A Disappointing ‘Selma’ Film

Exclusive: At a moment when voting and other civil rights are under attack in America, a new movie “Selma” recounts the struggle, led by Martin Luther King Jr., to secure the African-American right to vote. But the film falls short in both telling key facts and conveying the drama, says James DiEugenio.

By James DiEugenio

In post-World War II American history, with the exception of John F. Kennedy, perhaps no other figure grips the public imagination like Martin Luther King Jr. does. And as with Kennedy, questions about the original verdict in his assassination help fuel the interest in his life.

But unlike President Kennedy, King was never a politician. He was a Baptist minister by training and vocation. But once he did such a fine job organizing the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, he launched himself into the political arena by becoming the de facto leader of the American civil rights movement.selma-movie

In other words, a man who had been trained as a religious pastor dedicated himself to breaking down the centuries old walls of segregation and discrimination in the South. And towards the end of his life, King had broadened his scope further. He spoke out in opposition to the Vietnam War and on the question of the distribution of wealth in America. A man trained in religion aimed his sights at political, social and economic goals.

Further, he refused to take any monetary gain for his efforts, even though his notoriety managed to bring millions of dollars to his cause. Because of all this, King has attained a status something like a secular saint in American culture, explaining why some of the books about him have religiously referenced  titles e.g. David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, and Taylor Branch’s trilogy: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and  At Canaan’s Edge.

This aspect of King’s career a kind of precursor to liberation theology is particularly accentuated because, unlike Malcolm X, King did not advocate or threaten violence in his protest campaigns. In fact, under the influence of Bayard Rustin, King had studied the effectiveness of the non-violent crusades of Gandhi against the British Raj in India. And in 1959, he actually visited India to study how Gandhi had done his work. (Martin Luther King Jr.: The FBI File, by Michael Friedly ad David Gallen, p. 20)

King’s Origins

King was born into a middle-class family in Atlanta in 1929, coming from a line of local Baptist preachers. King’s father practiced at the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a church that had a strong influence on the local civil rights movement. (James Cone, Martin and Malcolm and America, pgs. 20-22)

King’s father was proud to be a member of the black middle-class. He liked to say that his children never lived in a rented house, and he never owned a car for very long with payments due. But at the age of six, little Martin was stunned when a white school friend of his told him he could not associate with him anymore since he was “a colored boy.” (ibid, p. 23)

King went home and told his parents. They sat him down and explained the terrible and true facts about what whites had done to black Americans since slavery began. King recalled later that the question in his mind after this was, “How can I love a race of people who hate me?”

His parents said that whatever he felt about it was irrelevant. He could not hate the white race for the simple reason that he was a Christian. But his father also demonstrated to him that he did not have to take personal insults by turning the other cheek. King Sr. said, “When I stand up, I want everyone to know that a man is standing there.” (ibid)

For instance, once when his father was stopped by a policeman, the officer told him, “Boy, show me your license.” To which King Sr., replied by pointing at young Martin and saying, “That’s a boy there. I’m, a man, I’m Reverend King.” (ibid, p. 24) He later told his son, “Nobody can make a slave out of you if you don’t think live a slave.”

At Booker T. Washington High School, King first became known for his remarkable speaking abilities. On a return trip one night from an oratorical contest, the bus driver demanded that King and his teacher give up their seats near the front of the bus to some newly boarding whites. King did not want to comply. The driver then started cursing at them “and calling us black sons of bitches.” (ibid, p. 25)

King still would not move. But his teacher said they had to obey the law. The two stood in the aisle for 90 miles from Valdosta to Atlanta. King never forgot that humiliation. And he also added, “I don’t think I have ever been so deeply angry in my life.”

An Unlikely Course

King was such an exceptional student that he skipped two grades of high school. When local Morehouse College announced it would accept any high school student who could pass their entrance exam, King took them up on their offer. He graduated from Morehouse at age 19 in 1948, and enrolled at Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Moving north, King found out that racism in America was not confined to south of the Mason-Dixon line. At Crozier, King had a gun pulled on him by a white student from North Carolina who accused him of messing up his room. Another time, he and his friends were refused service at a restaurant in New Jersey. The owner then removed them from the establishment at gunpoint.  When King tried to file charges, none of the white witnesses would agree to testify in court. (ibid, p. 28)

At Boston University, during his Ph. D. studies, King was exposed to Walter Rauschenbusch’s classic 1907 book, Christianity and the Social Crisis. This was a seminal work of the Social Gospel movement. (ibid, p. 29) One of its most famous dictums is, “Whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.” King now had the theological underpinnings to gird him for his career. This is why he always said he came to Gandhi through Jesus. (Garrow, p. 75)

King graduated from Boston University in 1955. He and his wife Coretta could have stayed in the Northeast. He was offered positions in New York and Massachusetts. (Cone, p. 32) Instead he chose the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, as his first posting. At first, King thought he would be a pastor for a few years and then step into the academic world and be a professor. (ibid, p. 33)

But in a colossal piece of serendipity, it was in that year and that place that both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks were arrested for refusing to give up their bus seats to whites. The local civil rights leaders decided that the Parks incident was an ideal vehicle with which to challenge both the law and the Montgomery bus company. (Garrow, p. 16)

A Reluctant Leader

Contrary to popular belief, King did not step in and take over the Montgomery movement. At first, he did not even want to get involved. He told his fellow minister, Ralph Abernathy, he would think over attending a local pastors’ meeting. (ibid, p. 17)

Abernathy convinced King not to just attend, but to hold the meeting at his own church. As everyone knows, the success of the Montgomery bus boycott essentially created the civil rights movement. It also launched King’s national career, and started the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was the fundraising and decision-making arm of the King/Abernathy organization.

What should not be forgotten is that this was a perfect example of a man growing into a moment. For example, during that year-long boycott, King visited a friend of his from the Crozier seminary. The friend later said he could barely recognize King from his college days. He said he had aged 20 years in just five. But further, “He wanders around in a daze, asking himself: Why has God seen fit to catapult me into such a situation.” (Garrow, p. 76)

If ever there was an example of a stumbling into his great place in life, it was King. But as most commentators would agree, after the Montgomery boycott, the SCLC did not really come close to repeating that kind of spectacular success until Kennedy’s inauguration. This was because, even though the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board court decision in 1954 on school integration had been handed down during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency (and two other civil rights landmarks the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 also occurred during the Eisenhower administration), Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon were not deeply interested in advocating for or advancing civil rights.

Laws also are only effective if they are enforced. And the enforcement of these new rules was, at best, tepid under the GOP administration despite the notable exception of Eisenhower’s intervention in the desegregation of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. But the pace for change was about to accelerate.

A White House Ally

In October 1960, Sen. John Kennedy, the Democratic presidential nominee, told his civil rights advisory board that he would use the two legislative acts to break the back of voting discrimination in the South. (Harry Golden, Mr. Kennedy and the Negroes, p. 139)

This was a stark contrast to Eisenhower telling a reporter in 1956 that the Brown decision had set back progress in the South by at least 15 years. Or Nixon saying ,“If the law goes further than public opinion can be brought along to support at a particular time, it may prove to do more harm than good.” (ibid, p. 61)

Kennedy’s promise of action, plus his intervention for King during the 1960 campaign while King was in jail, raised expectations once Kennedy was in office. By openly allying himself with King, Kennedy was giving the civil rights movement ballast and hope. So when Attorney General Robert Kennedy began to file segregation and voting rights cases under the dormant laws that Eisenhower and Nixon had neglected, something unforeseen happened: the civil rights movement began to broaden and act on its own on multiple fronts.

The movement finally had someone in the White House who had sympathy for them and with whom they had some influence. In his first memo to Kennedy on the subject, civil rights adviser Harris Wofford wrote that the problem with the civil rights cause was that there had been no real leadership in the Executive Branch or Congress to supplement the work of the courts.

So when President Kennedy began ordering integration and affirmative action in government positions and business contracts and altering the composition of the Civil Rights Commission and Robert Kennedy began hiring more civil rights lawyers and investigators and filing more and more state cases a synergy entered the calculus.

Soon, there was a powerful new momentum for racial justice. So much so that in June 1963, Kennedy made the clearest affirmation on the need for civil rights by a president in 100 years. He followed up by sending a new civil rights bill to Congress and then, in July, he made a surprise announcement at a press conference: He would back King’s upcoming March on Washington in support of the bill. (Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept, p. 114)

Political Battles

After Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law much of Kennedy’s civil rights bill with an emphasis on equal access to public places. But Johnson had stripped the act of an important voting rights aspect, since he thought it would be filibustered otherwise.

So there still needed to be further legislation on voting rights, which whites in parts of the Deep South staunchly opposed. One of those places was Alabama under the rule of segregationist Gov. George Wallace.

The voting rights battle would put King and civil rights activists back in the streets. Overall, there were four spectacular demonstrations that King was involved in: the Montgomery bus boycott, his showdown with police chief Bull Connor in Birmingham, his March on Washington and his face-off with Wallace and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma in 1965. The last is the subject of the new film Selma produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt.

It’s hard to believe considering the incredible historic drama around King’s career that there have been few widely distributed movies either feature films or documentaries made about his life. In 1970, a cinema-verité-style documentary was produced for theaters by Ely Landau: King: A Filmed Record from Montgomery to Memphis. In 2004, PBS produced a more conventional documentary, Citizen King, which was a part of its American Experience series.

In 1978, writer-director Abby Mann made a three-night, 300-minute mini-series for NBC which starred Paul Winfield as King and Cicely Tyson as his wife. In 2001, HBO films produced a television movie called Boycott about the Montgomery movement, starring Jeffrey Wright as King and Terrence Howard as Abernathy.  I have seen all of the above except the last (which, in fairness to it, is supposed to be the best.) To me, none of them really did justice to King, but the Mann mini-series was particularly poor.

Before addressing the current film, let us lay in the historical background about the Selma demonstrations. Alabama, because of George Wallace’s high profile, had been a target of the civil rights movement for years. Young organizers like John Lewis and Jim Bevel had tried to organize voting rights drives there prior to 1965.

But the white power structure was not going to give black citizens the franchise, keeping blacks from the polls with devices such as the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and literacy tests. Showing how effective these tactics were, Alabama had an all-white state legislature. (Garrow, p. 371)

Further, though Selma was 57 percent black, only 130 African-Americans were registered to vote in 1964. In that year, Lewis had tried to register 50 blacks, but they were arrested. Afterwards, a state judge imposed an order saying any gathering of more than three people in public to discuss civil rights was against the law. This unconstitutional edict was clearly aimed at preventing civil rights activists from organizing mass demonstrations. (Branch, Pillar of Fire, p. 553)

Taking to the Streets

Prior to Jim Bevel convincing King to take on the challenge, the two main voter rights organizations in Selma, which was located in Dallas County, were the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Dianne Nash, a young volunteer, was a major force in SNCC. (Although she is portrayed in the film, her presence is minimal. And the husband/wife relationship between her and Bevel is not noted.)

As many historians have written, King was really the glue that kept the civil rights movement together for two reasons: first, his remarkable oratorical powers combined with his genial personality made him indispensable to the outreach of SCLC, and second, he did not present himself as a radical like Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael. He could work with the politicians inside the system.

King also was in the center of the movement, with the NAACP on his right and groups like SNCC on his left. So, as the film depicts, when King decided on the Selma drive, some of those representing other factions did not welcome his, or the SCLC’s, presence.

King decided to take on Selma because he noted some factors in his favor. First, the newly elected mayor was a moderate. His police chief, Wilson Baker, was also a relatively reasonable man. But the sheriff, Jim Clark, was another Bull Connor: an inveterate, violent racist determined to stop King.

Baker was planning to employ the soft-line tactics used so adroitly against the SCLC by Laurie Pritchett in Albany, Georgia. But King understood that the courthouse in Selma was under Clark’s jurisdiction. So this is where the SCLC planned its first marches. The idea was to make Clark into another Connor: a symbol of the ugly, near-psychotic racism of the Old South and to use that image in the media to shame the consciences of Northern liberals.

This approach had worked to give Kennedy the votes he needed to submit his Civil Rights Act. The SCLC was going to use Clark and Selma to give Johnson the boost he needed to pass a Voting Rights Act. The fact that Clark had both Klansmen and National States Rights Party members on his force made this tactic naturally enticing.

The Battle Begins

Sheriff Clark controlled not just the courthouse square, but also the outlying areas. The SCLC understood the tactical importance of this division in duties as did police Chief Baker, who favored a less confrontational strategy. But Baker and the mayor could not overcome the stubbornness of the state police officers and Wallace, who had a lot invested in this conflict. In 1963, Wallace had been forcibly removed from the front gate of the University of Alabama when Kennedy enforced a court order to integrate the college. The governor did not want to suffer another public reversal.

In January 1965, the SCLC began with marches on the courthouse in order to get their people registered. Accompanied by the likes of Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell and states rights fanatic J. B. Stoner, Sheriff Clark escorted the demonstrators to a nearby alley and said applicants would be registered one by one. (Garrow, pgs. 378-79) But that did not happen.

The next day, when the marchers arrived again, they refused to move to the alley as requested. When Clark forcibly removed them from the sidewalk, there was mild resistance. This quickly escalated into police brutality and mass arrests. The arrests were based on the previously mentioned ruling by the state judge. This repeated itself the next day.  By that time, there were over 200 people in jail, including King. The SCLC paid for an ad in the New York Times saying that Clark had more people in the Selma jail than were registered to vote.

Since there were 60 newsmen on the scene, the media attention worked. President Johnson began to talk about both a voting rights bill and an amendment. Further, U.S. District Judge Daniel Thomas issued a restraining order barring Selma authorities from hindering applicants.  But Clark would not let up. He arrested people with writs saying “charges to be named later”. (Branch, p. 562)

When Annie Lee Cooper and others showed up the next day, Clark pushed some of the demonstrators. Cooper punched him. As the deputies threw her to the ground, she screamed up at Clark, “I wish you would hit me, you scum!” Clark did.  And it made the front pages. (Garrow, p. 381.The film shows this incident, but strangely, her great line is not in the film.)

As more and more national attention focused on the confrontation, King began to direct the crusade from inside the jail. He asked for congressional visits, more of Johnson’s intervention, and also for private citizens to join in from all areas of America.

Federal Judge Thomas issued another order, saying Selma must drop Alabama’s difficult literacy test and at least 100 new applicants must be registered per day. Johnson made a public statement approving this new policy and endorsing the demonstrators’ aims. (ibid, p. 385. LBJ’s powerful statement is eliminated by the screenwriter, a revealing excision that I will return to later.)

The SCLC could have bailed King out of prison the first day. However, in order to heighten the tension, they didn’t. When he did leave, he flew to Washington and met with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Attorney General Nicolas Katzenbach and Johnson to discuss the specifics of a voting rights bill. (ibid, p. 387.  Again, this is not in the film.)

An Expanding Confrontation 

The demonstrations spread outside of Selma, to places like Camden and Marion. At night, in Marion which was under Clark’s control newsman Richard Valeriani had his skull fractured and demonstrator  Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed. Wallace then banned all nighttime protests and labeled the SCLC as “professional agitators with pro-Communist affiliations.” (ibid, p. 392)

In the wake of Jackson’s death and Wallace’s smear, the SCLC decided to cap the drive with a march to Montgomery from Selma, a distance of over 50 miles. King returned to Washington before the march and was told by Johnson that that he thought he could get the voting rights bill through. They also talked about protection for the march. (ibid, p. 395)

There ended up being three attempts at a march. King was absent from the first attempt which, as the film shows, was led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis. As the march crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it was stopped by a large detachment of state troopers. They ordered the marchers back. When the marchers hesitated, they were attacked by batons, tear gas and troopers on horseback. In the background, white Southerners cheered the violence. Over 70 people went to the hospital, including Lewis. Police Chief Baker finally arrived at the scene to berate Sheriff Clark.

King led the second march. This time, he stopped in front of the troopers.  Wallace had ordered the troopers to open up an alley for the procession to pass. (ibid, p. 404) But King did not utilize it. He led a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” and turned around.

That evening a group of three visiting Massachusetts ministers were attacked by white thugs. One, the Reverend James J. Reeb of Boston suffered a blow to the skull from which he later died. Johnson issued a statement condemning the violence and said he was writing a bill on voting rights. He would address Congress himself on the issue. (ibid, p. 405) He did so, and most believe he gave the best speech of his life, echoing the words, “We shall overcome.”

For the final march, Gov. Wallace said he could not guarantee the demonstrators’ safety, so Johnson mobilized the National Guard under the direction of the Justice Department. The march proceeded successfully and King made a powerful speech in Montgomery, but not before there was one more death, Viola Liuzzo, a Northerner who came to Selma at King’s urging. She was transporting some of the SCLC marchers back and forth during the procession and was killed by a Klan member.

The Movie’s Narrative

The movie Selma begins with King dressing to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. We then cut to the bombing of four young black girls in Birmingham, murders that actually occurred the year before, after Kennedy’s submission of his civil rights bill. To me, this was an acceptable use of dramatic license, since it showed that even though King was being honored abroad, there was still much violence awaiting the movement at home.

We then move to Selma where Annie Lee Cooper is being denied the right to vote by a registrar because she cannot name all 67 judges in Alabama. Next, the SCLC begins to move into Selma in preparation for the crusade. We watch as one of Nazi Rockwell’s henchmen punches King in the lobby of a (now integrated) hotel.

Throughout the film, director Ava DuVernay posts facsimiles of FBI teletypes showing the surveillance that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was conducting on King. The FBI file on King went back as far as 1958 (Friedly and Gallen,p. 110), and it was greatly intensified in 1962 when King criticized Hoover about the lack of protection the FBI was giving civil rights workers.

The ultra-sensitive FBI Director promptly retaliated by calling a news conference and calling King the most notorious liar in America. (ibid, p. 43) Although there was an attempt at public reconciliation, it was only done for public appearances. Hoover’s resentment toward King persisted until King’s death and some would say beyond that.

Hoover’s effort to destroy King culminated in the manufacture of a so-called “suicide package,” a message telling King that he was a “complete fraud” and a “moral imbecile.” After two paragraphs of insults and invective, the letter said King’s end was approaching and “you are done,” repeating that phrase three times.

The letter concluded with: “there is only one thing for you to do. You know what that is. . . . There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” (Garrow, p. 373)

Enclosed with the letter was an audiotape of King telling some bawdy jokes and making some unkind comments about some friends and public figures. There were also the sounds purportedly of King engaging in sex with other women besides his wife. The film depicts Coretta King playing the tape for her husband but does not include the letter, whose absence is symptomatic of a serious failing of the film.

By not having the letter read verbatim, DuVernay passes up what surely would have been a dramatic highlight. But it also dilutes just how vicious the battle was between Hoover, King and the civil rights movement. Further, Hoover is barely depicted in the film. When he is, he is played by Dylan Baker, who does not resemble him and is not made up to look like him.

Misunderstood Role

And in Hoover’s one scene, screenwriter Paul Webb portrays the FBI Director as some kind of efficient civil servant who reports to President Johnson on the surveillance and intelligence that he has on King. This is simply not accurate. In addition to the aforementioned “suicide package,” during the time frame of the film, Hoover tried to get the business and political leaders of Atlanta not to follow through on a dinner to honor their most famous citizen.

Hoover also tried to prevent King from getting an audience at the Vatican. (Branch, pgs. 483, 569) By all accounts, these maneuvers had a serious deleterious psychological effect on King. He was deeply troubled that, one day, he would wake up and see these accusations splashed across the front page of a major newspaper, which is what Hoover tried to do on more than one occasion.

But, for some reason, screenwriter Webb and director DuVernay decided to leave almost all of this out. Instead, they do something just as inexplicable: They transfer the animus and obstructionism from Hoover to Johnson.

Johnson historian Mark Updegrove has complained about this inaccuracy. If anything he is too mild. For instance, the film clearly implies that the celebrated “suicide package” was sent to the SCLC Atlanta office because Hoover was abiding by Johnson’s wishes. In other words, it was a joint venture to stop King’s Selma drive.

In no account that I have read of this despicable act is there even the pretense for this being accurate, including the Church Committee Report where it first surfaced, down through the two leading biographies of King by Branch and Garrow, and even books which focus on this very subject, that is the campaign by Hoover against King.

At the time depicted in the film, Johnson was actually on friendly terms with King. On the eve of the Selma drive, he called King for some advice on presidential appointments. (Branch, p. 560) It’s true that when King met with Johnson on his return from Oslo, Johnson told him that he did not think he had the votes to pass a Voting Rights Act.

As Andrew Young recalled, when King told him about this, Young asked what they should do in that case. King replied that they had to get the power for Johnson, which was one reason the Selma campaign began. (op. cit. Updegrove)

Further, unlike what the film depicts, Johnson did not need to call Hoover in to be briefed on what the FBI had on King because Hoover voluntarily would send Johnson reports on this activity. He did this for the same reason he sent the material to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Hoover was trying to drive a wedge between these two national leaders and King. (Branch, p. 545)

The film also discounts the real reason that King passed up the chance to go through the opening left by Sheriff Clark on the second attempt to march to Montgomery. Johnson and his aides had been working with the federal judge to hold a hearing so that he could legally provide protection for the marchers.

King wanted to march before that hearing was held. So Johnson sent in a team of mediators, among them Kennedy’s civil rights lawyer John Doar, to negotiate a truce so that no one would get hospitalized again. The film only shows this very briefly and it does not make clear Johnson’s role in it.

To be sure, there was a falling-out between King and Johnson. But this occurred later after King began to rail against the administration for shortchanging the War on Poverty while spending billions of dollars on the Vietnam War. But that break occurred in 1967 when King made his blistering speech against the war in New York City.

No one has more disdain for President Johnson than I do for reversing so many of Kennedy’s policies, but voting rights was not an example of this. And, therefore, this is not a legitimate use of dramatic license.

It is instructive to compare the depiction of Hoover in this film with his portrayal in Mario Van Peebles’ 1995 Panther. That was an accurate and honest portrayal of what Hoover’s FBI did through its COINTELPRO attacks to decimate the Black Panther movement. That much-ignored film much more honestly than Selma depicts Hoover’s role against the civil rights movement.

Other Shortcomings

Beyond that cheap shot against Johnson, Selma has other shortcomings. It contains most of the conflicts that occurred during the voting rights campaign and those moments presented remarkable opportunities in cinematic terms. I wish I could say DuVernay was up to them. But in my view, the direction, editing, and music scoring were all pretty much conventional and prosaic.

In fact, from what I have seen of HBO’s Boycott, that television film holds its own technically and aesthetically with Selma. This film, with a more capable director, would have had much more brio and fire to it.

And this criticism extends to the acting. The best I can say about the major performances is that they were adequate, including Tim Roth as Wallace, Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta and David Oyelowo as King. With these kinds of roles at hand and with so much archival material available the director should have pushed the performers into the very breath of their characters, such as has occurred in other historical movies, i.e., Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa.

To put it mildly, I never got that feeling watching the film. In fact, the best performance in the film is by Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper. She really understood and planned her character, and then got to the outer reaches of sensitivity to empathize with her. For me the best scene in the film is the early one with Cooper being denied her voting rights and much of that quality is due to Winfrey’s acting.

And finally, the film passed up a real opportunity to add some electricity to the film. During the crusade in Selma, Malcolm X had a speaking engagement in nearby Tuskegee and was invited by two SCLC workers to visit Selma. He appeared at a press conference, met with staff members, gave a speech, and talked to the wives of King and Abernathy. Pretty much all we see of this is the last.

In my opinion, this would have been a great opportunity to dramatize the splits in the civil rights movement, to contrast Malcolm with King, and to show how Malcolm was not changing his approach and he was beginning to play a “good cop/bad cop” routine with King. Meaning that, if you don’t give this American Gandhi what he wants, you will have to deal with me.

The film ends with King giving his speech in Selma and captions denoting progress made that, for example, Andrew Young went on to be voted mayor of Atlanta twice and John Lewis a long-term congressman.

The film is supposed to be a commemoration of a long and brutal struggle, as well as a distillation of a great man. In this writer’s opinion because of the script’s biases and the director’s lack of inspiration and imagination it does not do justice to its subject. We should have felt like we were being forced to the ground and pounded by Clark’s baton. We should have been shaking with rage at Wallace’s plotting in the state house. Most of all, we should have been outraged at Hoover’s attempts to break King’s spirit.

The film doesn’t do these things. Therefore, I still await a picture that does justice to the great subject of Martin Luther King.

James DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His most recent book is Reclaiming Parkland.

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14 comments for “A Disappointing ‘Selma’ Film

  1. Aimé Duclos
    January 2, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    I never cease to be amazed as to how little of the facts and emotions of the Civil Rights movement, of the Viet Nam era, heck of most everything from the fifties and sixties, and early seventies seems to have been either forgotten or never learned in the first place. And most information that is currently generally available is as a sound bite, a headline, a single cynical off the cuff remark by some self-aggrandizing pundit. I fear that most folk roughly 50 years old and younger will never get an appreciation for the spirit and intensity of those times, or quite understand the cultural revolution this nation was painfully experiencing.

    • Vivek Jain
      January 3, 2015 at 2:43 am

      “Those who hold the clubs insist on historical amnesia.”
      – Chomsky

      “[T]he mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction — so tremblingly respectful of state and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements — that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”
      – Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

      “The result of having our history dominated by presidents and generals, and other ‘important’ people, is to create a passive citizenry; not knowing its own powers, always waiting for some savior on high, God or the next president, to bring peace and justice.”
      – Zinn

      One more from Zinn:

      ” There was never, for me as teacher and writer, an obsession with “objectivity,” which I considered neither possible nor desirable. I understood early that what is presented as “history” or as “news” is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.
      “Those who talk from high perches about the sanctity of “facts” are parroting Charles Dickens’ stiff-backed pedant in Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, who insisted his students give him “facts, facts, nothing but facts.” But behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgment— the judgment that this fact is important to put forward (and, by implication, other facts may be ignored). And any such judgment reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian, however he or she pretends to “objectivity.”
      “I was relieved when I decided that keeping one’s judgments out of historical narrative was impossible, because I had already determined that I would never do that. I had grown up amidst poverty, had been in a war, had witnessed the ugliness of race hatred, and I was not going to pretend to neutrality.
      “As I told my students at the start of my courses, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” That is, the world is already moving in certain directions—many of them horrifying. Children are going hungry, people are dying in wars. To be neutral in such a situation is to collaborate with what is going on. The word “collaborator” had a deadly meaning in the Nazi era. It should have that meaning still.”

      • Joseph Magil
        January 5, 2015 at 4:59 am

        I agree strongly with the comments of Aime Duclos and Vivek Jain. I would like to share an observation that I have made about history textbooks used in American high schools and colleges. It appears that all are published by for-profit corporations. No anticapitalist organizations and no labor unions publish history textbooks. For that reason, we learn our history the way the ruling class, which owns these corporations, would wish us to learn it. When the generation of the 60s is dead and buried, they will be either villainized or forgotten. The threat that they posed to the ruling class and their experimentation with different lifestyles and political-social arrangements (remember the communes?) will be forgotten. The now-emasculated Voting Rights Act will be portrayed as a gift from kindly white people to long-suffering Negroes. The tremendous upheavals of the time will be swept under the rug. The antiwar movement and the remarkable reporting of the briefly flourishing underground press will be ignored. By the way, the same thing has already happened with the labor movement up through WWII. America’s leftwing movements of the past, which were far more powerful than anything we have at the present, will all be flushed down the memory hole, much to the benefit of the ruling class.

  2. Vivek Jain
    January 3, 2015 at 2:36 am

    Folks, if you haven’t read Charles Payne’s “I’ve Got The Light of Freedom,” if all you know is Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks, and Martin King, and “I have a dream,” you’re missing out. Get the updated edition.
    Here’s a review from the good folks at the Zinn Education Project:
    http://zinnedproject.org/materials/ive-got-the-light-of-freedom/

    Vivek

  3. January 4, 2015 at 12:07 am

    The reason I did a brief biography of KIng was to show how he was not interested at first in even attending a meeting about the Montgomery boycott. How he then was reluctantly pulled into being the leader of the SCLC.

    Secondly, I did mention other groups who had been working in the area like DCVL and SNCC. I also noted their opposition to King and its also depicted in the film.

    Whatever one thinks of King, the Kennedys, or Malcolm or LBJ, it was that constellation that broke the back of segregation and voting rights discrimination in the south. That does not mean of course that no one else deserves credit e.g. Dianne Nash sure does. But God knows how long it would have taken without them.

    One reason this is such a good site is that it recognizes those kinds of inescapable facts.

  4. Timothy
    January 5, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I don’t believe that the film showed a cheap shot against LBJ. It is a fact that both Dr. King and LBJ disagreed on tactics. People can disagree with parts the film, but the director has great sincerity. Joseph A. Califano Jr., is totally wrong. LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover were close friends (as shown on tapes throughout the 1960’s). LBJ did nothing to stop Hoover from monitoring civil rights activists illegally (when Johnson knew what the FBI was doing), but LBJ did not authorize these types of wiretaps (during the Selma period). People in the civil rights movement (not LBJ) organized and invented the Selma protest movement. Joseph Califano Jr. is a notorious apologist for LBJ. I have heard of him and his statements before. Califano is desperate. The truth is that Lyndon Johnson expanded the Vietnam War (he allowed napalm, herbicides, white white phosphorus, etc. to be used in Vietnam. More bombs were dropped in Vietnam than all U.S. bombs dropped during WWII. Vietnamese people were forced into camps) and executed other imperialist policies throughout the Earth. LBJ supported the CIA’s illegal Operation Chaos program, which allowed the CIA to illegal monitor anti-war protesters in America. LBJ is known for using racist slurs.

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X converged on numerous views. Each agreed to oppose the Vietnam War, they opposed the viciousness of poverty, they disagreed with imperialism, and both offer criticisms of capitalism. Malcolm X became more progressive by 1965 and he supported Dr. King’s efforts in fighting for voting rights in Selma.

    He supported an Western-backed invasion of the Dominican Republic. Lyndon Johnson was right to sign the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but he was not God. LBJ passed many progressive legislation dealing with poverty, the environment, etc. He was a complex, crafty politician who knew that he had to do certain things as a means to deal with his Presidential legacy. Black people have strong leadership in the overall black freedom struggle. Black people were organizing in Selma, Alabama years before Dr. King met with Johnson. Lyndon Johnson disagreed with Dr. King on the tactics in fighting against white racist terrorism. Activists pushed Lyndon Johnson to be more revolutionary on civil rights issues. Selma was not LBJ’s idea, which is a lie. Joseph is wrong.

    Sister Amelia Boynton was definitely a leader of the Selma voting rights campaign.

    • January 7, 2015 at 3:37 am

      It most surely did deliver a chap shot against LBJ. When did I quote Califano in my review?

      I quoted KIng’s leading biographers, namely Branch and Garrow. Also the Church Committee report. Those are the best sources on what Hoover did to King, and what LBJ’s true role was. He was not an obstructonist in Selma. And he had nothing to do with the suicide package.

      • Timothy
        January 7, 2015 at 9:27 pm

        She did not perform a cheap shot. She just did not want to deify him. In retrospect, I wished she clarified the relationship between MLK and LBJ better. I only concede that to you. LBJ was a notorious imperialist and a racist point blank period. I agree with him passing progressive legislation and no one can take that away from him, but he was what he was. There can be critiques of the film, but he wanted the Voting Rights Act to be passed as a means to supplement his legacy. You can’t find a single syllable where I said that LBJ authorized Hoover to illegally monitor Dr. King. LBJ did nothing authorize those wiretaps. Yet, LBJ and Hoover were well known friends. That is a fact. LBJ could of easily stopped Hoover from doing that via his executive power. On tapes, LBJ praised Hoover all of the time. LBJ supported the illegal CIA Operation Chaos program.

  5. Phillip Rose
    January 6, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    As a big fan of Mr. DiEugenio’s work, I especially appreciate his detailed review of “Selma”. I will make two brief points about the film’s characterizations of two supporting characters, LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover.

    1. It is largely from Mr. DiEugenio’s work in other fora that I know about the concerted effort in recent years to pin the blame for the JFK assassination on LBJ. This propaganda campaign is aimed at people who are well enough informed to dismiss the Official Lone Nut/Magic Bullet Fantasy as palpably untrue, but who are not motivated enough to do more than browse a few articles on the topic. Bolstering this campaign are recent books and films which have portrayed LBJ with extra enhanced sinister overtones.

    2. I don’t pretend to understand a second meme except as an example of the general sanitizing of history in line with current politically correct attitudes. I refer to the movement to rehabilitate J. Edgar Hoover in the hearts and minds of the public. In “Selma”, we are told to forget what Hoover actually looked like. In the 2011 film “J. Edgar”, witness Hoover as a handsome (until the older Hoover was made to resemble Marlon Brando), internally conflicted, closeted gay. A web search on Hoover turns up such articles as the rather flattering “Five myths about J. Edgar Hoover” from the Washington Post. COINTELPRO? Never heard of it.

    I wonder if anyone will ever make a film called “Memphis” about the 1968 assassination of MLK, which will conclude with the 1999 jury trial that found Loyd Jowers and “and other unknown co-conspirators” (some of them from US government agencies) responsible for the shooting death of Martin Luther King Jr.

    • January 7, 2015 at 3:40 am

      Thanks Philip.

      You are exactly right about the softening image of Hoover in the latter years. First Eastwood and now this.

      LBJ did a lot of reversals of Kennedy’s policies, but this was not one of them. Just look at that speech of his I linked to.

      • January 8, 2015 at 6:02 am

        I don’t think we disagree at all on this point. My reference was to the way LBJ was portrayed in Selma (and elsewhere nowadays), not the way in which he pursued Kennedy’s intentions concerning civil rights legislation.

        I don’t recall hearing you comment on the speculation that perhaps in this one area of civil rights legislation, that not only did LBJ “continyah” with Kennedy’s intentions, but that as a white Southerner, he may have had more success than Kennedy would have had in a second term. Any thoughts on that?

        • January 8, 2015 at 3:08 pm

          With the Voting Rights Act, that might be true.

          But the Selma demonstration was pretty effective.

          Its pretty hard to argue with LBJ’s domestic legislation I think. And the fact he was from the south may have helped him get some votes JFK would not have.

          But as per his reversals of Kennedy’s foreign policy, that was just about uniformly terrible.

  6. Glenn Tracy Gilbert
    January 9, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    Well done, Jim. You’ve spared me about fifteen bucks minimum, as the film opened today here in North Atlanta and I’d planned for a couple of us to see it until I read your study and review. I expect the movie would have annoyed and disappointed me in much same way as it did you, and of course I respect your scholarship, your opinion, and your sense of humor even in grim matters.

    You’re right about Day-Lewis’s portrait of Lincoln. Frankly Paul Winfield’s portrayal of King also really has stuck with me although I agree that Mann’s production (which I seem to recall was based on Anthony Lewis’s rather broad bio of MLK), was too superficially stagey and televisual, both. With you, we here want to see a cinematic treatment of King that’s worthy of its subject. He probably was the one really great World personality this country produced in the second half of the century past.

    I see no reason why a major production limning him couldn’t be as acute and sharp as was Spike Lee’s and Denzell Washington’s depiction of Malcolm. That was a damn intelligent script, despite the hokey, elegiac, denouement–which however somehow made sense, just as it made sense for Spielberg to have screened fully three denouements for “Schindler’s List”, the Neverending Ending of hyper-screenwriting. Lee made such an indulgence work and so did Spielberg do. I think they both aimed for a close that was cathartic and redemptive, but perquisite of such a gesture is a film sufficiently vivid and intense that the audience wants to decompress before exiting the movie house or changing the channel.

    Obviously, “Selma” is not such a film. That’s too bad. An MLK bio-flick could be so salutary right now. Obviously you, as an historical researcher and storyteller can understand the great problem of figuring out how to delimit the subject, the timeframe, even though MLK’s working career was so relatively too brief, if crowded. This instinct for delimitation was half the genius of the film “Lincoln”, and the sweeping, encompassing alternative biographical strategy was more than half of what has made earlier treatments of King so wooden. Too much of a good thing.

  7. January 11, 2015 at 11:28 am

    Glenn:

    Please don’t avoid the film because of my review. I never want anyone to not see a film they were going to see because of my critique. What I wish to do is to just make their viewing more informed. So the reader understands a bit more of what they saw. You might like the film. There is no doubt it is a gripping subject. But everyone should understand what the screenwriter did.

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