As a dramatic rendering of history, the movie Selma trumps almost any artwork we can remember. It stirs the imagination, expands the spirit, and breaks — but finally resurrects — the heart, as we are presented a compelling vision of a
just mission that, finally, rose triumphant out of tragedy and did indeed overcome.
It is impossible to see the film without gaining some understanding of the courage, will to endure, and outright heroism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — whose legacy and incompletely fulfilled mission have both been commemorated during the past week.
Beyond its value as a testimonial to a martyr and to the overdue social reordering that he did so much to begin, Selma is an extraordinarily powerful and aesthetically soaring film experience. Directing, acting, cinematography — the whole package. Many have wondered why the movie failed to gain more Academy Award nominations than it did.
We ourselves have a misgiving — and unquestionably it has been shared by others. It was given most direct expression by one Joseph Califano, who served President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the period of the march on Selma led by Dr. King and the epochal voting rights legislation that it led to and that LBJ sponsored.
In the movie, LBJ is presented as antagonistic, if not to King's voting-rights mission as such, then at least to its timing. "Contrary to the portrait painted by Selma, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort," wrote Califano in an op-ed for The Washington Post. He called attention to an extended telephone conversation between the president and the civil rights leader — a recording of which is now easily accessible to anyone — in which the two men are clearly collaborating completely on the voting-rights agenda. LBJ even urges King to pick out a place like Selma to dramatize the issue.
For reasons known only to herself, the film's director and co-writer, Ava DuVernay, chose not only to distort this reality, she even invents a scene in which Johnson, determined to halt King's momentum, urges FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to send bugged evidence of King's extramarital lapses to his wife. History is clear on this point: LBJ did no such thing. Such tapes were made and circulated, but during the tenure of Johnson's predecessor, John F. Kennedy, under the authorization of Attorney General Robert Kennedy. And Hoover, and Hoover alone, was the instigator.
History is also clear that any delay on voting-rights legislation suggested by LBJ was both limited and purely tactical: to allow Medicare and other Great Society legislation to clear the Congress before having to buckle down and dismantle — as dismantle he did, in short order — the inevitable filibuster against his voting-rights bill.
We understand that DuVernay may have wanted to maximize the role of blacks in their own liberation and to offset the excessive credit so often given to alleged white benefactors in previous films about the civil rights era. But to unfairly tarnish LBJ in this case does nothing to ennoble MLK.
To their mutual credit, the two giants were indeed partners in the cause of establishing equality in voting rights. By definition, the extension of justice is not a zero-sum affair. Nor should the allocation of credit be.