Ava DuVernay’s Selma is likely a top contender for the Academy Award for Best Picture. With its focus on the power of activism to force political and moral change, the highly praised film has the right message for our present moment of racial unrest. But not everyone is happy with the way it approaches history, and in particular, how it portrays President Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson “is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be ‘open season’ on the protesters,” writes Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum director Mark K. Updegrove in a column for Politico magazine. “This characterization,” he continues, “flies in the face of history.”
Even harsher is former Johnson staffer Joseph A. Califano Jr., who accuses DuVernay of taking “trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.” “In fact,” writes Califano, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”
That’s a huge exaggeration. Activists had been organizing in Selma, Alabama, for at least two years before Martin Luther King Jr. met with Johnson, and weeks prior to his meeting with the president, King and his allies had decided on Selma as the site for new action and protests. By the time Johnson suggested something similar to King, the plan was already in motion.
But more than that, that entire line of criticism is misplaced. Selma isn’t a documentary or even a dramatized history. It is a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history. In Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the investigation to solve the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964, is transformed into a story of FBI heroes, one that ignores the role of local activists in bringing the killers to justice and doesn’t touch the bureau’s famous antagonism—under J. Edgar Hoover—toward the civil rights movement.
Just as egregious is the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which shows a relentless Central Intelligence Agency—personified in Jessica Chastain as Maya—whose methods, including torture, lead to Osama Bin Laden and the military raid that killed him. The factual problem, as detailed in December’s Senate Intelligence Committee report, is that torture didn’t lead to unique intelligence. As such, it’s not clear that it helped find Bin Laden. But Bigelow made a choice to say otherwise, and in the context of the film, it’s defensible. Zero Dark Thirty—to my eyes at least—is less about the particulars of finding Bin Laden and more about the costs of obsession. What happens when you’re willing to give up everything for a single goal? What will you sacrifice? In this reading, torture is the moment when we—through Maya—commit to darkness in pursuit of our ends.
This is all to say that it’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. Why did the director opt for this view and not a different one? If she omits and distorts, why? What is she trying to communicate?
It’s with these questions in mind that we should approach Selma. But first, we should look at how DuVernay actually presents Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) and his relationship with King (played by David Oyelowo).
At worst, DuVernay depicts Johnson and King as wary allies. In the film, Johnson agrees with King on the need for a Voting Rights Act, but he wants him to wait—Johnson has a Great Society to build—and warns that he doesn’t have the votes to push another civil rights bill on the heels of the 1964 Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. It’s not that King and Johnson are enemies—they both want to dismantle Jim Crow—as much as they have different responsibilities and priorities. In order to act, Johnson needs a push. And King gives it to him.
Now, there’s a case that even this is unfair to Johnson. While it’s true he didn’t want to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—he needed votes for his economic program, and he didn’t want to alienate Southern Democrats—it’s also true that, in late 1964, Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write the “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act you can devise.” This draft was written with help from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and was the basis for the bill the leaders introduced in March 1965. The Johnson of Selma, in other words, is much more reluctant than the Johnson of reality.
This is most clear in the scenes with Hoover (played by Dylan Baker), where Johnson allows the FBI director to harass King’s family with evidence of his infidelity. This is a far cry from real life. Yes, Johnson knew the contents of the FBI’s file on King, but there’s no evidence he conspired to smear him. That was a Hoover project, with no connection to Selma or the Voting Rights Act. Johnson may have been frustrated, but he wasn’t stupid, and attacking King would have only radicalized the movement, pushing it closer to its more militant activists. As much as King needed Johnson, Johnson needed King.
Which brings us back to our original question, arguably the only one you should ask of a movie that fictionalizes historical events: Why did the director make these choices? What is DuVernay trying to tell us when she makes Johnson more reluctant than he was, or when she shifts the timeline to give him a role in the FBI’s smear tapes? It’s possible these choices reflect ignorance, but I don’t think that’s right—Selma gets so much right about the period that it’s hard to believe DuVernay just didn’t know. It’s also possible they reflect malice, but again, Johnson isn’t the villain of the film—that distinction goes to Tim Roth’s (delightful) George Wallace, who doesn’t care that he’s on the “wrong side of history.”
If you need a clue, look at the people portrayed in the movie. If you don’t count Martin Sheen, who plays federal Judge Frank Minis Johnson Jr., Johnson and Wallace are the only politicians. Almost everyone else is an activist or an ordinary citizen: Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Toussaint’s Amelia Boynton, Wendell Pierce’s Hosea Williams, Keith Stanfield’s Jimmie Lee Jackson, Stephan James’ John Lewis, Jeremy Strong’s James Reeb, André Holland’s Andrew Young, and many, many others.
Selma, simply put, is about the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda, and it engages history from their perspective. By hardening Johnson—and making him a larger roadblock than he was—DuVernay emphasizes the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.
By those terms, Selma mostly succeeds. But there are flaws. “Except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed,” writes historian Gary May for the Daily Beast. “Annie Lee Cooper, well played by [Oprah] Winfrey, is shown trying but failing to register to vote. We are not told that Cooper had been able to vote without hindrance when she lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But when she returned to Selma in 1962 to care for her aged mother, she lost that right.”
If Selma could have been better, it wasn’t because DuVernay didn’t do justice to Lyndon Johnson, but because there was so much to show about the ordinary people of Selma, and we—as viewers—don’t see it.