I was lucky enough to catch a pre-wide release showing of Selma earlier this week, when colleague Anthony Di Lorenzo and I braved Arctic weather to trudge to the multiplex. Overall, with a few caveats, I found the movie an effective piece of history that should have a positive impact on the public memory of the Black Freedom Struggle. I have quite a few thoughts about the film—many half-formed—but here I’ll just stick to a few of the themes that struck me most:
- The LBJ Depiction: fast and loose with many historical ‘facts,’ but the ends justify the means.
- Keeping the Black in the Black Freedom Struggle: the ‘white savior’ theme is unavoidable—but challenged; the historians’ age-old dilemma between power and agency is here—but maybe only by accident.
- Intra-movement Tensions: Valiant focus made possible by the above point, but SNCC is an unfortunate and ill-formed prop; consensus carries the day.
- A Cast of Thousands vs. the Biopic: ‘Whoa it’s awesome that you have James Orange and Bayard Rustin in there.’/’Why aren’t you telling me more about Orange and Rustin?!’
Much of the early reaction to Selma involves the film’s depiction of President Johnson. It could be seen as an injustice that a story based on a key moment in the Black Freedom Struggle brings first, for some, thoughts about a white politician. And I risk replicating that problem here by devoting my first and lengthiest thoughts on Selma about l’affaire LBJ. But the salvos launched by LBJ Library Executive Director Mark Updegrove and former LBJ aid Joseph Califano, Jr.—and the replies from Selma director Ava DuVernay (and snarky Twitter)—are grist for the historian’s mill.
“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.”
—Selma director Ava DuVernay (I’ve bookmarked this quote to use when pressed by my dissertation committee on any nettlesome claims in my research).
— Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) December 28, 2014
My quick take on the LBJ character (and I use character knowingly) is that, yes, what we know of the President’s actions and words in 1965 are flattened and dramatized to create a certain tension. For much of the time, the script conflates LBJ, Hoover, and even George Wallace, although early subtle differences eventually come to head between the dueling drawlers from Texas and Alabama. The moment when LBJ, frustrated by MLK’s refusals to slow down, glares into the camera and barks, “GET ME HOOVER!,” almost brought from me an audible guffaw. Hoover neither needed nor awaited any ‘go ahead’ from anyone in his maniacal quest to quash dissent.
But films based on historical events need not aspire to absolute fidelity to the historical record. I think this for many reasons: the “historical record” (official documents, memoirs by people with the time and resources and audiences required to author them) is often flawed; narrative tension and character development are always foregrounded in fictional accounts; etc.—I’m happy to take up this argument in comments or a subsequent post. So I don’t mind the loose treatment of LBJ by DuVernay, as long as it results in an accurate take on the general dynamic at play. And I think we end up with an honest macro picture of the MLK-LBJ relationship at the time, as well as LBJ’s overall approach to activism in the mid-60s. Like any good postwar liberal, LBJ loathed popular discord and used his considerable skills to contain or undermine actors who could rock the boat. We know, for example, that he sought to neutralize many of the community action programs built into his very own War on Poverty legislation even in 1965. Many of these community action programs were explicitly geared towards structural civil rights change, involving things like healthcare, housing conditions, police brutality, and welfare rights. (LBJ was quick to give disgruntled mayors a green light to eviscerate social activists who used OEO funds to challenge unjust local structures—a more accurate Oval Office yelp would have been, ‘GET ME DALEY!’).
It is unfortunate that the likes of Updegrove and Califano seem to have declared a crusade to ‘rescue’ LBJ’s legacy on civil rights at the cost of blasting what is, overall, a valid depiction of LBJ’s approach to dealing with civil rights activism in the mid- and late-60s. I look forward to a robust and ongoing dialogue about this.
The Black Freedom Struggle
The role of white lawmakers in the film leads me to the flip side of the coin: the useful manner in which the filmmaker keeps African Americans in the foreground of the movement. We are left with no doubt that this is a black movement, fostered and led by African Americans, with a focus on improving the lives of black people. That no major motion picture has ever come anywhere close to giving a dedicated treatment to the Black Freedom Struggle speaks volumes about Hollywood and popular memory of the movement. And much thought should be given to the fact that a striking number of creative forces for Selma—and last year’s profound Twelve Years a Slave—are members of the black diaspora with roots outside the United States.
Among DuVernay’s most strident defenses of the LBJ depiction boil down to her unwillingness to make another ‘white savior’ film about black lives. With this welcome approach, the film nevertheless runs the risk of eliding the profound issue of power and agency that is at the base of all good historical approaches to the civil rights movement and the Black Freedom Struggle. You need depictions of powerful white men being ‘asked’ or compelled to do things for marginalized people. Otherwise, you may end up implying the message: change comes about when you (people seeking change) finally get your act together and try really hard. If there’s one thing that I hope my students leave my US survey courses with, it is that rights are never granted without a fight. And I emphasize both fight and granted. This implies the hegemonic realities of power and even, tragically, occasional limits on agency. I like the way Selma approaches this theme, even if by dramatic happenstance. MLK is honest about the targeting of white (power’s) opinion and the placement of pressure on LBJ. And there are both promises and limits of black agency—tactics, words, and black bodies have a tremendous effect, but as both MLK and LBJ say throughout, the former is an activist and the latter is a lawmaker.
White civil rights activists come into play only after the persistence of black actions. Selma is up front about the unfortunate reality that the presence of white bodies on the march makes for a different type of media event. Furthermore, the film captures the southern civil rights movement at the tipping point that had great implications for sympathetic whites—between the Mississippi Freedom Movement (1963-1964) and the rise of the black power movement.
A Complex and Contentious Movement
Another laudable—but problematic—theme in Selma involves the depiction of tensions within the Black Freedom Struggle. The film accurately presents what we historians like to call a “complex movement.” Selma is careful to give screen time to a cross-section of full-time and occasional activists. Yet this strength also results in one of the weaker aspects of the script: the vague depiction of SNCC. In fact, the defenders of James Forman’s legacy have a much greater gripe than any members of the House of LBJ. We meet Forman as a baby-faced, simmering young man who, with John Lewis’ Robin to his Batman, has been toiling at the grassroots in Selma upon the arrival of MLK’s entourage. Forman’s (and by extension, SNCC’s) approach is incoherent and inconsistent. The film presents the SNCC/SCLC ‘rivalry’ as one of personality and generational differences, as opposed to one also based on longstanding tactical differences. We’re left with no understanding of SNCC in Alabama—other than an uncritical summation that the ‘students” efforts have failed.
By 1965, Forman was in his late-30s and had almost two decades of organizing experience between Chicago and the Deep South. He was a Korean War veteran, and held mature theoretical views on the ends and methods of civil rights activism. Although, from what I understand, he was feeling the frustration in 1965 that would eventually push him to a more militant stance, Forman was no brat. In the (filmic) end, everyone gets on board with MLK’s approach: Lewis splits with SNCC, Malcolm X sneaks into Selma and offers to take the heat off MLK as way to make non-violence acceptable, and even Forman—jaw clenched, steely-eyed—marches behind King. Here is where historians of the movement might take Selma to task. It is a ringing endorsement of MLK’s methods. After the rivalries are laid bare, circumstances seem to demand a consensus, and only then is activism effective.
A Cast of Thousands?
Selma walks a fine line between being an Altmanesque drama and an MLK biopic. I’m imagining some pretty intense conversations in the editing room. We get tantalizing glimpses of historical figures who have long been on the perimeter of the memory of the movement. Even historians have been slow to re-calibrate approaches beyond the “leader-led” movement. I almost jumped out of my seat when James Orange darkened the stage. I’ve come across Orange a few times in my own research, particularly during his time as an advance party for King’s Chicago gambit, where the big man toiled to create a multiracial alliance of gangs for the open housing protests. But we don’t really get to know Orange, nor are we told that it was Orange’s detainment that inspired the night march in which Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered. Bayard Rustin bounces in and out a few times, but we don’t get the magnitude of his Washington and New York connections. I also craved a postscript for Rustin and his verging-on-neo-conservative stances on the Vietnam War (anti-anti war) and Israel (harsh critique of Palestinian activists), among other post-1967 thoughts. Complicated dude!
Finally, I have some qualms about the gender dynamics in the film. Women are prevalent, for certain. Nurturing characteristics are emphasized: someone’s gotta cook for all those hungry ministers. Women provide a particular drama when they are beaten in the street. Yet we never see a moment of the women-led organizing efforts that historians know to be the foundation for much of the success in the southern civil rights movement. And I’m not sure what to make of depiction of Coretta Scott King. There are elements of ‘stand by your man,’ as well as the standard wife-as-softening-agent trope. But Scott King’s strength and resolution still shine. That’s a biopic I need. Maybe next Oscar season.