To my friends who loyalists to the legacy of President Lyndon Johnson and are upset over the portrayal of the late president in the movie Selma, please relax. You’re not helping the rehabilitation of you idol.
With all the risks inherent in being a white Southern man speaking on behalf of African-Americans, Selma is not a documentary. Like most “historical” dramas, Selma can be described as a fictional story based on true events. Selma is not about Lyndon Johnson.
Selma is a story of African-American empowerment, of men and women controlling their own destiny. And that can be a powerful statement in a time when the promises of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act seem to be slipping away. Even when you look at recent movies involving African-Americans and politics, there is little empowerment there.
In the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon Northup is a victim of slavery at its worst. He faces his life with bravery, but, ultimately, he is saved by liberal-minded white people. The protagonist in Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a passive observer to history even as his son – who is as fictional as Selma’s LBJ – becomes an activist for African-American rights.
The movie Lincoln has a brief portrayal of African-American troops fighting at the beginning, and in a completely fictitious moment members of the U.S. Colored Troops recited for him the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln did pass through regiments of the USCT during an 1864 visit to Petersburg, but the soldiers either stood at attention or else reached out to touch his horse as he rode by without ever dismounting. One of the soldiers described Lincoln as “our Moses.” And that was how the movie portrayed him: the benevolent white leader who delivered emancipation and ended slavery in America.
Then look at the film Glory, a very positive portrayal of African-American soldiers in a Massachusetts regiment fighting for the freedom of southern slaves. The movie showed a young, white abolitionist – Robert Gould Shaw – molding a regiment of mostly runaway slaves into a bold fighting unit that proved at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, that colored troops could fight bravely.
The truth is the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment were free blacks and many were literate African-Americans from Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In fact, their heroics at the time were dismissed by many whites who claimed the 54th was a “hand-picked” unit of above-average African-Americans.
Sgt. William H. Carney, who was loosely portrayed in Glory by Morgan Freeman, was not a runaway slave grave-digger turned soldier as shown in the movie. Carney had been born a slave in Virginia, but his owner had set all his slaves free in his will when he died. By 1856, Carney and his father were running a coastal shipping business in Massachusetts. Carney was an educated man. “Previous to the formation of colored troops, I had a strong inclination to prepare myself for the ministry; but when the country called for all persons, I could best serve my God serving my country and my oppressed brothers. The sequel in short—I enlisted for the war,” Carney wrote in a letter to an abolitionist newspaper in 1863. Unlike Morgan Freeman’s character, Carney did not die on the parapets of Fort Wagner waving the U.S. flag. He planted the flag and protected it for almost half an hour before a retreat was ordered. Although severely wounded, after the repulse by rebels, Carney brought the flag back to the federal lines. Thirty-seven years later, he received the Medal of Honor for his actions.
However, for the purposes of Hollywood, the story of Robert Gould Shaw was better told with Shaw as the leader of “contraband” than as the leader of educated black men who might have led themselves into battle if the federal government had not barred African-Americans from serving as officers.
That brings us back to Selma as a portrayal of African-Americans making their own destiny and why that is important today.
While Johnson’s presidential library last year celebrated the 50th Anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act, statistics show a de facto segregation continues to hold down African-Americans in our society. In general, African-American families earn less than white families; they were economically hit harder by the 2008 recession than whites; because they found it more difficult to obtain conventional home loans, they were more likely to become targets of subprime lending; their children are more likely to attend poor and segregated public schools; and they are more likely to receive long prison sentences when they commit the same crimes as whites.
Middle class African-Americans have complained to me for years about what they call the offense of “driving while black,” meaning police routinely stop them merely because they are African-American. There is a frustration that police and the criminal justice system treats them differently from everyone else. Hence the anger over the cases involving Trayvon Matin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Perhaps Brown and Garner deserved to be arrested, but did they deserve to die? When LeBron James wears a T-shirt that says, “I can’t breath,” he’s talking about more than Garner’s dying words – he’s talking about a substantial portion of our population who feel like they are suffocating.
The election of President Obama in 2008 held a promise of American change to greater equality and a more level playing field. But racism has grown more open if not more prevalent. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is under a full assault with white-led lawsuits and voter identification laws. I’m not ancient history yet, but I still remember segregated bathrooms and water fountains, blacks in the back of the bus and my parents talking about paying their poll taxes. Argue all you want about voter identification being about securing the integrity of elections, but for an African-American or a Hispanic born in the 1950s or before these laws look like a return to legalized disenfranchisement.
Our arts reflect our times. The movie Selma really isn’t about 1965. It’s about today and a need to feel empowered. When Johnson loyalist Joseph A. Califano Jr. argued that the march on Selma was Johnson’s idea, he played once again into the idea that African-American freedom and rights were a gift from whites, not something blacks played any role in earning for themselves.
There’s no doubt that Johnson deserves credit for his role in passing the two major pieces of civil rights legislation, and despite our current shortcomings on race, America today is better than that of the 1950s. The documentary Eyes on the Prize captures this when juxtaposing the presidents “We Shall Overcome” speech with the reaction of Selma’s segregationist mayor, Joseph Smitherman: “It was just like you’d stuck a dagger in your heart or something like that…it just destroyed everything you’d been allegedly fighting for.” Ironically, in that documentary, Smitherman noted the power of Selma as a symbol, located in a county that was half black but less than one percent were registered to vote and the city’s segregationist leadership was determined to maintain a white Dixie. “They picked Selma just like a movie producer would pick a set. You had the right ingredients.”
So Johnson loyalist need to understand that by complaining about their leader’s portrayal in Selma, they are doing more to drive a wedge between him and the nation’s African-American community than they are to preserve his memory. That can be done in documentaries or biographies or histories. This is a Hollywood movie that’s trying to say individuals have the power to make change.
On a New York panel this week, Selma director Ava DuVernay lamented the controversy this way, according to The Hollywood Reporter:
The 42-year-old, who could become the first black woman ever to earn a best director Oscar nomination, and who had previously responded to the criticisms via Twitter, offered an impassioned response. “I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”
DuVernay continued, “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David’s voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing.”
“If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy,” DuVernay added, “it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”