As 'Selma' Courts Awards, It Gets Mired in a Bitter Historical Debate

Oprah Oyelowo DuVernay Selma Premiere H 2014
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Oprah Oyelowo DuVernay Selma Premiere H 2014

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who is portrayed in the film, questions some details, but says, "Hollywood ought to be celebrating that they’re telling this story with a great deal of historical accuracy"

As Selma goes into wide release today, Ava DuVernay’s film about three critical weeks in the civil rights movement in 1964 finds itself embroiled in a growing debate over whether the movie inaccurately presents President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in pushing for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Joseph Califano, who worked in Johnson’s White House, kicked off the attacks, blasting the movie for, he said, falsely depicting LBJ as obstructing the Selma march and using the FBI to discredit Martin Luther King Jr.. “Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano wrote in a The Washington Post opinion piece, adding, “The movie should be ruled out [of] awards season.” DuVernay, the film’s director, tweeted in response that crediting Johnson for orchestrating the Selma demonstrations was “jaw dropping and offensive” to the “black citizens who made it so.” And Chuck Fager, who was present with King at Selma and who has written the new memoir Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South, tells The Hollywood Reporter that the pro-Johnson critics of Selma are way off-base. “Is Selma demonizing Johnson? Frankly, I don’t think so,” he says. “Califano’s idea is an old meme, but that doesn’t make LBJ the creator of Selma. King had to go out and do it.”

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The debate shows no sign of dying down. On Jan. 8, Elizabeth Drew posted a fresh analysis of the film on the New York Review of Books website. She wrote that the movie’s view that Johnson and King were engaged in a struggle is “pure fiction,” explaining, “The remarkable story of the relationship between Johnson and King was that two such different men, from such different backgrounds, with such different constituencies, and responsibilities, formed a partnership to get the voting rights bill through.”  Arguing that filmmakers have a responsibility to recreate history accurately, she says, “Our history belongs to all of us, and major events shouldn’t be the playthings of moviemakers to boost their box-office earnings.”

Despite the mounting controversy, the movie has been enthusiastically received — it’s earned a 98 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and it has grossed a promising $2.3 million in limited release. But its awards potential is currently in question. While it has earned four Golden Globes nominations — including best picture, director (a first for an African-American woman) and best actor, drama for David Oyelowo, who plays King — as well as five Spirit Award nominations, it was shut out when SAG, PGA and BAFTA all announced their noms. Some have attributed that mostly to the fact that distributor Paramount Pictures was late sending out screeners. But if the film does secure Oscar nominations on Jan. 15, its future as an Oscar hopeful could be affected by the arguments about its historical accuracy.

While much of the movie is set in Selma, Alabama as civil rights activists attempt a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery, the film also looks at the relationship between King and Johnson. Written by Paul Webb and then given a major, though uncredited, rewrite by DuVernay, it presents Johnson as more of an adversary than a partner in King’s quest for the federal government to guarantee voting rights. According to the movie, Johnson, having just signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was aimed at ending segregation, wanted to turn his attention to his War on Poverty, which meant tabling voting rights legislation and discouraging the marches. The film even suggests, even if it doesn’t explicitly state it, that Johnson was so frustrated by King that he gave FBI director J. Edgar Hoover a signal to use his secret recordings to attempt to undermine King’s marriage.

On Jan. 6, speaking at a luncheon for the film in New York, DuVernay  said, "I'm not gonna argue history. I could, but I won’t.” She contended that all the focus on Johnson’s portrayal ignored the larger thrust of the film. “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,” she said, “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."

In the meantime, other voices have joined the mix and offered a more nuanced reading of both the film and the historical record. Andrew Young, former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador, was by King’s side in Selma, and he tells THR, “Actually, Selma was Amelia Boynton’s idea. When Martin and I got back to Atlanta after the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, we really didn’t want to go. But Sheriff Jim Clark wouldn’t let Mrs. Boynton bury her husband in church – he declared political meetings couldn’t be held in a church. So it was a police state, and we promised her we’d come to Selma.”

Boynton (played on screen by Lorraine Toussaint) was beaten and left for dead on Selma’s Pettus Bridge by Clark, who said, “Let the buzzards eat her.” But she not only survived but lived to march for President Obama at age 100. Fager adds that Toussaint’s performance as Boynton is “the best performance in the movie,” the truest to history.

Young, stepping into the even more fraught waters of Oscar politics, believes that the complaints about the film’s portrayal of Johnson are a ploy to diminish Selma as an Oscar contender. However, he also acknowledges that the December, 1964 White House meeting between Johnson and King, at which he was present, differed from the film’s version of events, which has Johnson telling King voting rights would “have to wait” for his antipoverty program.

“It was a cordial meeting, neither LBJ nor Dr. King mentioned a specific place for a demonstration, and I don’t recall the President made any effort to say he would rather do the Great Society first,” says Young. “He very much wanted to do voting rights, but he didn’t have the power, the votes.” Clark’s attack on the Selma protestors, which created national headlines, ultimately strengthened Johnson’s hand.

Fager, who spent time in jail with King in Selma, offers this perspective: “The movie’s speech [between King and LBJ] is not exactly historical, but the tension between those two priorities, voting rights and poverty, was real then and real now, and Selma is the perfect case study. After 50 years of voting, Selma is a wreck, 15 payday loan shops for under 20,000 people.” Fager also notes that it was only when Johnson switched his focus from civil rights to Vietnam that King, who opposed the war, became his bitter political enemy.  

Fager does criticize Selma for suggesting that LBJ ordered Hoover to bug King’s bedroom and have the FBI send highlights of the sex audiotapes to King’s wife. For though it is believed Johnson knew of the tapes, there is no evidence he ordered Hoover to use them against King. Adds Young, “It was President Kennedy’s brother Bobby [Kennedy, then Attorney General] who authorized the taping.” Fager also casts doubt on the scene where King tells his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), “That isn’t me [on the tape]” before saying that he didn’t love any other women. “It probably was him on the tape,” says Fager, though Young warns, “You cannot take the FBI files as history, because agents who didn’t come back with something negative on us got demoted.”

Will the arguments swirling around Selma knock it out of further awards contention? Sometimes, such arguments can take a toll. Some have blamed the contentious debate over the depiction of torture in 2001’s Zero Dark Thirty for the fact that that film earned just one Oscar — for sound editing. On the other hand, an extensive critique of The Imitation Game, which also appeared on The New York Review of Books website and claimed that the movie misrepresented many of the facts about Alan Turing’s life and death appeared to pick up little traction.

Having witnessed the events that the movie portrays, Young concludes, ““Ava and [producer] Oprah [Winfrey] didn’t do injustice to Johnson. Hollywood ought to be celebrating that they’re telling this story with a great deal of historical accuracy, and making it profitable. This movie should make $200 million. The differences of opinion aren’t worth fussing over.”