A timeline of the ‘Selma’ controversy

01.07.15 2 years ago 22 Comments

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As Ava DuVernay's “Selma” moves out into wide release Friday, just 10 days shy of the Martin Luther King holiday on Jan. 19, the film finds itself in a tug-of-war over accuracy and dramatic license. If you've only skimmed the headlines or caught wind peripherally, here's a quick timeline of some of the debate's highlights.

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December 22: Things begin just before the holiday, when Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, blasts the film's depiction of the King/Johnson dynamic at Politico. “'Selma' misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship – contentious, the film would have you believe,” he writes. He then details how Johnson's feet-dragging on the issue of voting rights was less about simple trepidation than politicking and finding the best way to time out the series of events so that Congress wouldn't stop it cold:

“Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process – and a pragmatist – he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we'll tackle voting rights.

“And yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation. But Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King's former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit: 'Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn't have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e kept saying, 'I just don't have the power. I wish I did.' When we left, I asked Dr. King, 'Well, what did you think?' He said, 'I think we've got to figure out a way to get this president some power.'”

December 26: Joseph A Califano Jr. – Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 – is compelled to write an op-ed in The Washington Post denigrating the film's depiction of the nation's 36th President. After asking “what's wrong with Hollywood,” he writes that “the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.” Furthermore:

“In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted – and he didn't use the FBI to disparage him. On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: 'There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.'”

He lays out his rebuttal with links to history throughout, but closed with the curious demand, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”

December 28: DuVernay fires back. “[The] notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so,” she Tweets. Her assertions go to the “now, not later” importance of the movement. “LBJ's stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn't fantasy made up for a film,” she writes, pointing to a 2013 New Yorker story that covered the issue in detail. The “bottom line,” she concludes, “is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or [an] LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”

December 31: Writing for The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler gets a few historians on the record, including Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama – The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,” who says, “Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking. But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, 'Not only is this not true, it's the opposite of the truth.” Others, like Julian E. Zelizer and Gary May, join the chorus by noting the delicacy of the debate over how credit for the movement has been disseminated. Offering context, Schuessler writes:

“Julian E. Zelizer, the author of the new book 'The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society,' said it recalled the moment in the 2008 primary when Mrs. Clinton declared that Dr. King's dream of equality only 'began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act' of 1964, prompting accusations that she was playing down Dr. King's role as part of her own effort to best an African-American political rival…Johnson has been the focus of a rehabilitation campaign among historians and others eager to burnish a legacy shadowed by the Vietnam War and by a lingering popular view of him as 'a Southern racist in liberal clothing,' as Professor Zelizer put it.

More heatedly, the notion that Johnson “had anything to do with the [FBI surveillance] tape” is “truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.,” author David J. Garrow adds, before settling on this statement with which most interviewed seem to concur: “The real story wasn't about a president who didn't want voting rights. It was about a president who couldn't get them through. And it was the civil rights movement that made that possible.”

December 31: The grist mill keeps turning at The Washington Post, where writer Karen Tumulty interviews former Atlanta mayor, U.N. ambassador and one of King's young lieutenants, Andrew Young. “It was not very tense at all,” Young says of the King/Johnson relationship. “He and Martin never had a confrontation.”

January 2: The hits keep coming in the new year as May gets his own op-ed space at The Daily Beast to promote his book on the events depicted in the film and take umbrage with factual points. Despite the film expressly being about the people on the ground in Selma, he curiously bemoans that “except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma”s citizens displayed.” He nit-picks things like showing Americans watching the Selma events unfold on television live when in fact they did not see that footage for a number of hours.

January 5: Things stay heated at The Washington Post as opinion writer Richard Cohen chimes in. Again leaning on a “what's wrong with Hollywood” tone, the paper forwards further dissatisfaction. Calling DuVernay's response a “so's-your-mother” one that “ought to be beneath” her, then casually disrespects with “maybe it's not.” To wit:

“She not only impugned Califano as an LBJ mouthpiece but she also ignored her other critics…An earlier tweet from DuVernay was even worse. 'Notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.' Arguably, the idea that a march should be held in Selma – as opposed to some other place – was primarily King's. But to turn a disagreement over who came up with the idea, King or Johnson, into something 'offensive' to virtually the entire civil rights leadership is itself 'jaw dropping.' Both the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson wanted the same thing – to kill Jim Crow dead.

January 5: Different fuel is tossed onto the fire when Leida Snow, writing for The Jewish Daily Forward, charges that the film “airbrush[es] Jewish contributions to civil rights.” Expanding on that:

“In the new film, Dr. King makes a dramatic appeal to people of all races and religions to come and join him in Selma. Hundreds do, as though for the first time, and Dr. King is shown embracing a Greek Orthodox priest*. Also visible among many whites is a Catholic priest and a minister. This is a deeply moving and dramatically effective scene. But I looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish community. He may be present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the film, but he is not visible in the body of the film, nor are any other Jews openly recognized.”

*This is in fact Archbishop Iakovos, at the time the highest ranking orthodox clergyman in the Americas and notably included in this scene for being featured on the Life Magazine cover with King after the Selma march.

January 5: In an interview with Rolling Stone, DuVernay finally responds to the criticisms at some length:

“This is a dramatization of the events. But what's important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy – he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don't think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.”

January 6: Team “Selma” fires back in the op-ed sector. Stating flatly in the pages of USA Today that “'Selma' does not distort history,” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President and Director Sherrilyn Ifill charges that King's “extraordinary work and words have been subjected to a nearly 50-year campaign of distortion.” She echoes DuVernay's position that Johnson wasn't exactly pure-hearted in the circumstance:

“He told Vice President Humphrey, 'if we don't pass anything but education, and medical care, and Appalachia, we have had a record that the Congressmen can be re-elected on.' The reference to 'Appalachia' was to his poverty bill…To be sure, Johnson was a champion of voting rights and pushed for it in 1965. But the film also portrays Johnson as what he was, a man who was political to his bones, and who also had a deep understanding of the awfulness of Southern resistance on race.

She also contends that the film “is not meant to be a documentary any more than '12 Years a Slave' or 'Unbroken,' two recent historical films in which artistic liberties were taken” and refocuses, noting that “'Selma's' power lies in its unique portrayal of the humanity and interior life of black people who sacrificed greatly to free themselves from unimaginable oppression.” But more to some of the above points:

“The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) represented King at the trial along with brilliant Alabama attorney Fred Gray, portrayed in the film by Cuba Gooding Jr. … After Gov. George Wallace tried to appeal Judge Frank Johnson Jr.'s order permitting the march to go forward, LDF briefed and argued the opposition in court. Our lawyers developed the march route and logistics to comply with the judge's order, working on the floor of their Alabama motel room with local activists.”

January 6: Former New York Times reporter Gay Talese, who was on the ground for much of the events depicted in the film, writes a letter to the editor of the Times addressing material presented in Schuessler's piece. “In my opinion, there is nothing in Ms. DuVernay's film that significantly distorts this historic event or the leadership role played by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” he writes, before referencing one of his sources at the time “who helped [him] understand the situation in Selma.” Quoting his own memoir:

“Before the march, Chestnut had admitted to having concerns that the promotion of black people's rights were being politically exploited by the Democrats in the White House in order to allow President Johnson to singularly dominate the daily headlines, and Chestnut was then bothered by the possibility that 'King was no longer the number-one civil rights leader in America; Lyndon Johnson was … and we'd been outfoxed and were in danger of being co-opted.' … But the successful completion of the Selma to Montgomery march allayed all of Chestnut's earlier anxieties.”

As Chestnut later co-wrote in his book, “Black in Selma,” Talese concludes, “'The march to Montgomery was the first enterprise I'd ever seen involving black and white people where the black people set the agenda and ran the show.'”

January 6: DuVernay attends a press and Academy event in New York on behalf of the film with Talese in attendance. “I was there, you weren't,” Talese says to her. “I was there. I saw it. She wasn't there,” he tells the crowd, “but she got it … I was seeing what I truly remembered.” DuVernay, meanwhile, again responds at some length to the debate:

“I think everyone sees history through their own lens and I don't begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. That should be valid. I'm not going to argue history. I could, but I won't. I'm just going to say that, you know, my voice, David's voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced – reduced is really what all of this is – to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don't like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices – black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths – to do something amazing.”

She also embosses perhaps the most notable zeitgeist element of the entire situation, that voting rights remain under fire to this very day.

January 6: In an interview with Variety, King's son, Martin Luther King III, addresses questions regarding the depiction of King and wife Coretta Scott King's relationship and how the FBI surveillance is used dramatically in the film:

“I don't know that it happened the way that the film characterized it. We don't know where the truth meets the lie. What I heard my mom always say was that, while she was never naive, she understood the FBI's intent was, obviously, to break up the family … How would Ava DuVernay know what existed in the bedroom of my mom and dad? You really have to create some of that. Under the circumstances, I think that the film did the best it could.”

January 6: Finally something positive out of The Washington Post outside of film critic Ann Hornaday's rave review. Opinion writer Katrina vanden Heuvel, countering Califano's demand that the film be dismissed from the Oscar season, declares “it should sweep the Academy Awards.” She attempts to insert some nuance into the conversation:

“The conflicting perspectives reflect very different angles of vision. Dr. King and the courageous citizens who were putting their lives on the line in non-violent demonstrations were demanding action at the federal level. President Johnson and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, however sympathetic, were worried about sustaining a Democratic coalition still anchored by powerful Southern senators. Both felt pressured by the demonstrators. This wasn't a love fest. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized J. Edgar Hoover's FBI's wiretaps of King, which continued during Johnson's administration.”

And:

“Reform presidents – Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Barack Obama – are often depicted as saying to movement allies: 'I agree with you, now go out and make me do it.' But no president likes to be pressured from citizen movements, particularly from his base. The White House values control; movements are uncontrollable. Washington is cynical and values those who understand compromise. Movements require moral vision that inspires citizens to abandon normal life and take risks for change. And movement leaders often face popular pressures that are invisible from the beltway.”

January 7: After being interviewed by The Washington Post and brought up in a number of the pieces used to further the debate, Andrew Young takes to CNN with his own unfiltered thoughts. Like Ifill, he refocuses the conversation away from “historic, social and political facts” and onto “the spiritual phenomenon that enabled us to come together to change the South and the nation in 1965.” His ringing endorsement of the film adds to DuVernay's sentiment, revealing a plea to look at the bigger picture:

“MLK, LBJ, SNCC, SCLC, NAACP, churches, synagogues, universities, trade unions, United Nations, federal courts, FBI and even Congress came together in spite of historic conflicts and differences to create one of the greatest occasions in the history of our nation. That's miraculous. This complex story has evolved into a visual psalm of spiritual power that leads us to the truths of democracy that defy, but also reveal, the ultimate power that occasionally breaks into our lives and lifts us to new cultural heights. This is Selma the movement and 'Selma' the movie.”

January 8: Journalist Jim Naureckas deals a somewhat crushing blow for Team “Selma” on the far.org website. After refuting critical takedowns of the history presented in the film with a deep dive into quoted sources, she writes that the film's LBJ is “a white man who has something to learn from a black man. Fifty years after the events portrayed in 'Selma,' that's still evidently something some people don't want to see.” And earlier in the piece:

“The thing about the attacks on the film 'Selma' is that they not only distort the actual relationship between King and Johnson, they distort the film's portrayal of the relationship. LBJ is not the villain of the movie; 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.”

January 9: Yes, there seems no end to the column space. Elizabeth Drew, writing for The New York Review of Books, echoes much of the previous grievances with the film's depiction of the King/Johnson relationship.

January 22: The pro-“Selma” op-eds continue, now at The New Yorker, where Amy Davidson joins the cause. “The movie does not, for example, portray L.B.J. as 'only reluctantly behind' the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed be a gross distortion,” she points out. “(See Robert Caro”s work for the best analysis of Johnson”s stealthy passion for the cause of equality.) It does portray him as disagreeing with King about the timing of the bill-which, to be fair, he did. On other points, though, Califano is simply rewriting history.”

January 28: Finally, at Grantland, Mark Harris comes in and bats clean-up for the film. “DuVernay”s most strident critics have failed not only the movie but history,” he writes. “Califano”s risible claim, for instance, that 'Selma was LBJ”s idea' is a great-white-father view of civil rights history that would do far more damage to veracity if it were to enter a high school curriculum than this movie would; it is thoroughly debunked in At Canaan”s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968, the last of a definitive three-volume history of America in the King years by the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Taylor Branch…So you have a choice: the fictional version of Johnson that is created in one moment of a dramatic movie, or the different, more fictional version of Johnson being retailed as fact by some of the movie”s detractors.”

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