We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.
First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:
the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.
(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)
So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.
Beyond that we daren’t go.
But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.
Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.
So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)
And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.
I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.
(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)
But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.
The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.
Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.
But it is a shame.
Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.
(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)