'Selma' and the Sex Tape Controversy: MLK Historian Assesses Film's Accuracy
Historical veracity was a hot-button issue for Ava DuVernay's best picture-nominated biopic on Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes, however, the truth is unknowable, as a top academic appraises two versions of the movie's script centered on scandal.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The FBI's secret audiotapes of Martin Luther King Jr., revealing the civil rights leader's adulteries, are at the heart of much of the controversy surrounding best picture nominee Selma. Ava DuVernay's film suggests that President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 had them sent to King's wife, Coretta Scott King — which Johnson loyalists fiercely denied. That suggestion was not contained in Paul Webb's 2007 original screenplay, which DuVernay heavily rewrote. THR asked David J. Garrow, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on King, Bearing the Cross, to judge the historical accuracy of each. "Both are horrid," Garrow says. He faults Webb for dubiously depicting King with a prostitute, and DuVernay's film for depicting Johnson as reluctant on civil rights ("100 percent false") and for inventing the scene where Coretta confronts King for cheating and he says he loves her only.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the bugging on his own authority; looking for ties to Communists, he stumbled upon King's extramarital activities, and one of his deputies, in an effort to discredit King, then sent the tapes to King's office. The package included an unsigned letter purporting to be from a disillusioned supporter who threatened to expose sex orgies with "evil playmates" and hinted that King should commit suicide. Coretta turned the letter and tapes over to King and his confidantes, including Andrew Young, who has questioned their authenticity. Even so, both screenplays make use of the tapes, conflating them with the letter, though to dramatically different ends. Garrow says exactly what material the FBI "included on the 'highlights' reel is specifically unknowable," but that both scripts take their own liberties with the truth. "I acquired a pretty detailed understanding of what was on the surviving tapes," says Garrow. "It probably was King on the tape," says Chuck Fager, King's colleague and Selma jail cellmate.
"I liked the movie," says Fager. "I appreciated DuVernay's willingness to raise the [sex tape] issue, and the scene felt emotionally authentic." Garrow notes that there is no record of Coretta ever confronting King, and quotes what she did say: "During our whole marriage we never had one single serious discussion about either of us being involved with another person. … If I ever had any suspicions, … I never would have even mentioned them to Martin." He quotes one King staffer who said, "Had the man lived, the marriage wouldn't have survived — and everybody feels that way," and another staffer who said, "Coretta King was most certainly a widow long before Dr. King died." King avoided his understandably angry wife and bedded many women instead. "Only one [of King's girlfriends] was significant, and she's still alive," says Garrow.
Selma's most egregious fiction, says Garrow, is its suggestion that Johnson was not a passionate civil rights crusader. "The whole notion that Johnson was reluctant, resistant, is false." But Fager forgives this. "The encounter between King and Johnson as portrayed is evidently different from what transcripts say," he admits. "However, the tension between the priorities of acting on poverty versus voting was in my view very much a real one, not only then but now. So the clash of issues seemed to me true to life, if not to text."
"It's a tragedy that Selma wound up with these two [Webb and DuVernay]," says Garrow. "This is a choice between
two crap sandwiches: Do you prefer the one labeled Cat Poo, or the one labeled Dog Poo? The person who would have done it right is that Paul Greengrass guy." Garrow, who has spoken with six filmmakers about King films, says that Greengrass was the smartest and most historically minded "by a humongous margin." Nonetheless, says Fager, "Nothing about Selma would have prevented me from voting for it for the Oscar."