the film’s portrayal of LBJ. Califano and Updegrove, who was a former aide to Johnson and the latter the director of his presidential library, alleged that Selma  demonizes Johnson’s role in the movement, with Califano going so far as to claim that the President was responsible for the idea of the Selma marches (a statement which many historians have since discredited).

Updegrove and Califano sparked other, more cautious critiques from the likes of Daryll Pickney in the New York Review of Books and Andrew Young, the former Mayor of Atlanta who is shown at King’s side throughout the film. Young cautioned that the meetings between King and Johnson were in reality much friendlier and more cooperative than Selma makes them out to be. Pickney, having carefully reviewed several biographies of Johnson and King, concluded that Selma does indeed fail to get their relationship right.

These differing interpretations of LBJ’s relationship with King and the civil rights movement show how difficult it is for history to be objective. Yet Yale Professor David Blight points out, Selma “has all of the pretense of conveying an extremely important and powerful part of our history.” While Blight commends the film’s depiction of the bravery and courage of civil rights activists and the emphasis on the tactical and uncertain nature of protest, he thinks the movie fails the test of historical honesty when it comes to Johnson. Blight explained that unlike Django Unchained, a film whose violent, spaghetti-western-style depiction of slavery has no pretense of being a work of history, Selma professes to be treated as a historical work.

Blight does not object to Selma because of its minute, factual inaccuracies. Rather, he fears that the film leaves audiences with inaccurate takeaways – that a demonized Johnson will leave its modern audience, already skeptical of government, thinking that laws and politicians are enemies that need to be resisted, not allies that can serve a progressive purpose.

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James Forman and John Lewis sit at a table in the front of a schoolroom. They are not teaching; instead, a slew of SCLC members – James Bevel, Bayard Rustin, Hosea Williams, and King, among others – are interrogating them about Selma politics. Forman and Lewis (but especially Forman) are less than thrilled with SCLC’s arrival. They see Selma as their town, a place where they have established roots and committed themselves. SCLC, a fiery Forman snaps, will just come in, get some press, and leave the town worse off than it was in the first place. As the argument escalates, King intervenes. “It’s good grassroots work,” he soothes, referring to SNCC’s organizing. Forman, fuming, eventually backs down. But it is not clear, beyond King’s comment, what work or presence SNCC really does have in Selma.

For others, the treatment of LBJ is less concerning than the treatment, or lack thereof, of SNCC and its relationship to SCLC. “The film is a crude insult to SNCC,” wrote Glen Ford on Black Agenda Report. Ford believes we should “be angry at having our history treated like a Saturday morning cartoon.” Adolph Reed, Jr., a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article titled “The Real Problem with Selma” in which he argued, “DuVernay reduces the tension [between SCLC and SNCC] to an expression of some of the SNCC activists’ ultimately petty and juvenile turf-protectiveness. Political or strategic differences are beyond her purview.” Like Blight, Reed fears that scenes such as the face-off between SNCC and SCLC will distort the picture of civil rights for an entire generation of moviegoers.

Both Feimster and Scott agree that DuVernay could have done more with SNCC, but they feel that the scene described above reasonably hints at a complex historical relationship between SNCC and SCLC. Says Scott, “You get a sense, at least, of the tensions between the people who had been organizing on the ground and the big shot ministers who sort of roll into town and get all the credit.” Feimster added that DuVernay “can’t quite get at the whole complexity of it, so she just drops a line here, and the people who know the history can figure this narrative out, and for the people who don’t, it’s a tease.”

Reed is certain that Selma will only perpetuate the misconceptions that the civil rights movement was all about SCLC and King, that SNCC was just a bunch of angry students, and that movements can be boiled down to their leaders.  A movie’s responsibility to historical accuracy “depends on what claims the filmmakers and advocates want to make for it,” he told The Politic. For Selma, Reed sees a filmmaker, DuVernay, and her advocates claiming that the film tells a greater historical truth; yet Reed is troubled by this, give the film’s historical inconsistencies. Reed added, “I’m not convinced that it’s better to propagate or to reinforce what I would call the black-history-month-calendar approach to the struggle, because I just don’t think that the simplistic cartoonish understanding really helps people understand anything other than that there was an event.”

In many respects, Feimster and Scott want the same counter-narrative to the stock Hollywood version of the civil rights movement that Blight and Reed are looking for. But in other ways, the two camps each want a very different story. Blight wants a corrected tale that does justice to SNCC, SCLC and black agency without demeaning Lyndon Johnson’s confusing but ultimately crucial role in the movement; Feimster, a forceful reclaiming of the movement’s history from the eyes of a black woman. Blight does not believe in skewing facts to push back against the stock narrative; Feimster and her compatriots might argue that it takes a strong counter-narrative, in the form of black memory, to make a lasting dent in the stock narrative of the civil rights movement – a narrative of white memory. And that counter-narrative is at its strongest if it represents the US government as problematic and committed first and foremost to its own best interest.

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Selma’s problem is that it is to one critic a narrative of memory, to another a seizing of a feeling, to a third an ‘objective’ work of history. That so many critics and historians leave the film assessing it on these radically different planes might indicate that the film is unclear about which playing field it has chosen. Feimster praised DuVernay for dropping lines to so many different parts of the movement, but perhaps that is part of the problem. The movie cannot settle on a focus, a lens, a historical purpose — and as a result, neither can the critics.

Pro and anti Selma critics have become so polarized over the question of what makes history honest because of the relevance of Selma’s subject matter to our world today.  Protests against police brutality and attempts by the Supreme Court to deconstruct the Voting Rights Act have made the civil rights movement painfully pertinent. The history of the civil rights movement vividly teaches us lessons in protest movements, in strategy, in working with radically different forces and institutions that share goals. Getting Selma’s history wrong will have contemporary consequences.

“History is up for grabs,” said Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway at the panel. Holloway’s words emphasize, as the debate around Selma shows, that there are multiple ways to portray a historical moment. Memory, feeling, rigidly factual reporting – all have their place in piecing together an event like the Selma marches. Accounting for each one, honestly and fairly, is frustratingly difficult. We might, in Bond’s words, have to wait a long, long time.

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