So I went to see the movie Selma over the MLK weekend. I wasn't planning to, because I'd read the blog post in the New York Review of Books on the misportrayal of LBJ, apparently for dramatic contrast and enhanced tension in the story, and like the blog post writer, I believe that if you're going to make movies about historical characters, you should be faithful to their contributions to history - especially if the historical character in question is LBJ and has had his reputation diminished enough because of the Vietnam War. The key redeeming features of LBJ are his fights for civil rights and against poverty. Surely the screenwriters could have found a way to provide a more accurate description of LBJ's part while keeping the spotlight on MLK's remarkable actions.
So I wasn't planning on seeing it, but then I thought I should at least judge for myself, and besides it was the most interesting movie playing that weekend. It turned out none of my favorite movie theaters (Kendall Cinema, Brattle Cinema, Coolidge Corner Cinema) was playing it that weekend, so I had to go to AMC Loews 19 at Boston Common. I'm not a fan of movie chains but it turned out to be a good choice in that case, because the NYRB blogger had commented on the impression the movie would give teenagers of LBJ and that movie cinema is very popular with the teenage crowd. I attended a Sunday afternoon screening and the theater was full of teenagers, including a substantial number of teenagers of color.
Specifically, key points the NYRB blogger makes against the movie are that: (i) "The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name" and (ii) "A film critic for The Washington Post argued that we should simply get used to the idea that films pretending to represent history are going to contain falsities—and that we can then discuss why the director made these choices. But how are we to know? Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it? Our history belongs to all of us, and major events shouldn’t be the playthings of moviemakers to boost their box-office earnings."
(If you're interested in learning more about LBJ's true role in this moment in history, Ronald Heifetz in Leadership without Easy Answers analyzes his actions as a case study in leadership. I learned from Heifetz the concept of "giving the work back" and "holding steady" while making sure the pressure doesn't become too high; more information is also available in Heifetz's Leadership on the Line. It's actually something I've used a lot in my role as academic advisor when students have gotten in trouble. Heifetz is undoubtedly one of the top 5 experts worldwide in leadership, although he unfortunately is not as much a household name as others. He argues for instance that LBJ used the facts that the attacks on protesters were televised to "raise the pressure" on the governor through general public outrage at gratuitous violence against the protesters.)
In the Selma screening I attended, no one (in a very crowded theater) jeered, hissed or booed at the actor who plays LBJ when he initially tries to make MLK accept a delay in the voting rights bill. Movie-goers loudly expressed their approval several times throughout the movie, including the moment when LBJ tells the governor he'll be damned if he stays on his side (or something of that order). There was no animosity whatsoever toward LBJ. The movie seemed to most resonate with the audience at the moments when the characters moved closer to their goal of securing voting rights for all Americans.
There were some poignant moments and some tough moments to watch. Poignant moments included the scene where the voting official prevents the character played by Oprah W. from registering to vote by asking her to name all the 66 judges in the county, and when a character explains the catch-22 African-Americans trying to register to vote were finding themselves in when they had to find someone to vouch for them in order to register, in counties where no other African-American had ever managed to register to vote. (It was even more complicated and heart-breaking than that, but I don't remember the details. Just that it was almost hopeless.)
The tough moments, of course, include the scene where peaceful protesters are getting tear-gassed and clubbed, and the scene where the young white Boston priest is beaten to death by local youth. Those tough moments explain why I no longer cared whether LBJ had accurately been portrayed or not when I watched the movie. It is unfortunate that he was misportrayed, but that's just not the core of Selma. The core is the peaceful quest by MLK to achieve voting rights for all Americans in spite of extreme violence and threats of violence toward him and his supporters. The movie was very inspirational and I wish David Oyelowo had been nominated for an Oscar for his incredible performance.