Selma the Movie
They Got the Heart Right
Bruce Hartford
November 16, 2014

Sent to an email list of Freedom Movement veterans.

I and a few other Freedom Movement veterans were invited by the San Francisco Film Society to a special preview of the movie Selma which will be released in January. There were about a dozen of us among the 2,000 or so packed into the Castro Theater.

Selma is an acted dramatization about Dr. King (both as a man and a leader) and about SCLC's direct-action voting-rights campaign in Selma from January to March of 1965. It is a powerful and moving motion picture. In the spectrum of Hollywood feature films it is at the complete opposite end of the scale from that abomination "Mississippi Burning." In my opinion, it stands in the same league as Danny Glover's "Freedom Song." And for me that is high praise indeed.

Movement veterans and scholars will note that every sequence contains inaccuracies, distortions, and over-simplifications. But that is inevitable when you compress a complex historic event into a two hour dramatic film.

I was able to speak very briefly with Ava DuVernay, the Black woman who directed "Selma," and I told her that I thought she got the heart right and that was the most important thing.

I would add for this report that in my opinion she also got the politics as right as I could expect for a mass-audience, commercial film. LBJ was not the hero and neither was the FBI, quite the contrary. King was the center of the film, so was the courage and determination of Selma's Black folk (Oprah, for example, played Annie Lee Cooper).

SNCC's role is mentioned and referred to, as is SNCC's differing viewpoints from King and SCLC, mostly through dialog between the actors playing John Lewis, Jim Forman, and Dr. King. No doubt, many SNCC folk will take issue with how large a role SNCC plays in the film and how SNCC is portrayed. For those of us for whom all this is very personal, those are legitimate points to raise and debate. But for the audiences who will (hopefully) be watching Selma in theaters and their homes those kinds of insider controversies are beside the point.

For me, the main point is that I believe Selma can be (and should be) used as an organizing tool, particularly in those areas where voting rights are under fierce attack. I confess that I'm an old-foggie who still believes that conversations are the heart of organizing, not Twitter tweets or Facebook posts. I think that Selma the movie can be used to promote conversations about voting rights today, and to draw in new people who might not come to a meeting — but might be attracted to seeing a film. Obviously, "Selma's" release is timed to take advantage of all the upcoming Selma, March to Montgomery, and Voting Rights Act, 50th anniversary. I assume that much of that hoopla will turn out to be politically self-serving, back- patting bullshit on the part of various politicians and institutions. One way we can try to counter that is by using this movie as a link to raising the voting rights struggles of today and tomorrow.


Addendum: Rebuttal to Joseph Califano, December 27, 2014

On December 26, 1965, Joseph Califano criticized the new movie Selma for portraying LBJ in a less-than-flattering light regarding Black voting rights. You can read his statement in full at:

As many of you will recall, Califano was a senior advisor to President Johnson for domestic affairs during the time of the 1965 Selma campaign. So he's writing as a defender of the Johnson administration. (I was a Freedom Movement activist in Selma and later a member of the SCLC field staff, so I'm writing from an opposite perspective.)

Califano's review claims that:

"... the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself. In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea,..."

I dispute those assertions on the following points:

  1. The portion of the film that accurately portrays LBJ as opposed to any new civil rights legislation including voting rights is based on King's meeting with LBJ in December of 1964 after returning from the Nobel Prize ceremony in Norway. At that meeting Johnson has been quoted by authoritative sources as telling King: "Martin, you're right about [voting rights]. I'm going to do it eventually, but I can't get a voting rights bill through in this session of Congress." The film accurately portrays that meeting and Johnson's position.

  2. Califano claims that, "In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea." As evidence of this bold assertion, he quotes a phone conversation between Dr. King and LBJ. But the call he quotes took place on January 15, after SCLC's Selma campaign was well underway. It might be that once the campaign had begun, it started to have a positive effect on Johnson. But note the date, January 15 was Dr. King's birthday, Johnson was calling to offer birthday good wishes. It could be that LBJ was simply playing the politician game of telling someone what he thinks they want to hear on a ceremonial occasion. In any case, to claim that "Selma was LBJ's idea" based on a call that took place after the Selma campaign had already started is nonsense.

  3. The role of Hoover's FBI in attacking and smearing both King and the entire Freedom Movement is so well-known that's there no point in belaboring it. But Califano's casual dismissal of that shameful history shows what I see as a willing disregard of the real history.

  4. When researching my book: The Selma Voting Rights Struggle and March to Montgomery I did not come across any reference to LBJ opposing, or even knowing about, the first attempt to march to Montgomery that resulted in "Bloody Sunday." But the intense pressure he and other administration officials put on King to halt the 2nd march is well-known and well-documented from many sources.

Califano was a domestic affairs official in Johnson's administration and it seems to me he's remembering matters the way he wishes they had been not the way they actually were.

Copyright © Bruce Hartford


Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site.
Copyright to the article above belongs to the author.

(Labor donated)