Black History Month and Selma’s Oscar Snub

2 years ago ccwa 1

selmamarch01-022712-1When Joseph Califano, President Lyndon B. Johnsons’s top domestic aide, wrote his impassioned op-ed slamming the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, he was putting the cherry on what has been a strange year for the African American community. White cops killing black men is nothing new, but the reaction to it has been different, the viral age helping to frame the debate in a way that it hasn’t been before. The fall of a popular black figure like Bill Cosby seemed familiar, although, once again, the response to this event was different—this time the black guy probably actually did it. So when Califano wrote about the perceived inaccuracies of Selma, the trend was reversed. Everything about his criticisms and the context in which they appeared was completely normal, and, for only the billionth time in history, a white man had gone to great pains to minimize the historical control African Americans have had on their own destiny. Before I continue, I want to note Selma is not a documentary, it is a fictional film, and the first major cinematic biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. Selma also happens to be a very good film, but for Califano the details were relevant enough to justify a call for it to be excluded from this awards season, a pronouncement that, whether intentionally or not, appears to have been heeded.

All of this, is of course, rather timely. For a writer like myself, having a debate over the historical merits of a mostly black-produced film just in time for Black History Month is a gift.  Black History Month, as many know, started off as a deliberate effort to acknowledge the historical importance and contributions of African Americans throughout the ages.

Black History Month has its critics, and not without reason. Teaching children to acknowledge the historical contributions of minority groups is essential, but it regularly becomes a series of fun-facts about who invented the traffic light during morning announcements. And yet, the nature of Califano’s criticism, or rather, the anger expressed in it, only helps reinforce the argument proponents of Black History Month espouse. Here’s a lengthy excerpt from Califano’s statements to give you some context.

“What’s wrong with Hollywood?

The makers of the new movie “Selma” apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.”

Califano goes on to describe the specifics of his claims, and then ends by giving us what he thinks are the failures of the filmmakers.

“All this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts? Did they consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story?

Contrary to the portrait painted by “Selma,” Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for “Selma.” The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”

Let’s take a step back for a moment and assume everything Califano has said is true, and that (despite the relative ambiguity of a phone recording between LBJ and MLK that Califano attached to his article) Selma was LBJ’s idea. If this is the case, then Selma has made no bigger an error than Spielberg’s heavily acclaimed Lincoln, where Frederick Douglass was omitted from the story altogether. As you may recall, there were no calls for Lincoln to be barred from the awards season, and Spielberg used the defense that Lincoln was less about every detail of a man’s life but more about capturing the man in that moment and struggle. In that regard, Spielberg was seen as justified to omit black involvement in emancipation because he was, after all, directing a work of art looking at one aspect of the end of slavery.

Selma director Ava DuVernay undoubtedly made mistakes in her portrayal of LBJ, but they have more to do with the performance of Tom Wilkinson than her direction. Wilkinson’s greatest sin isn’t even that he’s not portraying LBJ well, but rather that he’s portraying a beleaguered LBJ—the LBJ of the Vietnam years—and not necessarily the domineering, charismatic force of nature that  existed at the time of the Selma marches.

Califano, however, is right to criticize one small detail of Selma: DuVernay’s handling of the FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr.  The suggestion presented in the film that the FBI followed MLK has been discussed many times before. J. Edgar Hoover followed everybody, including MLK. The difference is that DuVernay frames the surveillance, along with a probe into MLK’s infidelity, as a response from a President irritated with his lack of control over a whole movement. LBJ is shown in Selma as a man who likes that the leader of the civil rights movement is Martin Luther King Jr., so the assumption he would want to sabotage MLK’s leadership isn’t convincing within the confines of the film.

The danger of a film like Selma for Califano is that such a storyline is convincing when viewed through the lens of the real world. Selma isn’t simply about Martin Luther King Jr. and LBJ; it is about the entire dynamic of the civil rights movement. The film is so cram-packed with story and characters, and the frosty dynamic between SNCC and the SBLC, that it gives Malcolm X a two-bit cameo.

We will probably never know the real context of the relationship between President Johnson and Dr. King, but what we do know is that this perspective of President Johnson is from a point of view not typically shown in cinema. The incredibly deep cast of characters spanning from Andrew Young to Mahalia Jackson is proof enough that there is fodder for a whole industry of films about civil rights leaders, and yet, so far, there has only been one major film told by a black director before Selma, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.

If art is supposed to reflect the eye of the beholder, is it shocking to see LBJ portrayed as someone not moving quite as quickly the majority of black people would like? After centuries of oppression, is it not reasonable to consider that many African Americans saw LBJ, whether incorrectly or not, as a tired old man whose great legislative achievement in the Civil Rights Act had given them their right in theory, but not secured their right to vote in fact?

Besides, free speech has never been a problem in film criticism before, especially not when The Birth of a Nation, a fictionalized story in which the KKK saves the world from the evils of reconstruction, is continually listed as a landmark film in the history of cinema.

We need more films like Selma—films that tell historical events from the perspective of those who truly had the greatest stake in it.  It is only through these kinds of films that we can look back and examine the controversial dynamics between races in the struggle for equality—a struggle still haunting us today. In an age where the most offensive thing to call a white person is a racist, Califano’s resolve to protect his former boss’ legacy is understandable. But Selma does not portray LBJ as a racist, choosing instead to portray him simply as someone who wished the best for his country. Whether intentionally or not, or correctly or not, in Selma LBJ represents the majority of white America at the time. These people weren’t inherently racist, but weren’t particularly passionate about civil rights either. The arts have explored this idea before; that in a land as big and divided as the United States in the 1960s, there were people whose lives were not heavily impacted by the civil rights movement. The popular TV show Mad Men has often received criticism for looking at the 60’s that way, with white critics disliking the show’s minimization of white people caring about the movement, and blacks concerned that such an important part of history has been glazed over in favor of an upper-Manhattan lifestyle where the only black characters are doormen and news of Dr. King’s death is a headline on the TV.

Califano and John Lewis remind us that the fight for civil rights wasn’t long ago, and that the people who made great strides for equality were real people from all backgrounds. But with this realization must come the understanding that alongside all the successes of that era, we are surrounded by failures. The re-segregation of our public school system and the anemic growth of the black middle class show us our work is not done.

Just as many of the great leaders of the movement are still around, many of those who opposed the movement still exist as well, but that’s not the point. The true legacy of the civil rights movement is not about the relationship between President Johnson and Dr. King but in the “whites only” waiting room of a bus station in 1960’s South Carolina.

It was there that a young John Lewis was brutally beaten by a young white southerner, but the story of that relationship doesn’t end in that place. In 2009, that white southerner offered an apology for a sin he’d carried for forty years, and John Lewis accepted.

Califano knows as well as anyone that everyone in the civil rights movement failed in some way, and that the turmoil and upheaval of the era left no person brave enough to fight for justice without blemish. I just hope he realizes that by defaming Selma, he ignores just how far we’ve all come since.


by Emmanuel Dzotsi

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