The Oscar-nominated film Selma, which focuses on the 1965 voting rights campaign Martin Luther King led in Alabama, has generated a lot of buzz since it came out a few months ago. But not all of that attention has been good.
Many scholars — and even some former government officials — have criticized the movie for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, who in the film serves as a stubborn obstacle to King’s plans for a march from Selma to Montgomery. The critics point out that in fact, Johnson actively supported the campaign for voting rights. By 1965, he already had lawyers in his administration drafting a voting rights bill.
Ava DuVerney, Selma’s director, has defended the movie’s portrayal of Johnson, saying “ I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma…What’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did.”
That got us thinking. Do films about history have a responsibility to be entirely factually accurate, or is it more important that they convey the spirit of the history they depict? We invited Slate magazine’s Jamelle Bouie, who has written in DuVernay’s defense, onto the show to discuss Selma and truth in filmmaking.
On why criticisms of Selma’s historical accuracy miss the point:
“My general view on movies about history, as opposed to documentaries, is that we need to ask questions more about what the filmmaker is trying to do and less about how accurate is the history. Now those two are related, and it’s certainly true that extremely inaccurate history can make a movie bad, in part because it takes away from the message of the movie.
But for Selma, which is a film where as far as historical inaccuracies go, is actually pretty mild, I’d say that the question you need to ask is what is Duvernay trying to emphasize. I think what she is trying to emphasize is the people who constituted the movement and who surrounded King. In that context, then, it actually makes a lot of sense why you’d make Johnson a bit more of a roadblock than he was because by making him a roadblock you’re emphasizing the maneuvering of King and the people he was leading.”
On why a certain degree of inaccuracy is tolerable in a movie:
“I’m not entirely sure that [documentary-style accuracy] should be the aim of any director. Films are messages, and films are crafted towards particular aims. I think Selma is a movie about what it’s like to be in a movement, and the struggles and the pains that are associated with that…Film has that license [to be message-driven] in the same way that any form of art has that license, even forms of art that are dealing with historical subjects or are dealing with nonfiction.”
On what should restrain filmmakers if not the facts:
“What the best movies do is flatten out and simplify and give you a single narrative strand that does come at the expense of other perspectives. I think if a filmmaker has a responsibility, it’s to be as capital-T Truthful to the experiences of the people that the filmmaker is trying to capture. In the case of Selma, I think the question if you’re going to pass judgment on the movie as a movie is does this reflect the experiences of the people involved in the civil rights movement.”
On the strengths – and dangers – of cinematic history:
“[This month] was the 100th anniversary of Birth of a Nation, arguably one of the greatest films ever made in the United States. It is a landmark of film. It’s also awful, deeply noxious, so socially irresponsible that we’re still feeling the impact of it a hundred years later. In 1915, most Americans would have and did understand Birth of a Nation as getting to something true about the United States. We see that that was wrong now, and I’m not sure how one precludes that.”
You can listen to our full interview with Jamelle Bouie, as well as our entire show on the past in last year’s pop culture, here.