Selma: History as Entertainment or Entertainment as History?

Jonathan HollowayThis post is one of the AHA Today series, which examines the historical value of the film. The author, Jonathan Scott Holloway, is dean of Yale College and the Edmund Morgan Professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies. He specializes in post-emancipation social and intellectual United States history. He is the author of Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940 (UNC Press, 2013).

When I learned that plans were afoot to make a feature film about the March from Selma to Montgomery, I was more than a little curious. How much history could the filmmakers pack into 90-120 minutes? Not even an Oliver Stone-esque three-hour version of the events surrounding the march could do justice to the complexity and nuance of this pivotal moment in the American civil rights movement. I honestly don’t recall if I felt concerned or reassured when I found out that Oprah Winfrey, the alpha and omega of the entertainment industry’s “Black A-List,” was involved—again, just curious. Would this film find a critical or a receptive audience, and would it serve the purposes of entertainment or history?

Oprah Winfrey (center) plays Annie Lee Cooper in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

Oprah Winfrey (center) plays Annie Lee Cooper in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

From the opening scenes it seemed a film determined to find and do both. There’s no shortage of documentary footage available featuring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and yet, it was astonishing to observe British actor David Oyelowo disappear into the role of the mighty civil rights leader. As a thoroughly entertained consumer of the movie, as well as a historian, I was rapt—feeling as close to an approximation of King in “real life” as I was ever going to see. Performance merged into history on that big screen. But whose history was performed?

In her commitment to depicting a magnetic but imperfect King, Selma director Ava DuVernay offered a bracing history lesson to a public raised on a narrative about the civil rights movement that “we all overcame” southern injustices together, and that King was no more complex than the closing paragraphs of his speech at the March on Washington (for Jobs and Freedom, lest we forget) suggest. With her directorial choices, DuVernay made clear that she would present her interpretation of (and leave her stamp on) this history.

When the movie was released, there were critics not content to let DuVernay get away with that interpretation—not movie critics, mind you, but participants in and defenders of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Selma, in their opinion, did not give Johnson proper credit for the central role he played in keeping the peace and doing the important behind-the-scenes work that allowed the eventual march to succeed. Just as we would not dare desecrate a national monument, it was considered wrong for DuVernay (a non-credentialed historian!) to do anything that might diminish Johnson’s accomplishments. As someone who specializes in post-emancipation African American history, I could not help but read these protestations with bemusement: those whose voices “mattered” were now upset with someone telling a different version of history, or were bothered to see a major figure’s contributions diminished. To my mind, the very phenomenon that raised their hackles is the history of the African American experience and of African American accomplishment, both of which have routinely been diminished, ignored, and erased.

Some of these critics, I am sure, are conscientious students of history who believe that LBJ played an important role in civil rights history that deserves our full attention. I am equally convinced, however, that the volume of many critics’ discontent is set so high because in Selma they watched another instance of their history disappearing, a process ongoing since the post-1960s emergence of the “new” social history and a commensurate interest in how blacks, women, gays, and other marginalized individuals actively participated in their own becoming. Now, 50 years after the Selma march, studying the black past is firmly in the intellectual mainstream (the edges of that stream, I maintain, but certainly in it). Still, using the black past to reckon with and redraft memories of national exceptionalism remains fundamentally destabilizing. That an African American woman should be the person crafting this narrative seems only to have intensified the reflexive anxiety of those who feel a loss when they watch Selma.

Left to right: Stephan James plays John Lewis, Trai Byers plays James Foreman, Wendell Pierce plays Rev. Hosea Williams, and David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

Left to right: Stephan James plays John Lewis, Trai Byers plays James Foreman, Wendell Pierce plays Rev. Hosea Williams, and David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

I am not arguing here that the movie should remain above or be protected from scrutiny. Just as an older guard was bothered by the short shrift given LBJ, and despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed feeling like an eyewitness to events that I have studied my entire career but could never fully “know,” I found myself dissatisfied with some aspects of the movie’s narrative. Most importantly, I felt that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists did not get their due as visionaries and frontline foot soldiers. DuVernay paid too little attention to the fractures between SNCC’s youthful impatience and King’s more “mature” establishment leadership style. She paid too little attention to the highly theorized work that very young people—the same age and demographic of the students I stand in front of during my lecture courses—had fashioned as they aspired to create super-democratic structures. But this critique underscores a point about criticism itself: mine is but one interpretation of this magnificent and complex history. Truly, the conscientious study of the past should be capacious enough to allow for different opinions and interpretations. In the end, DuVernay earned my applause for her efforts to animate the past by relying upon hitherto unheard voices and by rendering iconic figures more human. Yes, I have my criticisms of the history she presents, but I happily welcome her voice to the chorus. For me, I suppose, that’s entertainment.

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  1. Eulas Kirtdoll

    I have not seen Selma, the movie, but I have enjoyed hearing about it. I live 40 miles from Selma, and I personally know many of the foot soldiers of the movement. They are my neighbors. I plan to see the movie, but I will do some research first. I personally do not desire to be entertained by distortion of truth. I know that a feature film simply does not have time to cover many details. However, historical accuracy is important. I am aware that the history that I, a black American, was taught in the 60’s and early 70’s (my elementary and high school years) was full of distortion and omission. After high school I began to read on my own, and discovered many of the truths that were left out of my public school education. Everyone got the same falsehoods and omissions fed to them at that time.

    Two wrongs never make a right. Correcting the wrongs of the past never means that it is OK to do wrong now. I am appalled at those who dismiss and minimize the errors in the movie that have been uncovered. Historians, especially, should hold to a very high standard. While historians can dismiss errors and misrepresentations as “artistic license”, the general public is much more gullible, and will think that what is on the screen is “gospel truth”.

    I have reported in my replies to other blog posts on this site, that the movie leaves the audience with the impression that Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in Selma, which is not true. He was shot in Marion, Alabama, 25 miles away. Those who would minimize this misrepresentation of fact should understand that the people of Marion, many of them my friends, are unhappy with the movie’s misrepresentation of the place of Jimmie Lee’s shooting. True, he died at a hospital in Selma, but he was shot in Marion. I guess that most people think that a small town (3,000) like Marion is not important. If the misrepresentation involved a big city like Atlanta, or New York, the cries of foul would be deafening. The movie makers (producers and director) surely calculated, in my opinion, that because Marion is so small, it was OK to just let people think that Jimmie Lee was shot in Selma. After all, how much complaining can people from a small town do?

    Don’t get me wrong. I accept the movie, and will get around to seeing it. My point is, that I understand why people in Marion, Alabama and their concern about the depiction of Jimmie Lee Jackson, and those who want historical accuracy in the depiction of President Johnson are rightfully upset with Selma, the movie.

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