Finally saw the movie Selma last week, right after the MLK Day march. Found it to be an exhilarating fictionalized rendition of one of the more important moments in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is, above all else, a reminder that this struggle is primarily of, by and for black folks. And yet, most of the press, even prior to the movie opening, was about how it was historically inaccurate and, more importantly to these critics, misrepresented and denigrated (I chose my words carefully here) the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson who was president at the time of the struggle.
In Politico’s “What Selma Gets Wrong,” (12/22/14), LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove charged that the fictional film’s depiction of the epic voting-rights battle in the Alabama town portrayed the relationship between [Martin Luther] King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson as “contentious.” This served, Updegrove scolded, to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement by suggesting that the president himself stood in the way of progress.” Johnson adviser Joseph Califano struck next in the Washington Post (12/26/14)suggesting that in fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Califano asks of the filmmakers: Did “they” [quotes are mine] feel no obligation to check the facts? You even had Post columnist Richard Cohen (1/5/15) lamenting that Selma is a lie that tarnishes Johnson’s legacy to exalt King’s.
Without getting too much into the details of the controversy and who gets to determine “facts”, the accusation here is that the black female director Ava Devernay (and by implication the black community)was willing to distort the history of the white role in the civil rights movement to promote black biases of black importance in the struggle. In other words, the black community doesn’t care about accuracy, about truth and “justice,” but only about “just us” (i.e.the black community promoting its own importance in history).
There is, in fact, evidence to support DeVernay’s representation of LBJ and I would submit that it is the white supremist myth of white people bringing justice to the poor downtrodden blacks that is the bias that DuVernay is challenging and has caused all the criticism of the film. That the “us” in “just us” is really white folks angered that it is the myth of white moral superiority that is being challenged and that DeVarnay’s film provides a healthy corrective.
It is important to note why the fight about Selma The Movie is so important now. The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner highlight the increase in police violence in low income non-white communities or perhaps it has just increased the exposure of police brutality due to the new technologies of cell phones and social media. Either way, it has increased racial tensions. At the same time, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 combined with efforts to roll back voting rights with new voter suppression laws in many states, has also contributed to increased awareness of racial inequality. In volatile times, society and the dominant culture are especially interested in how they can control the “story” to maintain the status quo.
While there are many documentaries which present an excellent and accurate record of the civil rights struggle (notably in my mind, “Eyes on the Prize”) this is more about how popular cultural representations shape a society’s perspective. I would venture to say that most Americans’ deepest emotional beliefs about their identity and place in history and the world are formed at least in part, if not wholly, through the cultural representations around them rather than through academic research and factual reasoning. In this context it appears that most white Americans still believe that white people are innately superior to black people by virtue of our role in helping black people escape their oppression and poverty (the cause of which is conveniently vague –oh yeah, there was slavery, but I wasn’t alive then so its not my fault, besides we were the good guys in WW!! saving the Jews from the Nazis–which gets two weeks in most American high school curricula while slavery gets one day).
Of course these days popular and social media far outweigh what you learn in school as the social arbiters so I would like to take a moment here to put Selma in the context of the factual history vs. the other fictionalized media accounts of racial struggle and racial advancement in the last few years.
Even before it was released on Christmas Day, Selma was under attack. And I admit the historian in me felt that, since the film so closely mirrors actual events there should be some effort to be factually honest and the quotes from the Johnson library did disturb me. But the facts offered by the film’s critics do far more to distort the reality of King’s relationship with Johnson than the fictional film does.
The sometimes bitter tactical divisions between LBJ and King are not an invention of the filmmakers. Here’s an account by Bruce Hartford in The Selma Voting Rights Struggle; March to Montgomery, which notes that the attempt to lead a voting-rights march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery was happening at the same time Johnson was first sending ground troops to Vietnam:
Behind the scenes, President Johnson pressures Dr. King to cancel the Tuesday march…. …news stories and images of Marines wading ashore to “defend democracy” in Vietnam clash with images of real-life American democracy in action on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Johnson [was] furious, and wants no risk of any repeat violence on Tuesday that might compete with his public relations strategy, or continue to give the lie to his “freedom” rhetoric.
If Johnson was actually the architect of the Selma strategy, as Califano asserts, you might wonder why civil rights activists were staging sit-ins at the Justice Department and the White House to protest the Johnson administration’s failure to protect marchers. These sit-ins were not invented by the filmmakers, nor was the anger LBJ expressed in response to them. Here’s Johnson afterwards telling his aide Bill Moyers what should be said to King–not from the movie script, but from a tape made by the White House recording system:
I would take a much tougher line than we’re going to with him. I think that it’s absolutely disgraceful that they would get in the Justice Department building and have to be hauled out of there. And I don’t care if we never serve another hour. They’re going to respect the law while they do. He better get to behaving himself or all of them are going to be put in jail … I think that we really ought to be firm on it myself. I just think it’s outrageous what’s on TV. I’ve been watching it here, and looks like that man’s in charge of the country and taking it over. I just don’t think we can afford to have that kind of character running. And I’d remind him what he had said and take a very firm line with him.”
Threatening to throw Martin Luther King in jail–that’s rather “contentious,” wouldn’t you say? The words of someone who is “at odds” with King?
The part of the film that seems to have most riled Johnson’s defenders is the film’s suggestion–not directly stated, but implied–that Johnson authorized FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to use secret tape recordings of sexual encounters against the civil rights leader. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Nick Kotz quotes from a memo written to Hoover by one of his top aides, Cartha DeLoach, who had just delivered a summary of a particularly incriminating tape to Johnson’s chief assistant, Walter Jenkins. DeLoach said Jenkins told him he would pass on the material to the president, adding:
Jenkins was of the opinion that the FBI could perform a good service to the country if this tape was released to the press.
Finally, the larger picture of LBJ promoted in his legacy touts him as the follower of FDR, and I respect his War on Poverty programs which were instrumental in reducing the economic gap between white and black families more than any other policy before or since that time. But this should not permit us to ignore the historical reality of a politician who had to survive as a Senator in segregationist Texas. Whatever Johnson’s feelings and long term intent, it is a fact that for 20 years –from 1939 to 1955 — Johnson voted a straight 100% segregationist ticket.
The thing about the attacks on the film Selma is that they distort the relationship between King and Johnson as it is actually portrayed in the film. In fact, the movie presents him as a complicated figure who under prodding accomplishes something great. (The speech he gives in support of the Voting Rights Act near the end of the film is an emotional high point.) But he’s not the moral center of the film – that’s King. And the portrayal of King is also not that of a sainted hero, but of an organizer with strategies for using direct action such as public marches to expose state violence against black people. It also shows how this strategy is viewed as superficial by the grassroots activists in the younger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and alludes to the conflict between King and Malcolm X. Duvernay also uses these dynamics to pose larger ongoing historical questions of strategies of struggle in the black community such as whether political (W.E.B. DuBois) or economic strategies (Booker T. Washington) should be given priority.
In USA Today (1/7/15), Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote a response to the complainers:
Any effort to hijack the attention this film richly deserves because of its portrayal of LBJ reflects everything that has been wrong with most civil rights films from Mississippi Burning to The Help – films that concern themselves principally with the heroism of white people in a movement that was created, driven and shaped by black people.
The most notable one “Mississippi Burning” (1988)is an almost pure fiction set around the Civil Rights struggle, To this day, “Mississippi Burning” is still cited as one of those movies made by white Hollywood liberals to make white liberals the heroes of the Civil Rights movement while relegating his black characters to little more than noble victims.While it only won one Oscar for Cinematography, it was nominated in numerous categories including best, actor, best director and best film.
But let’s look at other more recent films. In 2012, Lincoln a movie notable for portraying how President Lincoln and the all white Congress passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery (how could it be otherwise since blacks couldn’t vote?). Lincoln took top honors at the Academy Awards with 12 nominations. A year earlier we had The Help (2011) where Jessica Chastain (white southern woman) received an Oscar as Best supporting Actress for her role “helping” the “help” in her town get their due recognition and respect. To give credit where it is due, two of the black actresses – Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis received Oscars as well.
Going back to the 2009 Oscars, we had a double feature — the year where everyone – black and white got Oscars. For her leading role in The Blindside, Sandra Bullock received an Oscar for her chirpy portrayal of an NRA gun toting white Republican Mom who both saves a young black football player from the ghetto and his crack addled Mom and helps him become an NFL star. At the same awards ceremony the black actress Monique received a supporting actress award for her role in Precious as a vicious self indulgent Welfare Mom who let’s her boyfriend sexually abuse her daughter. The Blind Side is based on a true story – Hollywoodized version. Precious was, in fact, a serious and controversial film. But in both cases it is interesting to see what stereotypes America rewards for which community. What is a poor young African American girl or boy to do when looking for role models?
We can easily go back through the films that were recognized in recent years and see the white hand-print. Somehow it still seems as if the black community is offered the Caliban roles of the “primitive” with a white Prospero sitting up high and pulling the strings (i.e., In Monster’s Ball, the role for which Hallie Berry won best actress and established her rise to fame, her character ends up being “saved” by the white guy who executed her husband who was on death row. Even in (1996) Ghosts of Mississippi, the story of Medgar Evers is told from the point of view of the white star Alex Baldwin who “helps” Whoopi Goldberg (who did win an Oscar) get justice for the murder of her husband, Medgar Evers.
While my memory may be a little faulty and we can argue statistics of who got awards, who was the lead character and what kind of role they played … you get the general picture. The winner gets to tell the story and sets the cultural representations and in the United States that is still predominantly both the liberal and conservative white supremist community. And in the white community’s vision I would suggest that the black community either doesn’t exist at all (Lincoln) or is the benign helping hand trying to end the horrors the black community faces.
At this point it is important to note that — when it comes to Selma, the Oscar Academy only gave the film only one – one — nomination as best movie. No nominations – none – for actors or directors or other technical categories. You might wonder why this is important. Outside of the fact that the Oscar Awards (as one of the biggest TV watching communal experiences next to the Super Bowl and probably surpassing the President’s State of the Union address) is still the major determinant in whether or not a film gets distributed or actors get more roles.
Not only does lack of Academy support for Selma have a negative financial impact on individuals in the multi-billion film dollar business, but some folks have suggested that the academy has specifically set out to punish Selma and the black community for daring to suggest that it is actually black folks, not white, who are in charge of ending black oppression. This is not an unreasonably assumption since the Oscars still represent the main cultural arbiter of the dominant culture in the film industry.
White society is threatened whenever any group or cultural representation messes with this long standing myth of the beneficent (and morally, intellectually and emotionally superior) white person taking pity on poor ignorant black folk. As long as we stick to the basic biological superiority we don’t have to look at real causes of who is responsible for racial oppression and how it is used to prop up all types of class, race and gender oppression.
Thus young black women are the main group stuck in minimum wage jobs because they are less intelligent and not hard workers (which also justifies not paying them more) not because for hundreds of years slavery and segregation kept them out of jobs that allowed for wealth accumulation and which were available to white people. Even white women, if you consider that white women were often able to have some access to accumulated wealth through their husbands (if they were willing to put up with subjugation under marriage). Black men, on the other hand, again due to the history of slavery and segregation, could not offer the same potential resources to black women.
I was fired from McDonald’s because I don’t “fit the profile.” What profile? Well, my boss never said. But she did say: “There are too many black people in the store.” And she did say: “We need to get the ghetto out of the store.” And: “It’s dark in here and needs more lightening.”
I was fired from McDonald’s because I don’t “fit the profile.”
What profile? Well, my boss never said. But she did say:
“There are too many black people in the store.”
And she did say: “We need to get the ghetto out of the store.”
And: “It’s dark in here and needs more lightening.”
If one can keep the myth of benign white superiority alive one does not have to consider how the institution of slavery divided the working class both before and after the civil war, resulting in two types of workers and the exclusion of people of color from unions for many years. It just seems natural that unions which are made up of white middle class workers with good jobs and benefits are due to whites’ superior work ethic and skills while most nonwhite workers are relegated to the category of the poor and are not even called workers, even if they work 60 hour weeks with no sick days in the informal economy.
If you have a young black man shot down in the street by a white or even nonwhite cop who represents the white supremist power establishment and the cop’s guilt depends on whether you believe the intent of the cop was to murder the young man, who are you going to believe? Because, if there is no other physical evidence (and sometimes even if there is), in a federal civil rights case of a criminal nature, that is the standard you have to meet – to prove the officer’s intent was to murder the young man because of his race, not just the effect of his actions. Will you believe the cop representing the moral superiority of the white power structure or the young man who has been labeled as a morally inferior thug? If Michael Brown were white he would probably be perceived as a young man with no record who probably played football in high school and was headed off to college in the fall. A young man who was sowing his wild oats ripping off a couple of cigars and maybe, at worst, had poor judgment in how he reacted to the actions of a police officer. But certainly not a life threatening figure. And that is how we end up with a black Attorney General (one of the success stories of the civil rights movement) failing to bring charges, even at the Federal civil rights level, against the officer for the murder of Michael Brown.
So why is it so important to idealize LBJ at the expense of the black community? Why is it so important to keep alive the myth that beneficent whites are necessary to help lift black people out of racial oppression? (hint: Without the myth we might notice that without the white community maybe black people in the United States would never would have been enslaved in the first place).