In “Selma,” writer and director Ava DuVernay (“This is the Life”) lifts a page from your high school history textbook, breathing life into a single episode that tells a larger story. The film chronicles the events from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, from his acceptance of the Noble Peace Prize in 1964 to his speech at the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, which led to the five-day Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery. “Selma” presents this inspirational man as a representative of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. However, despite its social and political value, “Selma” is not a great film.

Selma

B
Paramount Pictures
Rave, State Theatre and Quality 16


While some people might learn something new about history from this film, the story doesn’t extend much beyond the history one might find in the pages of a high school history textbook. The film does a fine job representing what will probably be familiar material for most of us. What’s more, “Selma” does, at least to some to some extent, subvert the outmoded “great man theory” of history that we saw in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Though the film focuses primarily on King and his influence, it also gives credit to what in the “great man theory” are considered negligible sideshow characters. “Selma” emphasizes the importance of the people who we’re accustomed to seeing as just “faces in the crowd.” The film recognizes the fact that though leaders like King are important, it’s ultimately what we call “ordinary people” who form the basis of popular movements.

Critics who call out “Selma” for historical revisionism have aimed their attacks at the film’s Oscar aspirations. But many wonder why it’s even a contender in the first place — except for the fact that Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt produced it. “Selma” is not a bad film; it’s just mediocre. The violence in the film — the police brutality in particular — hits hard, provoking disgust and anger that galvanizes the activist within us. David Oyelowo reproduces King’s resounding rhetoric and sandpiper suave magnificently. We’d have to be more callous than Michael Jordan’s feet to not feel the film’s triumphant glory resonating from our toes on up.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t expand much on the familiar historical material (perhaps its greatest shortcoming). For example, the film tells us that Dr. King and Coretta Scott King suffered from marital strife, but it doesn’t show exactly why, and only vaguely alludes to it (perhaps to preserve the respectability of the film’s protagonist). What’s more, much of the dialogue feels inconsequential, as if we already knew what the characters were going to say. Granted, this is a historical film, so anybody who read their high school history textbook would obviously know what the characters were going to say. But that only prompts us to see the film go beyond the elementary version of this historical moment.

Every movie, whether historical or not, falsifies to some extent; that’s part of what it is to be art. The question is: What kind of falsification and how much of it are we willing to abide?

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano Jr., one of President Lyndon Johnson’s top assistants for domestic affairs, wrote, “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.” It’s clear from Califano’s evidence (which can be found in his piece and in the transcript of the phone conversation between King and Johnson) that “Selma” exaggerates the extent to which Johnson and King were at odds with one another. Listen to the phone conversation or read the transcript and try to deny that Johnson sounds like he’s enthusiastically supportive of a Voting Rights Act. Understandably, the film would lack a major antagonism without the conflict between Johnson and King, but this is, of course, no ground for historical revisionism.

People who support the film’s social and political message probably want to say it’s a better film than it really is, and people who oppose its message will probably want to hyper-focus on the misrepresentation of Johnson to say it’s a worse film than it really is. As Califano wrote in his criticism, “Selma” didn’t need to falsify history as it did to create a great film. By that same token, we can still enjoy the film despite its historical inaccuracies. The misrepresentation of Johnson should deter no one from seeing the film because “Selma” is nonetheless a provocative representation of a well-known and centrally important event from the Civil Rights Movement that deserves to be remembered.

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