Selma as good historical fiction

Mark Harris, whose credentials as reporter and cultural historian I don’t doubt after Five Came Back and Pictures at a Revolution, wrote an essay on the purported inaccuracies in Selma. I don’t agree with his defenses of Ava DuVernay’s characterization and direction of LBJ; thanks to the writing and Tom Wilkinson, this Lyndon Johnson is too thick and cornpone to suggest any energy for passing civil rights legislation, much less sympathy for the Negro cause. What an odd combination: explicit writing meets pre-Method acting (and by a British actor). And deadly.

Still, the essay includes robust defenses of Selma as historical fiction. I was taken with Harris’ analysis of LBJ’s exchange with King: “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one … That’s OK. That’s your job. That’s what you do … Meet me halfway on this, Martin.” Canny about grassroots pressure Selma is also alert to the tensions between extremes that good leaders use as fuel to make agonizing decisions which at first look like they please no one:

uVernay’s understanding of the importance of legacy to men in power is profound — she grasps it not just as an aftereffect, but as a motive. And the issue of legacy may be why so many of Selma’s attackers, who speak the language of establishment power, are bent on invalidating the film. The old saw that history is written by the victors is particularly relevant here, because Selma is the first mainstream movie about this era to raise the question of who, exactly, gets to claim ownership of that victory. To many historians and politicians, the triumph of civil rights is that, after much toil and strife, they were bestowed from above; to many African Americans, however, the victory is that those rights were taken — wrenched, with tremendous will, persistence, and effort, out of a system that was not in an immense hurry to offer them up. The former stance has long been the vantage point offered by most white filmmakers who have tackled this history. So it’s little wonder that DuVernay’s movie, the first on the subject by a woman of color and the first not to view mid-20th-century civil rights purely as an example of presidential, judicial, or legislative beneficence, has distressed those who, even 50 years later, would be far more at home in a room with President Johnson than with Dr. King. They are unnerved not only that Selma threatens to become “official” history, but that it represents a sea change in who has custody of that history.

To be honest, no one but LBJ biographers paid attention to Joseph Califano until a December WaPo column, and — I don’t mean this cruelly — how many years has he left in him? The president’s most magisterial biographer produced a fourth volume in 2012 that cast one nervous eye on Taylor Branch’s MLK tome; Caro knew enough about Johnson never to suggest that his genuine interest in passing civil rights legislation didn’t rely on vote-counting calculations.

Selma to my eyes isn’t a great movie but it’s a good one that I recommend watching; its mistakes we’ll account for after the Oscar hoopla fades, its rooting the Selma experience in the pain of black men and women not a redress so much as a mediation.

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