David Oyelowo in Selma

The official Selma Trailer

Selma is a 2014 American historical drama film directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. It is based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC. The film stars David Oyelowo as King and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. | Photo: Archives | Selma, David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Racism, Black, African American,

About a Movement, not a man

Since I normally write about Presidential history, and am a well-known fan of Lyndon Johnson, I have received a ton of questions about whether I've seen the new movie Selma, and what I thought about the film and the controversial portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson as antagonistic to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the efforts to bring attention to the denial of voting rights of African-Americans in the South.

I finally saw Selma last night, and I thought that it was a spectacular film. David Oyelowo was magnificent as Martin Luther King, Jr., and I really appreciated the way that Ava DuVernay was able to humanize these giants of the civil rights movement and take us back to 1965 without making it feel like we were watching a bunch of actors in costumes. You feel the energy of the movement while watching the film -- particularly in the scenes where the SCLC leaders clashed with the SNCC leaders while planning for the Selma march. Those are really important aspects of the civil rights movement that are often overlooked, and Selma didn't shy away from that.

With that said, yes, the portrayal of LBJ in Selma is definitely unfair. LBJ was certainly rough around the edges, but MLK would be the first person to point out that his biggest ally in the government was Lyndon Johnson. The LBJ that you see in the scenes where he's leaning on George Wallace (who was played brilliantly by Tim Roth) and giving the "We Shall Overcome" speech is the LBJ that supported Martin Luther King's efforts to bring voting rights to the forefront of the national debate over civil rights. In fact, LBJ had long leaned on leaders of the civil rights movement to focus on voting rights because once they had secured the vote, he felt they'd have the electoral power to either force their rightful demands on Southern leaders or vote them right out of office.

It's also important to point out that President Johnson didn't lean on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to discredit Dr. King and harass the King family in order to distract MLK from his the work he was doing. In fact, the FBI began tapping the phones of Dr. King as well as other members of the SCLC leadership before LBJ even became President -- it was Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy -- yes, that's right, RFK -- who signed the orders that authorized the wiretapping of MLK. The scene which suggests that LBJ ordered this was probably the issue that stuck with me the most.

I don't want to take away too much from the film, though. Tom Wilkinson did a damn good job as Lyndon Johnson, but the LBJ in the film is not the LBJ who pushed for significant civil rights legislation, ensured its passage, and signed it into law throughout his Presidency. The LBJ Library has opened up its archives to share material from the era, including White House recordings of LBJ's phone conversations with civil rights leaders, as well as Alabama Governor George Wallace. The truth is out there, and it isn't difficult to find.

What needs to be made clear is that this film isn't about Lyndon Johnson. It's not even about Martin Luther King, Jr. This film is about the movement. It's about what happened in Selma -- before the march and during the march itself -- and how that changed the world for African-Americans across the country. It's also a film that tells us a lot about how far we've come, while also making it clear that we have so much further to go. If Selma needed a villain, they could have focused more on Jim Clark or Al Lingo or George Wallace, but Selma didn't need a villain. The system that had long denied rights to people who were born with them was the villain. In many cases, it still is. If Lyndon Johnson had to be the personification of that system, in one film, I think LBJ would have accepted it. He would understand that history won't judge one man on his perception in one film, and that this movie isn't about him anyway.

Selma is about Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb and Amelia Boynton Robinson. It's about Annie Lee Cooper and Viola Liuzzo. It's about Hosea Williams and John Lewis. It's about that town -- its long-suffering black citizens, its racist white leadership, the folks caught in between. It's about the people of different genders, races and religious beliefs who streamed into Alabama to support what was right. It's about that Edmund Pettus Bridge, the people who marched across it, the time they were brutally pushed back, and the moment that they gathered to do it again. It's about the movement. It's also a movie, so there are creative liberties and dramatic license taken to create a story that people can sit down for 2 hours and get lost in. No matter what, you will take something away from Selma. You will feel the movement. You will understand its importance. And, while the film got a few things wrong, it also did so much that is righteous, in every sense of the word.

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Updated Jun 20, 2018 4:17 PM UTC | More details


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