Any representation of Martin Luther King, Jr., will always be hopelessly inadequate in my estimation—so enamored of the real deal am I! I think the enactment by David Oyelowo is less than satisfactory; I feel he does not really capture the emotional intelligence, pathos, and warmth of personality that was Martin. I realize that I am, perhaps, a bit unfair in my assessment, but I was less than thrilled by the acting in Selma overall. I saw the film late at night after a long day of successive meetings, so maybe I was not in any condition to evaluate it properly.
The jumping back from the planning and beginning of Selma march to the September 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, depicting the murder of the four girls, was quite a shock and unexpected—since it was a year-and-a-half before Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965). I’m not sure of director Ava DuVernay’s motivation for cutting to that tragic event, but it was certainly alarming to the audience and me. However, maybe it was prescient. For after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, a variety of activists began focusing on voting, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Even though a lot of attention was given to public accommodations in 1964, by the end of that year, the SCLC staff, through the encouragement of James Bevel and the invitation of Amelia Boynton, were inclined towards Selma and a multidimensional voting rights campaign.
What’s important here to realize is that the idea of focusing on voting was already underway in Mississippi. After all, Freedom Summer was focused on registering blacks to vote. The refusal to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City further brought home the necessity of demonstrating for elimination of de facto discrimination at election offices and at the polls. Talk about a voting rights bill was happening long before the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy.
Consequently, the recent remark made by Joseph Califano that President Lyndon Johnson suggested a voting rights campaign to King in January of 1965 is preposterous. Bevel had already proposed the idea and King and the SCLC staff had accepted it much prior to the latter’s conversation with Johnson to which Califano alludes. Califano acts as if Johnson was a saint and was the lead orchestrator during this stage of the Civil Rights Movement. That is absolutely false. How soon Califano forgets that Johnson was opposed to King going into Saint Augustine, Florida, in the late spring of 1964 to continue to emphasize the need for passage of the civil rights bill. Califano has a convenient amnesia that Johnson refused to seat the black delegation from Mississippi, despite King’s urging. It was only through the dialogue between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Joseph Rauh (among others) that suggested at least two persons from the MFDP be given a nonvoting seat. Johnson was more concerned about reelection over Sen. Barry Goldwater, his Republican opponent, than the struggles for human decency being waged in the South. Califano’s forgetfulness continues over Johnson’s initial conciliatoriness to Gov. George Wallace. When an injunction was handed down against marching, Johnson was not supportive immediately after Bloody Sunday of the demonstrators to march unencumbered. He was reluctant to federalize the National Guard. How soon Califano forgets that King had to plead with Johnson to protect the marchers. Some of Johnson’s staff was more progressive in this regard than the president.
In spite of the criticisms levied against the film, and regardless of my persnicketies about representations of King, I still strongly suggest people see Selma. Most Americans since the generation of the 1960s are clueless about Jim Crow and the civil rights struggles starting during mid-twentieth century. The film is not a documentary, but, rather, a popular screening subject to artistry, budgets, practicalities, and other creative and contingent factors. Nevertheless, like all such projects—from media news to epic cinema—there is a mixture of fact and fiction, understatement and hyperbole, comic relief and melodrama. Yet, because of our ignorance of past events or our revisionist histories à la Califano, watching the film can only enhance understanding of a part of our country’s development that ain’t too pretty and that can’t be denied!