The historical film is a tricky beast to tame. However you approach the story, there’ll always be someone popping up to point out the historical inaccuracies. Choose to portray iconic figures at key moments in their lives and you open yourself up to additional criticism. A good example is last year’s Selma, which dramatises several months in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr and his voting rights campaign…
Director: Ava DuVernay
Screenplay: Solely credited to Paul Webb but with revisions by DuVernay (screenplay currently unavailable)
Based on: It’s an original story based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches.
Synopsis: *Spoilers* After picking up his Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) travels to Selma, Alabama.
While the right to vote is enshrined in law (through the Civil Rights Act of 1964), in practice the process of registering is so onerous that only around 2% of the town’s black residents are registered voters, leaving the state’s racist governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his equally bigoted underlings to run the show.
King wants US President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass federal legislation to allow black citizens to register to vote unencumbered. LBJ tells King he has more pressing projects. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) tells LBJ that King is a troublemaker and plots to bring him down.
King, other SCLC leaders, and black Selma residents march peacefully to the registration office to register to vote. A violent confrontation with police ensues. King and several others are arrested.
A further violent run-in with police occurs during a protest that culminates in the beating and shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield). King receives a phone call with a recording of his extra-marital sexual activity, creating further conflict with his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) who has already expressed concerns about his and their family’s safety.
Following more unsuccessful meetings with LBJ, King plans a peaceful protest march from Selma to the neighbouring town of Montgomery. As the protestors make their way across the bridge, police, some on horseback, attack them with clubs, tear gas, and other weapons. Many are injured and the pictures are shown on TV news, drawing widespread criticism of Wallace’s tactics.
A lawyer asks a federal judge to let the march proceed unhindered, but LBJ demands that King and Wallace stop their actions. At a second attempted march, the police stand by to let the protesters pass, but King turns the group around.
The federal judge finally allows another march to go ahead. LBJ makes a speech to Congress asking for quick passage of a bill to eliminate restrictions on voting (the bill was eventually passed as the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).
The peaceful march to Montgomery takes place, attracting widespread coverage and support from all across the country. King delivers a rousing speech on the steps of the State Capitol.
There’s a lot for the filmmakers to get their teeth into here. Not to mention a lot of history to dramatize (which accounts for the slightly disjointed and episodic feel of the finished film).
In King, we have one of the most iconic characters in American history; a period of time which is close enough for people to actually remember; events that have been thoroughly documented; and a symbolic march that was fully captured by the media of the day.
The question is whether they got the balance between accuracy and drama right. After all, veer too much away from the facts and the film loses credibility; sacrifice too much drama for accuracy and we’d have been left a damp squib of a movie that never caught light. It’s a tricky proposition.
There are plenty of positives; not least the cast. Much has been said elsewhere about Oyelowo’s performance, in particular, and he certainly deserves his plaudits (an Oscar nomination wouldn’t have gone amiss either). Apparently he stayed in character throughout the production, even when the cameras weren’t rolling (following in the footsteps of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln) and the result is a layered and thoughtful King, as adept at finessing LBJ as he was at passionately rallying his supporters and inspiring non-violent yet meaningful action. For this film to work on any level, we had to believe that this was a man with the ability to change history and for the most part Oyelowo accomplishes that admirably.
While he spoke with flourish, King also comes across as reflective and occasionally reticent as he struggled to see where this path to equality is actually leading. There is an especially nice exchange in a prison cell where he opines about blacks being allowed to sit at ‘whites only’ lunch counters following desegregation, yet not being able to earn enough to afford a meal there, or having had the education to be able to even read the menu.
Discussing the film, DuVernay commented how history is often ‘top-lined’ and reduced to soundbites, whereas film can go deeper into the emotional experiences of the people who lived it. On this level, Selma also succeeds, as we are taken right into the heart of the civil rights movement, seeing up close the brutality of Wallace’s minions and the effects on the people facing a beating (or worse) for having the temerity to walk down the street or march peacefully across a bridge.
Reading about people getting shot, gassed and pounded with batons is one thing; seeing it up close and personal is quite another. This is the true power of film, especially in the harrowing bridge crossing sequence where the black-only group is viscously prevented from reaching the other side.
As DuVernay herself said in an interview with NPR: “I think it’s important to understand what the violence does emotionally…You have to really be with the person who’s been assaulted.”
It’s also worth noting that in revising Webb’s script, DuVernay also rewrote King’s actual speeches after she was unable to obtain rights to use his original words (lesson: never discount copyright issues when retelling history on screen – see our lesson series for more). It’s clear the director spent much time getting into King’s rhythm of speaking and crafting speeches that could have some directly from his mouth.
What’s the problem?
The main issue raised at the time of the film’s release is that Selma portrays LBJ as another ‘white roadblock’ in King’s fight for equal voting rights.
Following the film’s release, an aide to LBJ emphatically refuted the portrayal, instead suggesting the president took a leading role in getting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law and even that the Selma march was his idea. Academics and historians have since joined the criticism.
It’s interesting to note that in Webb’s original script, King and LBJ were reportedly presented as adversaries, with more focus on the president’s POV.
It’s clear that – whatever the truth – presenting LBJ in a manner that shows him only throwing his full support behind King towards the end is convenient for the plot. It elevates King’s character and makes him a stronger protagonist, while providing him with a powerful antagonist who he has to ‘defeat’ in order to achieve his goal (screenwriting 101, right?). There’s nothing wrong with taking that approach. However, it does highlight how the fact-based film can stray into grey areas.
The vast majority of people who watch Selma won’t be moved to read up about this episode from history in order to get the full story. They’ll go away from the film believing the events happened, as portrayed.
Does this affect the overall power of the film? Not really.
Does it diminish the accomplishments of the filmmakers? Again, not really.
Does it dent its credentials as an authentic and credible history film? Unfortunately, yes. But that’s a risk anyone developing a fact-based film runs.
The lesson? Writing any film means having to make some difficult creative choices along the way. However, when writing the fact-based film those choices may well mean tinkering with history or presenting a real life figure in a controversial light.
As we discussed in the previous issue, authenticity in film can be achieved in a number of ways, but it starts with conducting thorough research.
If you know your characters as well as you know your closest friend and your film’s world as well as your own backyard, then you can make informed creative choices when crafting your screenplay. You might not please all of the people all of the time, but at least you can make a compelling case for why you made those choices.
Selma is now out to rent/buy. You can also catch it online on platforms such as the BFI Player.
Issue 4 of RSL is out on 6 July.