“Selma” (the Film), Selma (the History) – How Close Are They?

It was a strange talk today at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater.  The speaker was recently retired University of Delaware history professor Gary May, author of the 2014 book “Bending Towards Justice: the Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy”, the story of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The announced topic was “Selma, the Voting Rights Act and Reel History”, and I admit to not knowing exactly what that meant.

May is a good speaker and he said that his talk today was going to be different from the many others he had given on his book, that it was to be more personal.  It turned out that the talk was not on the book (which has been very well reviewed) at all, but rather on “Selma”, the film.  And, yes, it was personal.

It turns out that May, who taught at Delaware for about 30 years, did teach a course on American history and film (or something very much like that).  This struck me both as an interesting topic, but also one guaranteed to dumb down American history for a bunch of students whose background in American history was based on watching movies and not reading books.  I think I was right.

May started by talking about how history is distorted in the cinema and how this is something he finds very disturbing.  He says that he understands that movie makers have artistic freedom, but he also thinks that there is a whole generation of film watchers who get their information from film.  He mentioned the more obvious earlier films, from “Birth of a Nation” (“the heroes were the Ku Klux Klan”), to “Gone With the Wind” (it romanticized the South), to “Mississippi Burning”, which made the white FBI agents the heroes of a film about the murders of the three freedom riders in Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Of course, he could have talked about many more historical films, including Oliver Stone’s “JFK”, Ron Howard’s “Frost and Nixon”, and the recent award winning “The Imitation Game”, about code breaking during World War II and the role of Alan Turing.

I share his discomfort with historical distortions, as many of my friends and family know, not only in film, but on the stage.  So I am very sympathetic to May’s problems with the film “Selma”.  And, of course, May is not the only historian to find problems with Selma.  Many prominent American historians, as well as several former governmental officials in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, found fault with the film.  Most of these criticisms dealt with the movie’s portrayal of Johnson as being quite negative regarding a voting rights bill, and having Johnson conspire with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to inform Coretta King about her husband’s sexual indiscretions (something that no responsible historian thinks happened).

But Gary May had a different set of criticisms.  He maintains that American films have generally under appreciated the role that African Americans played in the civil rights movement.  But “Selma” did not understate the role of African Americans, at least didn’t understate the role of known African American movement activists.  In fact, one could say that, by diminishing the role of Johnson and other government officials, it magnified their roles.  But he claims that, in concentrating on the actions of Martin Louis King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young and others, the film ignored the crucial earlier role played by local civil rights leaders – particularly the black school teachers who marched together to the Registrar’s office, demanding the right to register to vote and prepared to go to jail if necessary, and the role of the black high school students who marched together with placards saying things like “Let our parents vote!” and who were attacked and beaten by the police.  These, he maintained, were the real heroes of Selma.

May’s personal involvement started when he learned that the film was to be made, and he sent copies of his book (perhaps before publication) to the director, Ava DuVernay, with whom he spoke several times.  He had expressed what he believed was important in telling the story and said that DuVernay understood the points he was making, and seemed to “get it”.  He faults himself for not suggesting to her that she should have a historian (he admits he wished he could have met Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey) associated with the film, to read the script and ensure historical accuracy. But he didn’t; nor did anyone else, apparently.

Before the film was released, May was invited to a private showing in New York.  He went certain that he would like the film, and was “shocked” at what he saw, that the true heroes of Selma were ignored, and that the few locals who were in the film were given short shrift.  The audience at the showing was composed primarily of film professionals, and the film was apparently very well received.  May left the theater without trying to speak with the director.

He was contacted by the production company’s PR representative to get his reaction after the film was released; he responded with a lengthy email and received no acknowledgement from his correspondent.  He wrote a critical review which was published by The Daily Beast, and received an email from DuVernay expressing her surprise at his reaction and at his review.  He said that he wrote her a well considered response, and again never heard anything.

May ended his talk with some comments about the recently released film DVD, which has some extra features on it, including a director’s statement that perhaps she did not get the facts as accurately as she could have, and a teacher’s guide which appears to make a distinction between “facts” and “truth” in making an historic film. He (and I) have no idea what this really means.  He thought that perhaps the DVD will sell well, and that the film will be watched on Netflix and elsewhere, and that enough of the story is accurate that its spread and accessibility will override its flaws.  We will see.

I’m not sure I learned a lot from this talk (except that I did not know much about the earlier local protests in Selma), and I am glad I am not the only person concerned generally with historical accuracy, but I thought that the “personal” aspects of his talk, while it provided an unusual perspective, were not very important in the scheme of things, particularly for this LOC audience.  I found it a little self-centered and made me a bit uncomfortable.

A few other things.  May said that the budget for this film was $20 million, and that it grossed about $50 million domestically, which he said was not an outstanding return.  Overseas, he said, the gross was only about $14 million – perhaps this shows that the Selma story is too foreign for foreigners to appreciate, something interesting in itself. He also said that a film was being planned which would star Woody Harrelson in a biopic about Lyndon Johnson.  Perhaps this one will get it right.

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