Why Selma Got It Right

01/12/2015 10:42 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

There is much hoopla over Ava DuVernay's buzzed-about film Selma regarding historical "inaccuracies" in the portrayal of President Johnson. In a TIME magazine article, David Kaiser takes us through a narrative presupposing the president's intentions, while admitting, "LBJ never let anyone know what he planned to do until it was absolutely necessary." This seems an admission that the dramatized conversations in Selma that have become the subject of this debate are not out of place and are therefore free territory for the imaginations of a gifted filmmaker like DuVernay.

Let's contrast Spielberg's Lincoln to DuVernay's Selma. Many articles were written about Lincoln, asserting that "the dramatic core is accurate", despite some fictionalization. Spielberg himself stated, "one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that history must avoid." And that it is the job of the filmmaker to use "imagination" to recover the lost essence of history and that "this resurrection is a fantasy ... a dream."

Perhaps DuVernay has her own "dream" as the first black female filmmaker to be nominated for a Golden Globe (and dare we hope, an Oscar?). Having just seen the film, I was powerfully moved by the way in which DuVernay artfully and intimately draws us into the characters and events of the film and at once assaults us with the brutality with which black Americans live(d) and die(d). This film dramatizes bombing and beatings with a kind of arresting poetry, a vision of the internal through a masterful depiction of external events. Her artistry affects the conscience and demands response, just as injustice demands action. Brava! How one can watch DuVernay's Selma and walk out of the theatre concerned about LBJ is perplexing. Perhaps the fuss about the alleged historical verisimilitude of DuVernay's LBJ is a deflection to avoid confronting a difficult truth that our culture has yet to process.

How many people have considered that Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as being in cahoots with bribing political reprobates in Spielberg's Lincoln? Perhaps that version of Lincoln is accepted so easily because it comports with popular thinking. Even the Supreme Court seems to take no issue with a bottomless pit of money now on hand to assault the delicate loyalty of lawmakers in pursuit of change. Who can blame Spielberg for using a well-accepted modern reality to dramatize his story? Nary a word was printed in criticism of this trope, save a beautiful against-the-stream article in Harpers Magazine entitled "Team America" by Thomas Frank. Frank takes issue with Spielberg's beloved Lincoln and our willingness to accept corrupt, bribing, mustachioed lobbyists as being responsible for freeing the slaves! What are we to make of such a "dream" and our participation in it?

But DuVernay dares to stand previous depictions of white leaders -- compassionately leading necessary change -- on their head. And that may be jarring to the well-fed American consciousness. Let us just parse out the complaints piled against DuVernay, starting with the accusation that her "dream" presents LBJ as the main obstacle in getting the Voting Rights Act passed. I do not accept that interpretation as her dramatic aim, as it seemed plain to me that the film vigorously presents ignorance and entrenched racism as the main obstacles, and dramatizes them in multiple ways. However, there should be no doubt that civil rights achievements were won by the people on the ground, fighting for their dignity. And when the grotesque reality of indignity and violence was thrown in the faces of decent people everywhere through national television, showing the willingness of brave black men and women to march their very skulls into the billy club of racism, others stood up to join.

LBJ is not portrayed as the hero in Selma, but neither is he portrayed as the villain (unless you can equate politician with villain). As we know from the historical record, LBJ made it clear that legislation would have to wait and he wanted to use the Civil Rights Act to attempt to rectify the problem. King thought that wasn't going to work and DuVernay says as much in her film. LBJ's assertion that the registration problem could be solved by allowing blacks to register at Post Offices must have appeared naive to King. After all, was King supposed to believe there were fewer racists working at the Alabama post office than at the Alabama courthouse?

Kaiser asserts in his article that LBJ was taking the correct steps to ameliorate the bloody voter suppression in the South because LBJ referred to a constitutional amendment in a speech. Perhaps LBJ gave that speech to prepare the hearts and minds of the American public to accept the eventuality. We can't know his reasons, but it is also entirely possible that King would view the mention of a Constitutional Amendment in a speech as a rhetorical stalling tactic, since it is far more difficult to amend the Constitution than to pass legislation. It is not at all difficult to imagine that black activists had very little belief in such high-minded rhetoric. This does not make LBJ an antagonist. It makes King the antagonist. LBJ was a master of the Senate, and he was acutely aware of legislative timing. It is also true that LBJ wanted to go more slowly than King, to achieve his (and King's) righteous goal. Also, lets be serious, LBJ did not get voting protections passed by miraculously moving the hearts and minds of those congressional members opposed to the Bill with an eloquent speech. No, it was passed through legislative trickery, by pairing the act with a tax cut bill. How little changes! This is not an indictment against LBJ. These are the ugly truths of American politics.

Furthermore, speculation that LBJ took no action during February because he was busy dealing with the Vietnam War is just that, speculation. DuVernay's dramatization is also speculation, but no less dramatically and historically valid. Is the black man beaten on a bridge going to speculate about why the President of the United States has not acted on his behalf? Yes. Does this make LBJ a villain in this story? No. It makes him a politician and a partner. And the men and women who vote, and act, apply the pressure to move politics and policy in the right direction. Selma depicts men, women and children together with their allies, marching for decency. But it also depicts, rightfully, black Americans as the catalyst for change, pushing for the dignity they deserve and becoming masters of their own destiny by highlighting the shame, ignorance and inhumanity of their fellow (white) man. That is why Selma gets it right. And may I say, artfully crafted through a powerfully talented black female eye. Go!