Truth or fiction in ‘Selma’ movie? You can’t mix them willy-nilly
by Allen Best
Everybody in the Olde Town theater in suburban Denver was gone except for my companion and me when credits for “Selma” finished. At the very end, after credits unrolled for grips, hairstylists and others, came a disclaimer, moving so fast I could barely read it. It said, I think, that this movie was not a documentary. It was a story. Liberties were used to advance the narrative.
Some details can be altered in films to move the action, but filmmaker Ava DuVernay crossed the line in “Selma” to create dramatic tension. She depicted President Lyndon Johnson as a foil to the higher aspirations of the Rev. Martin Luther King. She blended important truths with significant falsehoods. You can’t have it both ways.
The facts were compelling enough, and the movie gets most of it right. It’s a story of bravery and courage. Influenced by Gandhi, King marshaled his followers to commit to the powerful practice of non-violence. It was terribly difficult to remain non-violent in the face of the brutality of local police in Alabama out to defend the unconstitutional mechanisms of Jim Crow. Martin Luther King emerges as a hero any way you look at this story.
In “Selma,” the movie-maker has Johnson trying hard to dissuade King from pushing ahead with the march from Selma to the Alabama state capitol of Montgomery in early 1965. Voting rights for blacks would just have to wait, as he intended to push for his Great Society. Interspersed with vulgarity, he charms, cajoles and bullies King, which comports with the historical record of Johnson’s style in moving public policy.
But did Johnson try to stop King’s marches to Montgomery? The most powerful evidence comes from an eye-witness account of the meetings provided by Andrew Young, then a young aide to King and later the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and two-term mayor of Atlanta. He told The Washington Post that the meetings were cordial. In fact, there’s some evidence that instead of trying to get King to stop the marches, Johnson encouraged them—as a way of helping develop the support he needed to push the Voting Rights Act that he had proposed in December 1964.
Also fictional is the depiction of Johnson trying to disrupt King’s marriage. As The Washington Post notes, while the FBI did send Coretta King evidence of her husband’s martial infidelities, this effort did not seem to come from FBI headquarters in Washington, let alone the White House.
Both the Washington Post and New York Times during recent weeks have had much about this controversy. Gay Talese, who was a reporter for the New York Times on the Pettus Bridge at Selma on Bloody Sunday, defended the filmmaker’s version. The Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. defended the liberties taken by the filmmaker. He seems to fear Johnson emerging as great white savior, with a diminished role for King and the civil rights activists.
Again, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t base a movie on a great truth of history and then bend that history for convenience. The history we should celebrate was at both end, the grassroots and the pinnacles of power. It took both.
Johnson was a complex individual and, above all, a politician. But it’s clear enough that he was driven by strong conviction in pushing for adoption of civil rights legislation, a point that eventually emerges in the movie.
Yet Martin Luther King and his associates and lieutenants, including Ralph Abernathy and others, emerge a half-century later as even more significant figures. The strength of the civil rights movement was in local churches and lunchroom counters, in the willingness of Rosa Parks to go to jail in Montgomery and John Lewis getting his head bashed in Selma.
We have no holiday honoring Lyndon Johnson, but on Monday we will observe a Martin Luther King Day. In the semi-circle of monuments in Washington D.C., none celebrate the words of Lyndon Johnson, but there, as in the delightful monument at City Park in Denver, you will find this sentence from King’s March 25, 1965, speech in Selma: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
This essay was originally published in the Jan. 14, 2015, issue of The Denver Post. For those engaged in this history, I recommend further reading at the New York Times Learning Network website, offers original front-page stories from three days during March 1965. Be sure to read the jump pages, too. For students of Colorado history, one of those stories notes that after Bloody Sunday in Selma, a number of Republican politicians called on President Lyndon Johnson to hurry up on the Voting Rights Act. Among them was Colorado Gov. John Love.