Dr. King Goes to Hollywood: The Flawed History of ‘Selma’

Finally, we have a major film on civil rights in which African Americans are the heroes in their own story. Too bad director Ava DuVernay gets the history wrong in Selma.

01.02.15 10:45 AM ET

“Ava DuVernay Is Directing History,” proclaims New York magazine in its recent article on the director’s new film, Selma, the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 campaign that led to the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act.

As a historian whose recent book, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, covers the events now dramatized, I find such an assertion troubling. It has long been a Hollywood tradition to manipulate and often distort history for cinematic purposes, and this has been especially true of the few films made about the civil rights movement. The classic example is Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1989), a film set in the Freedom Summer of 1964 that purported to show how the FBI brought the killers of civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman to justice. Civil rights leaders and historians accused the filmmakers of playing fast and loose with the facts, marginalizing the roles played by African American activists while making the heroes of Freedom Summer two white FBI agents whose violent tactics mocked the movement’s commitment to nonviolence. Parker was forced to admit that the film was “very obviously fiction” and was made primarily for a white audience at home and abroad. “Our heroes are still white,” Parker told his critics, “and in truth the film would probably never have been made if they weren’t.”

Such errors are important because generations of young students now learn American history through film. After watching Mississippi Burning, my students tell me what a great film it is and praise the FBI for its support of the civil rights movement. They are incredulous when I tell them the real story: that J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, tried to destroy Martin Luther King’s movement and that the real heroes were the African Americans who risked everything—their jobs, their homes, and often their lives in their struggle for freedom. Why believe me when they can learn and be entertained by Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln); Lee Daniels (The Butler); Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); and Tom Hanks, whose work as a producer of John Adams and The Pacific led Time magazine to call him “America’s Historian in Chief.” Ava DuVernay, as New York magazine notes, has now joined their ranks.

Because I was living with this story, I watched closely as Hollywood considered making a film about Selma. In 2009, Lee Daniels announced that he would direct Selma and that Liam Neeson would play President Lyndon Johnson. “It’s really Lyndon Johnson’s story,” Daniels told the journalist Edward Douglas that October. “Martin Luther King is a part of it, but it’s really the arc of a man that starts out as a racist who is forced to look at himself and then ultimately sides with King.” Reading this, I shuddered. Of course, LBJ played a critical role in the making of the Voting Rights Act but it seemed like Daniels was following the Mississippi Burning model—white officials were the real heroes while Dr. King and his followers would again be marginalized.

Fortunately, Daniels was unable to raise the money to produce the film and in 2013 it fell to an African American woman, DuVernay, to take on the project. As she discussed her understanding of the voting rights campaign and how she planned to recreate it, I grew more relieved. The title of the film was Selma, not King, she announced. It would not be a traditional Hollywood “biopic,” which usually turns its subjects into superheroes and covers them from the cradle to the grave. Her focus would be on the three months, January through March 1965, that gave birth to the Voting Rights Act. She wanted to “deconstruct” King, to show that he was more than “a speech and a statue,” a flawed, complex man who did extraordinary things. She also wanted to take her audience inside King’s circle, where strategy was shaped, and highlight the men and women of Selma, who were the shock troops of the movement.

As the months passed and she began to cast the film, I became increasingly excited. Among the characters to be portrayed were the people I had written about—the unsung heroes of the Selma campaign. Among them were Amelia Boynton, who with late husband Sam (he used to say, “a voteless people is a hopeless people”), had been fighting for voting rights for decades. On behalf of the Dallas County (Alabama) Voters League, Amelia Boynton had personally invited Dr. King to come to Selma to join their fight for voting rights. Annie Lee Cooper, whose attempts to register had serious personal consequences, would also be there, and she would be played by Oprah Winfrey, no less. And many of King’s important advisers—Andrew Young, James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and C.T. Vivian—were also included.

The film, which opened on Christmas Day in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., to qualify for Oscar consideration, will go national on January 9. Reviews have been outstanding, with many film critics calling it one of the best films of the year. But those watching Selma were judging a work of cinematic art. Most would not know if the film was true to history. I would. Having finally seen Selma on November 17, I must report, sadly, that I do not share the enthusiasm the film has generated so far.

First, the good news. Perhaps DuVernay’s greatest achievement is overcoming the resistance that prevented Hollywood from making films about the civil rights movement, because historical dramas are expensive to make and are believed to do poorly at the box office, at home or abroad. The last film about Martin Luther King was made for television in 1977. With the indispensable support of Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, who also produced, we finally have a major motion picture about King and the civil rights movement and, at long last, African Americans are rightly the heroes in their own story. That alone merits praise.

DuVernay has also succeeded in giving us a more human King (superbly played by David Oyelowo), a man confronted by so many opponents that it is miraculous that he achieved so much. We see the Southern segregationists who threatened his life and that of his family on an almost daily basis. King’s younger associates in the civil rights movement, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), are shown attacking him because he clung to nonviolence, which they thought too passive in the face of Sheriff Jim Clark’s violent response to their demonstrations. They considered King a celebrity (“De Lawd,” they called him derisively), and they often refused to officially endorse his campaigns, including the historic voting rights march in 1965.

Dylan Baker plays a slimy J. Edgar Hoover who, believing King to be an immoral communist, kept him under almost total surveillance and attempted to destroy his marriage and his career. In one moving scene, Coretta Scott King confronts her husband over FBI-manufactured evidence of his adultery and forces him to admit that there were, indeed, other women in his life, although King claims to love only Coretta. King’s marriage has never received such a realistic portrayal in a major film.

President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, knew the contents of King’s FBI file and feared that a close relationship with the preacher would tarnish his presidency. (JFK felt the same way.) He preferred working with older members of the civil rights community, those he could control, and he often treated King with contempt. While sympathetic to King’s demand for a voting rights bill, Johnson refused to be pushed, waiting for the right political moment to send the bill to Congress. DuVernay’s treatment of LBJ is too harsh. (People near me in the theater hissed at him.) She fails to appreciate the congressional and constitutional obstacles Johnson had to overcome to win passage of the bill. Both Mark Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Library, and former Johnson aide Joseph Califano go further, criticizing DuVernay for underplaying Johnson’s role in the creation of the Voting Rights Act.

Selma is the first film to take us inside King’s inner circle, where strategy was debated. They were a fascinating group. “Martin always said, ‘Normal people don’t challenge the law of the land, you got to be creatively maladjusted,’” Andrew Young later recalled. “’We need people who will trouble the waters.’” More often they troubled each other: “Nobody got along,” Young said. Still, I wish that DuVernay had given us more about those who are less famous besides a scene where they all eat dinner together. James Bevel, for example, once so enraged Sheriff Clark that Bevel was arrested, beaten, sprayed by a fire hose, and then chained to a bed in a cell with open windows. He contracted pneumonia, but he recovered and returned to demonstrating.

DuVernay also shows us that King’s strategy, while nonviolent, depended on violence. In one telling scene, King explains to his colleagues that in order to move the president, demonstrators must provoke Clark into attacks so brutal that the media would have to cover them, pressuring Johnson to publicly support a voting rights bill. This is a provocative subject that is ready-made for the classroom.

The director’s greatest failure, however, is not fulfilling her stated purpose of highlighting Selma’s civil rights movement. Except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed. Annie Lee Cooper, well played by Winfrey, is shown trying but failing to register to vote. We are not told that Cooper had been able to vote without hindrance when she lived in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. But when she returned to Selma in 1962 to care for her aged mother, she lost that right. Nor are we told that she lost her job at a local nursing home after she tried to register to vote in 1964. When we see her later in the film, she’s wearing a nurse’s outfit and is caring for a patient, still employed, presumably at the Dunn Nursing Home. In fact, the only job she could get was night manager at Selma’s Torch Motel, which catered to black visitors. We also see her physically battling Sheriff Clark, but the camera focuses on her falling to the ground. In fact, Clark fell back first from her blows, losing his cap, tie, and badge in the melee. It took a blow to the head from Clark and the assistance of three deputies to subdue her. Such details, in this historian’s view, are not unnecessary trivia but help to enrich the story.

Amelia Boynton, leader of the local activists for decades, is given only one brief scene, in which she encourages Coretta Scott King to continue the fight for voting rights. We learn nothing about Boynton and her husband’s long struggle, nor of her own encounter with Clark, who arrested her one day for no reason, dragged her down the street by the collar of her coat, and threw her in a cell like a common criminal.

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And there are other stories DuVernay could have told and still met her (relatively) modest budget of $20 million. Consider the plight of Selma’s teachers. At first they were reluctant to become involved in demonstrations, in part because white school board members could and did fire them for their activism. But when their students asked them how they could teach civics if they could not vote, they took to the streets. On January 22, 1965, dressed as if they were going to church, they marched on the registrar’s office, waving toothbrushes, a sign that they were willing to go to jail to win the right to vote.

Their students followed their example on February 10, with 161 of them picketing the courthouse with signs that read “Let Our Parents Vote.” The sheriff charged them with truancy, and then he and his officers ran them out of town. Those not fast enough received shocks from the men’s cattle prods and blows from their billy clubs. Of course, a director can’t show everything, but if one of the stated purposes of the film is to tell the Selma story, doesn’t such courage deserve inclusion?

And, unfortunately, there are significant errors in Selma. No event was more important than Bloody Sunday, which shocked the country and forced Johnson to send a voting rights bill to the Congress. It is filmed well by DuVernay and her cinematographer Bradford Young, but the brutal assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is depicted as being seen by the country as it occurred on the afternoon of March 7, 1965. The television networks interrupt their broadcasts to take the nation directly to Selma. In fact, Americans had to wait several hours until film of the event reached New York for it to be broadcast. ABC interrupted its Movie of the Week, Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer’s account of the Nazi war trials following World War II, at 9 p.m. to show rough footage of the atrocity. Again, perhaps a trivial detail to a hard-pressed director, an artist who feels he or she can manipulate events to save time and money. What harm is done?

Yet the scenes from Selma forced many who were watching Judgment at Nuremberg to wonder if America was now afflicted with its own native fascism. That perceived connection between Nazi Germany and America led many to put their lives on hold—to rush South to join King’s campaign or go to Washington to join demonstrators calling on Johnson to act.

King’s own response to Bloody Sunday was to ask those who had come to Selma to follow him on a second march to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9, 1965. This is perhaps the most muddled part of the film. DuVernay makes it clear that federal Judge Frank M. Johnson had issued an order prohibiting the march until the judge held a hearing on its constitutionality. King had never violated a federal court order, and the Johnson administration urged him to wait, so he was actually reluctant to go. But those bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as well as the thousands who had come to Selma pushed him to go forward, and they set out once again in the face of George Wallace’s state troopers, who stood ready to block their progress. When they reached the spot of the first assault, King stopped and knelt to pray, then turned around and returned to Brown Chapel, the movement’s headquarters. This event, know as “Turn Around Tuesday,” enraged many of the demonstrators, especially the young SNCC activists. “What happened?” they ask King in a dramatic scene in Selma. “I don’t know,” King replies. No doubt the audience will share King’s confusion.

What DuVernay fails to show is what really happened behind the scenes: An emissary from Johnson worked out an arrangement with Wallace and Clark that allowed King and his followers to march partway and kneel in prayer. If they returned to their church, they would be spared a second attack. King agreed to this arrangement but did not reveal it to his followers. It was King’s lowest moment as a leader, and one SNCC critic called King’s dissembling “a classic example of trickery against the people.” None of these events made it to the screen.

Selma is, therefore, a flawed film. DuVernay has partly succeeded in presenting a more human King, warts and all. But ironically, this only increases King’s stature, making us admire him all the more for overcoming the political and personal problems that would have defeated a lesser man. Selma becomes a biopic in which the hero shines while those who worked beside him are overlooked or relegated to the sidelines. This is especially important because, as King often said, the essence of the civil rights movement was not one man’s actions but collective action, the work and sacrifice of many. That is the rich legacy he left us. His self doubts and serial infidelity are less important than the fact that he remained committed to nonviolent protest and to the fulfillment of American democracy, however long it took. That legacy still offers us hope in these troubled times.