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Selma, History, Filmmaking, and Activism



Last night, I saw the film Selma, as directed by Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere) and written by DuVernay and Paul Webb (Selma). So what do you need to know about Selma?

First things first, it’s an excellent movie and you should all see it as soon as you can. Second, it’s a movie that’s attracted some controversy over its depiction of LBJ. Third, it’s a movie that historians, activists, and people generally on the left should watch and discuss, because it’s a movie that has something to say about activism. So we might as well discuss it here.

To start with: Selma is definitely the best film yet made about the Civil Rights Movement. And I say this because it is, more than a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. himself, a movie about movements. When King bursts into the kitchen of Richie Jean Jackson early in the film, he brings with him a large crew of experienced SCLC activists, who fiercely debate tactics and policy and who are shown doing the heavy lifting of activism – leading trainings, working with local activists, working phone banks, organizing supplies for the 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, organizing volunteers, working the media, and actually going out and marching and getting beaten to hell in front of the media. We also meet a diverse crew of activists outside of the SCLC crew, from local volunteers like Jimmie Lee Jackson and his family and Annie Lee Cooper, to SNCC activists like James Forman and John Lewis who have their own ideas about movement strategy, to Malcolm X, who shows up very much aware that his radical cred can be used to make King’s activism more palatable to whites.

And the breakthrough that the film makes with King himself is to show King as a social movement activist – someone who’s honed one particular model (“negotiate, demonstrate, resist” is the formulation he uses in meetings with other activists) but who understands SNCC’s model and the delicate nature of coalition-building, someone who has come to a pragmatic understanding that the “drama” of a Bull Connor is necessary for his media-savvy model to work, someone who is aware of the need to raise “white consciousness” but who privately is willing to berate the president for making condolence calls to the families of dead white activists but not dead black activists, someone who deliberately escalates tensions with the president (notably jabbing in the direction of Vietnam) but who also relies on the president for legislative action, someone who is capable of second-guessing and losing hope and making mistakes. And who also sometimes gives speeches.

And the film does all this to make a point: that change is not made by great men alone, but by movements that can mobilize people on the ground, that can capture the attention of the nation and thereby “move the needle,” and that yes, result in legislation that actually makes a difference. The film’s credits, which mention that Sheriff Jim Clark, who orchestrated the violence of Bloody Sunday on Pettus Bridge, was voted out of office in 1966 by newly-registered black voters (naturally, Clark tried to get 1,600 ballots thrown out for “irregularities”), make the point succinctly.

And in the wake of Occupy, and the prominence of arguments on the left that partisan politics and national legislation is pointless, this is an important point to make.


Which brings us to the depiction of LBJ, which is the focus of the controversy. Because, in a real way, the film depicts LBJ as King’s antagonist (note: not villain, antagonist) – yes, Sheriff Clark and George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover and baying mobs of racist whites are there in the background, but LBJ is the one who’s actually arguing with King face to face saying that he (LBJ) won’t support a Voting Rights Act and wants King to stop marching in Selma, and who in the movie is shown initiating the delivery of the FBI’s letter (and tape) to King calling for him to commit suicide lest he be revealed as an adulterer. Yes, LBJ comes around at the end, but as Mark Updegrove puts it, his speech to Congress near the end of the film is “devoid of any palpable conviction.”

As a matter of fact, the film gets a lot wrong about LBJ. Johnson had already ordered a Voting Rights bill be drawn up before the Selma campaign; Andrew Young says of the December 1964 meeting shown early in the film that “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation;” and LBJ certainly did not order J. Edgar Hoover to send the letter and tape to King. And yes, LBJ and King were already discussing a strategy of provoking televised violence (“Find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina. . . . Take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television”) in January of 1965. On the other hand, Joe Califano is dead wrong when he takes this to mean that Selma was Johnson’s idea; LBJ was clearly making a reference to a tactic King had already used rather than coming up with the idea on his own. And King and LBJ did disagree about when in 1965 the Voting Rights Act should come up for a vote.

In a very good piece for Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that:

“it’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. Why did the director opt for this view and not a different one? If she omits and distorts, why? What is she trying to communicate?”

Bouie’s argument is that DuVernay made this change in order to “[emphasize] the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.” That’s a fair point, and I think Bouie and others who argue that to dismiss the film for denigrating Johnson misses the point that the real heroes are the activists, are right.

However, the choice to depict Johnson as an opponent to the Voting Rights Act is one that has ramifications for the movie’s argument about how movements work. In this film, presidents like Johnson are shown as obstacles to be overcome.

And to me, that’s less interesting and arguably less radical than the story that even a president who’s actively preparing a Voting Rights bill and pushing it through Congress couldn’t get it passed without Selma giving the issue the “fierce urgency of now,” (or without the massive majorities he got in 1964 and would lose in 1966) as Julian Zelizer points out in his new, eponymous book. After all, it’s pretty conventional on the left to say that grassroots activists have to struggle against an uncaring establishment and force it to act – it’s more novel to point out that grassroots activists have to struggle, even with an establishment that’s on their side, and that sometimes the establishment might even seek out grassroots activists to cause a crisis for them to solve. Likewise, I think the point that legislation leads to long-term structural political change, and that winning the election after the march succeeds is a vital part of making sure that the success is lasting, needed more than a mention in the end credits.

We are very nearly at the end of the Obama administration, an administration that came to power in 2008 thanks in no small part to a huge grassroots activist movement, and an administration that had a complicated relationship with grassroots activism from the very moment that Obama For America turned into Organizing For America, which was supposed to be a grassroots political movement – but a movement independent of existing social movement groups or the Democratic Party, and which would answer directly to the president – all the way up to the 2012 election, when Occupy’s rhetoric about inequality and the distribution of wealth formed a key part of Obama’s stump speeches. I remember very well sitting in meetings of local Democratic Party activists in 2009, being told by OFA staffers about which policy priorities we needed to get the president’s back on (not which ones Obama would have our back on), and asking in vain as to whether Obama’s legendarily massive fundraising lists would be shared with grassroots political groups looking to win local, state, and Congressional races in 2010. And I remember the grassroots energy that had existed in 2008 not being there in the 2010 elections (at least outside of California, where I was working at the time).

The point is this: we’ve been having a fight over the Great Man vs. Grassroots, and Co-option vs. Pressure pretty much since the events that this movie portrays. The reality of politics is more complicated than this binary, and we need to start thinking and talking about ways in which grassroots movements and elected officials  can work together that don’t fall into the same traps of either hoping for savior figures to force through legislation by the power of the Green Lantern Ring or fearing that contact with elected officials will condemn social movements into coopted oblivion.

There are not enough thanks to be given to Selma for reminding us that movements matter, and showing us how they work. I just wish it had shown in the same brilliant clarity how movements and elected officials interact.


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