Selma and the History Debate or, Life Is Rarely, If Ever, Univocal

When I told John he should go see Selma he followed his intentions to do so with, “What do you think about the controversy about misrepresenting President Lyndon B. Johnson in the film?”

Until that point I did not know of any controversy. Quickly I Googled the matter and found at least a half dozen posts suggesting not only did the film miss the mark where LBJ is concerned, but that in doing so the film should be reward-less this Oscar Season. One went so far to suggest if Selma wins and award the truth loses.

Call me flabergasted. The movie was/is not about LBJ.

If LBJ stalled, or suggested a delay of, the Voting Rights Act in order to secure his own legislative agenda, then he was complicit with a cadre that included George Wallace and Sheriff Jim Clark. That the movie portrayed the conversations between LBJ and Martin Luther King Jr. as more contentious than reported does not impact the point of the film. In fact, LBJ gets a shot at redemption in the movie and delivers.

Life is rarely, if ever, univocal. That is, life is experienced via many voices, polyvocal. The multiplicity contributes to our understanding of what actually happened in history, or our understanding of current events. I discovered a piece by Peniel E. Joseph. He makes the point with these words,

The real problem many critics have with this film is that it’s too black and too strong. Our popular reimagining of the civil rights movement is that it’s something we all did together and the battle is over; that’s just not true.

In other words, the film tells the story in a different voice. Joseph concludes his piece,

Selma reminds us to honor not just the heroic figure making speeches, but the collective will of so many who made progress possible. Ultimately, the beating heart of this film rests not with its portrait of LBJ, or even King, not with what group has been left out or ignored, but with the larger truth that the civil rights movement’s heroic period reflected our collective strengths and weaknesses as a nation, something Americans are loathe to recognize let alone acknowledge. Selma’s greatest gift is that, even when it reimagines some moments of history, it remains unflinching in its examination of America’s racial soul.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

9 comments on “Selma and the History Debate or, Life Is Rarely, If Ever, Univocal

  1. Frank Gantz says:

    Todd, first I begin by stating that I have not seen the movie…yet. You are right on target with your message about the voice or voices from which a story is told. That needs to be heard. I’m not sure that is the same issue as is the one about historical accuracy. Some liberties probably need to be granted. But is probably helpful for those astute in history to challenge the story tellers concerning historical reliability. Like you, if LBJ’s account is askew, it should not diminish the message nor the impact of this important film.

    1. Frank, after you see the movie, I don’t want to offer any spoilers, let me know what you think. I have some thoughts on the LBJ piece.

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