Critics feud over ‘false’ civil rights film

Allies or rivals? Tom Wilkinson and David Oleyowo as Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King in Selma.

Selma, a new film about American civil rights, is released in the UK today. It is critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated — but is it inaccurate? And does it matter if so?

‘The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name, or because he abbreviated a word on the application.’

Forty years ago US President Lyndon B Johnson spoke these impassioned words to Congress in a speech that many see as the crowning victory of the 1960s civil rights movement. The president has long been celebrated for his role in ending racial discrimination in the USA. But now a new film is casting doubt on that version of events.

Selma, released in the UK today, recounts a climactic moment in the campaign for civil rights that led to Johnson’s momentous speech. It follows Martin Luther King as he leads a 50-mile march from Montgomery in Alabama to the town of Selma in Alabama, which was notorious for its suppression of the black vote. When they arrived in Selma, African American activists were attacked by police.

In the film, Johnson is only partially portrayed as an ally. He supports civil rights but opposes the Selma march, urging King to move more slowly and cautiously and even asking the FBI to spy on him.

The film has received many five-star reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Behind the buzz, however, a storm is brewing. Critics say the film’s portrait of a tense relationship between Johnson and King is misleading.

Selma ‘falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr, said one former aide to the president. ’In fact, Selma was his idea.’ Some have even called for the film to be boycotted.

Not everybody is convinced that the historical inaccuracies are so grotesque. Some critics have suggested that the film is right to minimise the president’s role and emphasise the importance of grassroots activists.

But this is not the only recent film to be accused of playing fast and loose with the truth: the Imitation Game, also nominated for Best Picture, has been criticised for simplifying the story of Alan Turing.

The fakies

Selma’s director believes that even if inaccuracies do exist, they are justifiable. ‘This is art; this is a movie,’ she says. ‘I’m not a historian.’ Many people sympathise with this view: the kind of truth that matters in art is about the authenticity of the message and the narrative, not precise details and events.

But many disagree: ‘Even in the movies—and especially in this one—accuracy matters,’ said one journalist. The story that made US history doesn’t need any embellishing to make an engaging and successful film. There is no justification for bending the truth to fit a narrative.

You Decide

  1. Should a film based on real life always strive for accuracy?
  2. Is the purpose of a historical fiction to inform, to entertain, or something else altogether?

Activities

  1. Hold a class vote to choose your own Oscar winner: what is the best film released in the last year?
  2. Plot a film focusing on a seminal moment in the life of an important historical figure. What details will you include? How closely will you stick to the truth?

Some People Say...

“Facts sometimes have a bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable.”

Werner Herzog

What do you think?

Q & A

So should I trust anything in this film, or is it all lies?
Most of the story’s elements are almost universally accepted as fact: it’s true African Americans were disenfranchised in 1960s America and that Martin Luther King’s march to Selma helped to change that. And it’s true, as the film portrays, that the violence at the end of the march prompted Lyndon Johnson’s historic speech. Only the details are contentious.
Can you really trust any source to tell you the truth about history?
Nothing is totally objective, whether or not it is a work of fiction. But it’s usually possible to find out how responsibly something has been researched: you can always find out what it’s sources are and read reviews by experts in the field. Don’t trust anything blindly, but don’t think everything is a lie.

Word Watch

Negro
This word refers to a person of African ancestry or appearance. During the Civil Rights Movement, many started to object to it due to its negative connotations of slavery and discrimination. It is now only deemed acceptable when used in a historical context.
Congress
The US Congress comprises the Senate and House of Representatives, with senators and representatives elected in the states from the Democratic and Republican parties (along with an occasional independent).
Montgomery
A US city steeped in civil rights history. Marking the end of the famous Selma march, it also played an important part in the start of the civil rights movement, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.
Suppression
Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, election officials regularly denied African American citizens the right to vote, asking them questions that were impossible to answer.
Grassroots
A grassroots movement is often made up of local people campaigning for change. A US politician thought to have coined the phrase said his party had ‘grown from the soil of people’s hard necessities’.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.