The highly-praised movie Selma opens in wide release today. Already nominated for 4 Golden Globes and numerous other awards, most people also expect it to be nominated for an Oscar. The movie has been universally praised for its acting and for finally bringing a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the public. But what about the history in the movie?
Gary May, author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (new in paper this month), thinks director Ava DuVernay could have been truer to the historical record. Writing in The Daily Beast, May says he admires DuVernay’s casting choices and her decision to feature many civil rights activists whose contributions have mostly gone unrecognized in film in the past. But he believes she could have gone much further in highlighting the work of ordinary Selma residents. He also criticizes the movie for a number of historical errors, in particular her omission of what lead King to stop halfway onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge and kneel to pray, rather than continuing across the bridge. In the New York Times, May weighed in about the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in the film, saying he was unsurprised by the heated discussions taking place. “’Here you have the first film about King, and some people are coming in and saying, ‘The story is really about the white people,’ he said. “In historical truth, the story was really about everybody.”
Salamishah Tillet, author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination praises Selma for overcoming the obstacles that have kept most big screen portrayals of Martin Luther King Jr. from ever being produced. Both opposition from the King family and Hollywood’s frequent unwillingness to feature black characters as the center of stories have kept King’s story from the screen. Writing in Time, Tillet says, “Contrastingly, DuVernay’s Selma not only redirects our attention to the myriad of African Americans – organizers, students, and everyday citizens – who pushed the demands of the Civil Rights movement, but in the process, rescues King from the tomb of American memory.”
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