© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The 'Selma' Criticism For How It Portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: Is It Fair?


This is FRESH AIR. This week, the Martin Luther King drama "Selma" opens in theaters nationwide. The film recounts the months leading up to King's 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. The movie is directed by Ava DuVernay. It stars David Oyelowo as King and Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Ava DuVernay's bruising civil rights epic "Selma" has been playing in a small number of theaters since Christmas. It was on my 10 best list for 2014. But as it opens all over, it's largely being talked about for alleged historical inaccuracies. Joseph Califano, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, says the film turns Johnson into a backstabbing opponent of Martin Luther King's provocative Selma sojourn, instead of what he was, a bold ally. Since the King-Johnson relationship is the movie's heart, that matters. Before I get to it, though, here's what "Selma" achieves. DuVernay dramatizes the idea that King wasn't just a preacher but a player who fought long-term injustice with short-term politics.

The film opens in 1964 as King, played by David Oyelowo, receives the Nobel Peace Prize, which would seem like a triumphant final scene. But then a group of beautifully dressed little girls descend the stairs of a church talking about Coretta Scott King's hairstyle and there's an explosion - a nightmare, slow motion ballet of bodies and four dead children. In the third scene, Oprah Winfrey, as a Selma resident, makes a humiliating attempt to register to vote. That's the movie's focus - voting rights.

King frames the issue for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a large group of Selma allies.


DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) As long as I am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command of my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny for it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed. Those that have gone before us say no more.

CROWD: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.)No more.

CROWD: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) We will not wait any longer. Give us the vote.


OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) We're not asking, we're demanding. Give us the vote.

CROWD: (As characters) Give us the vote.


EDELSTEIN: Those words aren't King's, by the way. His family sold the film rights to his speeches to Steven Spielberg for a proposed biopic, and "Selma's" makers had to devise non-actionable paraphrases. But in the reverberant voice of the English-born David Oyelowo, they're thrilling anyway. His King is foremost a public man. When he speaks, he looks as if he bears the weight of millions of souls. That weight costs him, ages him. And he knows it doesn't fit with aspects of his private self, particularly his adulteries. One of his best scenes is a grim confrontation with his wife, Coretta, played with cool intelligence by Carmen Ejogo, after J. Edgar Hoover's FBI plays her what could be a tape of King in bed with someone else. For once, he's at a loss for words. The movie suggests LBJ, played by Tom Wilkinson, tacitly authorized Hoover's dirty trick to mess up King's plans. He's sympathetic to King, but his agenda for the year is his war on poverty. And he's infuriated King would go to Selma without his say so.

The movie says that King needs to provoke violence against peaceful protesters to push LBJ. First, to stand up to the belligerent Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, and then to declare himself on the protesters' side - is this then fair?

Based on several LBJ biographies, I'd say not entirely. It's true that early on Johnson told King he didn't want to drive off support for Great Society legislation by inflaming southern allies, but he was a persistent and masterly behind-the-scenes manipulator. He fought passionately for voting rights without any push from King.

"Selma" is still a great movie. The LBJ-King scenes are taught, each giant staking out his claim. The strategy sessions with King and his allies, among them Andre Holland, as Andrew Young, and Wendell Pierce, as Hosea Williams, are equally riveting. The violence is grotesque and shocking, but you never catch DuVernay piling on horrors. The recreation of the march intercut with period black-and-white footage is uncannily well done.

A key scene suggests the measure of King's greatness is not how he pushed forward, but how he knew when to retreat. It's the second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge where police wait with eerie calm. Oyelowo's King stops and gazes and thinks, like a chess player visualizing the different moves and counter moves. Is turning back, as he does, the right move? It's hard to say, but the point is that King, like LBJ, might've had his eyes on the prize, but he was always playing the long game.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.