With another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day behind us, and nearly a half century after his murder, MLK is again at the center of racial controversy. This time the uproar centers on the new film Selma, which has been accused of rewriting history to minimize or exclude white and Jewish partners in the civil rights movement, and whose black director and lead actor have themselves been excluded from Oscar consideration.
The critically acclaimed Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oleyowo in a star-making performance as MLK, focuses on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches for black voting rights. When the 2015 Oscar nominations were announced recently, Selma nabbed one for Best Picture, but all the individual nominees were revealed to be white, causing widespread media outrage about a lack of diversity, particularly in light of expectations about DuVernay and Oleyowo.
Racial ambulance-chaser Al Sharpton pushed his way to the front of the crowd, calling for an “emergency meeting” of his diversity task force to consider “action” against the predominately white voters of the Academy. He called the lack of nominations a “racial shutout” and declared that “the movie industry is like the Rocky Mountains – the higher you get, the whiter it gets.”
Sharpton was steamrolling right over the inconvenient truth that, as Breitbart.com’s John Nolte pointed out, ten black actors have been Oscar-nominated in the last five years, and three have won. Seven films focusing on race and racism have been nominated for Best Picture in that same time frame. Last year’s Best Picture – selected by the same predominately white Academy – was 12 Years a Slave. And then there is Selma’s nomination this year for Best Picture. In response to the outrage over Selma, the Academy’s President Cheryl Boone Isaacs – who is black – noted that the film’s Best Picture nod “showcases the talent of everyone involved in the production of the movie.”
But the Oscar brouhaha wasn’t the only Selma controversy. It has come under fire for depicting President Lyndon Johnson as a civil rights obstructionist, which Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library Director Mark Updegrove says “flies in the face of history.” LBJ and MLK had disagreements, Updegrove asserted, but were partners in the movement.
Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, agrees, writing in the Washington Post that the film takes “trumped-up license” with the truth and should be “ruled out of awards season”: “Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” Selma’s director DuVernay responded on Twitter that “LBJ's stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn't fantasy made up for a film.” She told Rolling Stone that the script originally was “much more slanted to Johnson,” but that “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.”
The portrayal of LBJ wasn’t the only cause for charges of inaccuracy against the film. Leida Snow at the Jewish Daily Forward pointed out that Selma “distorts history by airbrushing out” the Jewish contributions to civil rights. “The struggle for African-American civil rights was primarily one led and suffered by black Americans,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, white contributions to the ongoing war against discrimination should be noted.”
She stated that the Selma marches were “built on momentum generated by thousands of local efforts during the preceding months and years” – among them, the 1964 Freedom Rides, “in which well over a thousand volunteers, mostly white, and over half of them Jewish, risked their lives riding into Mississippi to face intimidation and harassment that included arrests, beatings, and murder.” And the 1964 murder of black Mississippian James Chaney and two Jewish New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, continued Snow, helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Snow noted also that Jews assisted in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and twenty black colleges. They helped organize the 1963 March on Washington where Rabbi Uri Miller recited the opening prayer and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke before MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. And MLK himself wrote from prison to his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner, urging him to recruit rabbis to come to his support, resulting in a huge mass arrest of the rabbis who responded. Snow concludes that “There were many Jewish and other white Americans who supported them before, during, and after the marches from Selma to Montgomery, and ‘Selma’ misses a great teaching moment by excluding them.”
My friend J.E. Dyer at the Liberty Unyielding blog wrote that Selma is unfortunately a “superficial morality play” that omits the prominent presence in the Selma marches of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the best-known rabbis of the 20th century, and a close friend of MLK. Dyer mentions that Heschel’s daughter “laments the film’s depiction of events as purely ‘political protest’ and not as a ‘profoundly religious moment: an extraordinary gathering of nuns, priests, rabbis, black and white, a range of political views, from all over the United States.’” By not showing her father marching, she said, the film “is depriving the viewers of that inspiration.”
All docudramas must, of necessity, make some concessions in historical accuracy to fit the requirements of storytelling: structure, pacing, invented dialogue, etc. None is going to be 100% factual. The problem is that Hollywood has always been the lens through which we all view and interpret not only the past, but current events, particularly in our time of propagandized education and increasing disconnect with our own history. The power of cinema is such that audiences tend to absorb uncritically the images and messages presented onscreen, and with them, the political perspective of the filmmakers.
Truth is the first casualty of war, it is said, and this is no less true of the culture war. A critically well-regarded film like Selma – especially in this current, racially charged atmosphere – will have more impact on how younger generations perceive the civil rights era than any number of textbooks, documentaries, memoirs, or articles pointing out historical inaccuracy. All of those are important and necessary weapons, but ultimately, the war for truth will be won or lost on the cultural battlefield, and the Selma filmmakers know this.
(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 1/21/15)