Monday, January 19, 2015

“Selma”, the Movies & History: Victories & Casualties

MLK facing a police mob at Edmund Pettis Bridge

C & I saw Selma last night, and it was a fine film in many ways. It celebrates a break-through in the quest for civil rights for all Americans. It celebrates the battles and sacrifices that success required in the face of the deep racism of Alabama and across the Deep South. (Attention to those problems in the North would come later.) David Oyelowo's portrayal of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the hero of the film and true hero in American history, was very well performed.(I haven’t most of the other best actor nominees this year, but it is hard to see how he could have missed out. The Golden Globes were certainly right to nominate him.) Playing a historical character of such charisma as Dr. King presents a terrific challenge, and he met that challenge very well. Tom Wilkinson portrayed President Lyndon Johnson, which, on a trivial note, raises the question of why two Brits play the must play the roles of these two seminal American figures. (This is an ongoing phenomenon. Wilkinson has portrayed Ben Franklin and former Secretary of State James Baker, while Daniel Day Lewis portrays Lincoln. Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher hardly seems even the balance of trade.) Wilkinson’s acting captured LBJ only moderately well, but the portrayal of LBJ’s larger-than-life persona was the least of the problems. The greatest problem with the film is betrayal of truth in history. 

I almost didn’t write this blog because Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, David Kaiser in Time, and Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books have all written appropriate criticisms of the misrepresentation of LBJ’s role in these events. I was first alerted to the problem by this NYT article. I recommend all of these for your consideration. LBJ worked with King and the civil rights movement. These two leaders weren’t pals—each wary of the other (and eventually a deep rift developed over King’s criticism of the war in Vietnam). But in this cause, they were very much on the same team, working from different perspectives, but the contribution of each was crucial. LBJ was not an obstacle, but a player. And as the film portrays—and as any sense of reality dictates—differences of opinions and clashes of personalities and organizations (such as SCLC and SNCC) are inevitable and provide their own drama within the movement. Some defend the decision to portray LBJ as an impediment with the claim that a dramatic foil was needed, but the demagogue George Wallace and Alabama racists provided more than enough in the way of genuine bad guys to create the appropriate dramatic conflict. This libel (or would a film be a slander?) of LBJ is unnecessary and disheartening. LBJ is a figure of enormous complication and titanic flaws, but we don’t need to enhance his flaws nor pass over his great accomplishments in civil rights. In addition to making him an obstacle of civil rights, the film suggests that Johnson approved the use of Hoover’s salacious material about King. False. This material—an audio tape—was delivered to SCLC in December 1964 without Johnson’s knowledge or approval. Johnson, like Kennedy before him and Nixon after him, feared J. Edgar Hoover. The extent that Hoover exercised such a free hand was based on the fear these presidents felt about the material Hoover might have on them or their associates with which he could harm them.

Does this distortion of history (the truth) matter? Isn’t this just Hollywood? Yes, it does matter. And yes, Hollywood distorts history on a regular and continuing basis. But here, as in many cases before, to distort history not only does a disservice to unwary viewers (most viewers), it diminishes the film by suggesting that the film has an agenda. In this instance, the film, seems a reaction to Mississippi Burning and others like it that over emphasized white leadership in civil rights. In that light, this film seeks to portray the black actors as paramount and the whites as resistant, from those whites passive like LBJ to those aggressive like Wallace and the Alabama racists. To the extent that the distortion of Johnson’s role diminishes the film—and it does—it diminishes our appreciation of this crucial time and great accomplishment in American history. Hollywood does teach (oh, heaven help us!), and when a film of this gravity and significance fails in this regard—even partially, as the film gets a lot right—it rends the garment of our shared history and national life. No film, no book, can capture reality totally and with complete accuracy. But in the this film, the deviation is all the more disheartening because of the importance of the story told and the available historical record. 
The Politician & the Prophet celebrate a collaboration that resulted in the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965.

Will filmmakers learn? Not as long as the money keeps rolling in. In reading about Selma, I came upon discussions of another Oscar nominee, The Imitation Game, the biopic about the British genius and gay man, Alan Turing. As this NYRB article demonstrates, Hollywood (which really messes with reality in biopics) couldn’t tell the fascinating true story of this hero, either. This review, by Alex von Tunzelmann in The Guardian, points out that the film portrays Turing as committing treason (by failing to reveal a Soviet spy at Bletchley Park), when he most certainly did not know the man or of any such spying. As von Tunzelmann puts it: “Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason? Creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man’s reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another.” Why these inventions? Apparently, screenwriters believe themselves more capable and interesting than history. 

The truth of history really is quite dramatic if you give it a try, Hollywood.

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