Selma: Hollywood’s Latest Foray into the Civil Rights Movement

 James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James KaralesCollection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke
University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country.  In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”

As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.

Hollywood has also tried to “do” civil rights films before, though not very successfully.  Films like Mississippi Burning (1988) or The Long Walk Home (1990) presented a civil rights story where the heroes were white men and women.

This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.

Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role.  Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”

As with any film that seeks to dramatize historical events, it’s always a good idea to read a good book to help you gain perspective.  For that, I recommend David J. Garrow’s Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then see the film for yourself and decide.

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