Front Row at the Movies
Need to Be?
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
With Academy Awards season coming up, cinematic contenders are starting to campaign for an Oscar nod. And that brings out the detractors who want to sink the competition.
It often exhibits itself as a challenge to a film’s accuracy. You saw it with “Hurricane,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “The Butler.” This year the gun-sights are on “Selma” and “The Imitation Game.”
Each of the above films were vulnerable to attack – justified or not – because they are biopics based on real events.
In the case of “Selma,” the story of the 1965 civil rights marches that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led in Selma, Alabama, the claim is that the film does not give President Lyndon Baines Johnson enough credit for supporting King’s efforts. After all, Johnson had made great strides by passing the Civil Rights Act, right?
“Selma” – now playing at the Tropic Cinema – depicts LBJ as something of an obstructionist to Dr. King’s historic protest.
Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, objects to the film’s characterization of the 36th President of the United States. “Why does the film’s mis-characterization matter?” he posed the question. “Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.”
This backlash was echoed by Joseph A Califano, Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969. Califano says, “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.”
Not all of LBJ’s former colleagues agree. For example, Bill Moyers, who was Johnson’s press secretary in the mid ‘60s, remembers it differently.
Paramount, the studio that’s releasing “Selma,” is trying to be diplomatic. They point out that this is a movie told from Martin Luther King’s point of view, not LBJ’s.
The film’s director Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to win a Best Director nomination from the Golden Globes. “The notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so,” she responds.
Sometimes history is a matter of interpretation. This is the first movie ever to feature Dr. King as the subject of a lead role in a theatrical film.
One must also decide just how accurate a movie should be. After all, this is a biopic, not a documentary.
What’s the difference, you might ask, between the two? A biopic is a biographical film that dramatizes the life of an actual person or people. A documentary is a movie that provides a factual record or report.
Dramatizes is the key word here.
Take a closer look at some the classic biopics: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” (1939) with Don Ameche played it fast and loose with historical details. And “Young Tom Edison” (1940) with Mickey Rooney took its share of liberties with the facts. So did “Edison, The Man” (1940) with Spencer Tracy.
Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) altered details and combined characters for storytelling purposes. Stone described it as a “counter-myth” to offset the Warren Commission’s “fictional-myth.” Whatever you position on this, the film “JFK” undeniably had a great social impact. It brought about the formation of the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board.
This kind of film is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-documentary, a film that looks something like a documentary but isn’t.
So how should you react to “Selma”? Go see it. This is a powerful movie that reminds us about a seminal moment in American history. It’s sure to provoke differing viewpoints, but nobody can deny that the three 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting right marches affected the course of US history.