The civil-rights movement has been richly chronicled in books like Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. and documentaries like Eyes on the Prize. But there have been few equally powerful depictions of the movement in pop culture, which tend to overstate the contribution of white protagonists and turn African-Americans into supporting players in their own struggle (i.e., The Help, Mississippi Burning etc). That’s why the new film Selma is such an important work. The movie is unique in many respects. It movingly captures the dramatic events that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It has a great cast, anchored by an unusually nuanced portrayal of King by David Oyelowo. It also boasts a diversity rarely seen in major films, both on screen and behind the camera: as a black woman filmmaker, writer-director Ava DuVernay is, sadly, a rarity in Hollywood. In her hands, Selma skillfully shows the tensions within the civil-rights movement between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the young activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the many pressures—personal, political and organizational—that King faced at the time. Despite glowing reviews, the film has attracted controversy for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Some of this criticism is the result of an Oscar-season smear campaign and former aides to the president who are over-protective of his legacy. But as an admirer of the film and DuVernay, I must confess that I found the depiction of Johnson to be unnecessarily one-sided, and out of sync with the history I’ve extensively studied in the course of writing a book on the history of voting rights since 1965. Selma depicts King as a crusader for voting rights and LBJ, in contrast, as a voting rights skeptic.
The reality is more complex, and gets to the heart of how the VRA came to be. One of the first scenes in the film shows King meeting with the president in the Oval Office on December 18, 1964, eight days after King won the Nobel Peace Prize. He urges Johnson to take up voting rights legislation to end the systematic disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South. “Let’s not start another battle until we’ve won the first,” Johnson tells King in the film, referring to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait.” After the meeting, King tells Andrew Young they’re going to Selma to launch a voting-rights campaign.