• Marc Johnson

Selma: The Movie, The History

The Movie…

If you haven’t seen the Oscar-nominated film Selma you should. While mostly snubbed by those who

Like all films that set out to depict real events Selma has historical problems. More on that in a minute. Yet even with these not insignificant problems, the portrayal of events leading up to the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama early in 1965, even when we know the outcome, makes for gripping viewing. Because of the realism displayed in the film to illustrate the hatred and gut wrenching violence deployed against peaceful protestors Selma is also at times difficult to watch.

Director Ava Duvernay was correct, I think, to put Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the center of her important film.

I wondered as I watched the brutal scenes where peaceful African-American protestors are set upon by nightstick and horse whip armed Alabama state troopers wearing gas masks, if a whole new generation of Americans might come to understand, thanks to Selma, the unbelievable courage and determination shown by Americans who were merely seeking the right to vote. History fifty years old might as well be ancient history for many Americans and seeing the brutality and the blood in color on the big screen cannot help but underscore the reality of racism and hatred better than the old grainy black and white television film most of us have seen in documentaries.

Selma is a stunning reminder of where we came from, how far we have come and, unfortunately, how very far we still must go. Go see it and take someone under 35 years old with you.

The History…

I admit to being initially put off by the lack of political nuance in the film, not to mention the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, but after reading and digesting much of the criticism and praise of Selma I find myself in agreement with Darryl Pinckney who wrote in the New York Review of Books: “A film based on a historical subject, even a beautifully shot one, can remind us without meaning to that although reading in the US is a minority activity, the book is still the only medium in which you can make a complicated argument.”

Perhaps it’s naïve on my part, but I harbor hope that the controversy about the movie, particularly the treatment of Johnson and the virtual absence of acknowledgement of the role congressional and presidential politics played in passage of the Voting Rights Act, will stimulate a greater understanding of the confluence of hatred, protest, violence, politics, bipartisanship, racism and religion that marked the eventual passage of the landmark legislation fifty years ago.

Every film, I guess, needs a villain and Selma has several. I would be personally more comfortable if the

Moyers refers, of course, to the notorious audio tape made by the FBI and sent to King in an effort to threaten him and, Hoover hoped, drive King from leadership of the civil rights movement. As Moyer says, “some of our most scrupulous historians have denounced” the charge that Johnson had anything to do with the tape. “And even if you want to think of Lyndon B. Johnson as vile enough to want to do that, he was way too smart to hand Hoover the means of blackmailing him,” Moyers said recently.

The film also overplays Johnson’s opposition to the Selma march. In fact, Johnson understood as well as King that very public displays of protest would be needed to create the right kind of political

This scene amounts to the climax of the film and disappointingly much of the drama of those moments is lost on the screen. The staging is all wrong for anyone who knows the history. Johnson spoke in the packed chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives where everyone from the members of the

Additionally, Johnson was passionate and animated during that speech, not droll and understated as the usually excellent actor Tom Wilkinson plays the scene in Selma.

Still it is asking too much for one film, even a really fine one, to capture the full story of a tremendous turning point in American political history. If the film succeeds in further explaining and underscoring

However, amid the quibbles over historical details and the nit-picks over interpretation it is up to the rest of us to appreciate – and try to recreate in our own time – the enduring political lessons of Selma and the civil rights era. As the historian Julian Zelizer has so ably documented in his terrific new book The Fierce Urgency of Now, many different and sometimes conflicting strands came together in 1964 and 1965 to move the nation and the cause of civil rights forward. King and other civil rights leaders bravely dramatized the racism and hatred afoot in the country and made the cause of civil rights a moral and religious issue. The tragedy of John Kennedy’s assassination gave the cause new power in the hands of a determined new president. Johnson’s stunning landslide win over Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act passed just before election) gave Johnson a great issue and both greater political and moral authority to create laws. Just as important, the 1964 election created a huge Democratic majority in Congress that LBJ mobilized as a master political strategist. Northern Republicans, particularly Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Representative Charles Halleck of Indiana, embraced civil rights and worked across the partisan divide to pass vital legislation. And organized labor, many in the business community and Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations joined the fight at the grassroots. The world was watching and much of the country did come together at an historic moment.

Our history tells us that political and cultural change happens slowly; sometimes so slowly that painful and tragic events precede the needed change. Change almost always involves work from the bottom up and the top down. And change that bends that arc of history toward justice usually means people and politicians must abandon old ways and grow and change. Once he reached the White House, Lyndon Johnson ceased to become a southern politician trapped by the old ways and attitudes of his region. He grew. Dirksen, Halleck and other Republicans saw beyond narrow, conservative interpretations of what the federal government might do. They grew. One has the sense that Martin Luther King was growing, as well. By the time of his death King’s agenda was still centered on civil rights, but had expanded his moral leadership to oppose misguided U.S. foreign policy and embrace a fairer economic policy.

At its best the film and the history reminds us of the long, twilight struggle for racial equality that has been a fixture of the country since its very beginning and that the struggle goes on. It also reminds us of what brave and determined individuals can do to correct injustice as well as what is possible when the people and their politicians are courageous enough to change. There is also much to celebrate in the fact that such a film was made by a supremely gifted African-American woman.


As the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU Law School recently reported: “Increased single-party control in state capitals has accompanied a renewed push for voting restrictions. There are strong pushes for strict photo ID requirements in some Republican-led states, including in places where laws were struck down by state courts. This year, the courts — including the U.S. Supreme Court — are again poised to rule on voter ID and other election laws. Courts failed to block a number of restrictive laws last year, and without clear limits, states appear ready to move forward with harsh new measures.”

The film, our history and our current condition remind us both of where we have been and where we still need to go. Go see Selma.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson