Films that are meant to be controversial don’t always become so for the reasons the filmmakers intended. Ava DuVernay, David Oyelowo and the other major players of Selma, the first film ever to have Martin Luther King as its protagonist, probably did not expect most of their conversations following the film’s release to focus on, first, the portrayal of President Lyndon Bird Johnson as resistant to voting rights and, subsequently, the experience of Oscar snub victimhood.
The outrage that both developments inspired suggests a larger myopia in how we discuss the impact of art and popular culture, at least in the short term. Instead of making any attempt to genuinely assess this impact, or even find a framework for doing so, national conversations focus on tired, old platitudes and short term indignation.
In every discussion of the LBJ portrayal by historians and former white house staff, there is one familiar refrain: the film is another attempt by Hollywood to subvert the efforts of the real truth tellers for the sake of entertainment. (Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top domestic affairs aide, began his op-ed with “What’s wrong with Hollywood?” before ridiculously implying that the Selma episode was LBJ’s plan and MLK was just one of his foot soldiers). Historian Julian Zelizer claims,
"[Johnson’s] totally committed to doing this but the big debate for him was when to do it. He was scared that he had all these bills he was trying to get— many of which he thought were important for African Americans like education assistance and funding for his poverty program — and that if he pushed for voting rights too soon ... voting rights wouldn’t even pass...he was still fearful and worried that the power he finally had was very limited and would be fleeting. I don’t think the movie captures that at all."
I don’t think Zelizer watched the right movie. The central tension that Johnson endures throughout the film is exactly what Zelizer articulates as the pressure for voting rights intensifies: how can he balance it alongside his other priorities? This drives his arguments with Oyelowo’s MLK and haunts him in quieter moments, such as one scene in which he scans the newspaper photos of beaten black children while simultaneously listening to George Wallace’s racist vitriol on the radio. In the end, he comes out heroic, resisting the pressures of his party’s racist wing and, in his last scene, expropriating the civil rights movement’s theme “We shall overcome” in his speech sending the Voting Rights Act to Congress. So not only does the film portray Johnson as a fundamentally moral figure, it does so while giving us a sense of the basic struggle he endured that summer.
Granted, the response may have been far quieter if not for the film’s false suggestion that J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping of King came from Johnson’s orders; but, the need to fall back into indignation over “Hollywood’s” incomplete depiction of history ignores the fact that the film offers a window into how the figures involved experienced these events. When Johnson tells King, “You’re an activist, I’m a politician. You’ve got one issue, I’ve got a hundred and one,” he instantly summarizes the myriad books and documents that attempt to explain their relationship.
So perhaps what drew the ire of the keepers of Johnson’s legacy was the concept of the film itself: the telling of the Selma episode through MLK, the one man who was at the center of the many events surrounding the march. They didn’t know how to square their image of Johnson as a driver of events with the film’s depiction of him as a reactive participant.
Those who were outraged at Selma's limited presence among the Oscar nominees would make a similar claim about Academy voters—they are put off by films that have black people as the drivers of their own narrative. At the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Oyelowo was asked about being the subject of “Oscar snub outrage,” to which he responded, “We as black people are celebrated more when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings...” He went on to point out that “Until The Butler and 12 Years a Slave did well at the box office, films like this were told through white protagonists because there is a fear of white guilt; so a nice, white person holds black people’s hands through their own narrative.” (Coincidently, this is quite similar to Califano’s interpretation of history—LBJ carrying MLK through the Civil Rights narrative).
While Oyelowo is doubtlessly right about the reason films like Selma have had trouble getting made, he overstates the implications of the Oscar snub. In the same interview he asked the audience what movie they believed won Sidney Poitier his Oscar. When they almost unanimously responded “In the Heat of the Night,” Oyelowo revealed that it was in fact Lilies of the Field, in which Poitier played a handyman on a farm run by Eastern European nuns. But without intending to, Oyelowo corroborated a point that DuVernay made when asked about the Oscar snub: “In a year from now, we’re not going to be thinking of anything but the film. Film is forever...we’re still watching films that were made a hundred years ago. If I asked an Oscar watcher now who won best supporting actor three years ago, you could not tell me.” (For the record, it was Christopher Plummer for Beginnings.)
In other words, it does not matter that Poitier was not even nominated for In the Heat of the Night cause it is the role for which he is still most collectively treasured. Those outraged over Selma’ Oscar snub should rest easy because not only will it be remembered as a great film, it has set the standard for all future cinematic depictions of MLK and his stories.
Moreover, as Oyelowo indicated, the film is part of a trend that has seen more films that show black characters determining their own narrative finding critical and financial success among them 12 Years a Slave, the Butler, Fruitvale Station, and, of course, Selma. A look at the history of film shows that with just a few exceptions there has never been a successful movie that did not have a self-absorbed white man as its subject. So, if Selma advances the countertrend, it will not only diminish the caricatures around which black characters have been constructed, but instead broaden the array of stories that filmmakers can tell without great distributional risks. No volume of awards could alter such an enriching contribution to the medium.
Ultimately, national conversation over an important film was overclouded by two claims that easily falter under inspection. In a sense, this was inevitable because there is no framework for assessing the impact of works of art and popular culture.
Take The Daily Show for example. For nearly the entirety of its run, it has been depicted as a driver of political change despite a lack of evidence to support this view. Just four months before announcing his departure as host, Jon Stewart argued that the show had done nothing to change the political world and compared people who believe it has to those who believe Bob Dylan’s songs changed the world in the 1960s. Stewart had been making the same claim even before Stephen Colbert became his successor on the cable line up—reminding pundits who took him too seriously that his show preceded one about “Puppets making prank phone calls.”
The fact that Stewart has had to engage in this dispute for so long is indicative of the same trend that dominated the coverage of Selma. While it is true that the broader implications of works of art can only be properly assessed in the long term, the lack of any framework for doing so in the short term leaves us with platitudes and weak, sporadic arguments that consistently resurface. This insults our collective memory and robs us of any genuine, educational public conversation.
[sources: billmoyers.com, Washington Post, Salon, NYMag, grantland.com]
by Sam Harwood '15