Selma the Movie
Some Say it Distorts and is Biased, But Selma Must Be Seen
Ira Grupper
Written for FORsooth, newspaper of Kentucky Fellowship Of Reconcilliation.
March, 2015

Please go see the movie "Selma".

I was not in Selma, Alabama in 1965, during the marches (plural), and the beatings, near the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was, instead, in the Atlanta, Georgia (Raymond Street) headquarters office of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

We were the only Civil Rights Movement organization with a WATS line (equivalent to an "800" number today) and it was my job to convey March communications. A call came in from a SNCC official: Viola Liuzzo, a white woman supporter of the Civil Rights Movement from a labor union family, was murdered soon after the march ended. My SNCC brother read me a press release I was to call in to the news media.

I could hardly stop my hands from shaking as I read this message to AP, UPI, the New York Times and other press, domestic and international. This murder had a profound effect on me.

Now, to the movie. Artistically, cinematically it is stunning, graphic, attention-grabbing, so well-acted. We are riveted by the dramatic content. I saw a television interview with the movie's erudite director, Ava DuVernay. When asked about some of the movie's historical inaccuracies, she responded that this was a movie, not a documentary, and she had a right to employ "poetic license".

I agree. It is her right to make up dialog, for example, between Rev. King and President Lyndon Johnson. That is, indeed, poetic license. But historical fact must be fact, the more so in an era of media infidelity. I contacted, for background information, two veterans of the Movement: Dr. Gwen Patton, youth leader for the Montgomery (Alabama) Improvement Association and organizer for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). And Bruce Hartford, webmaster of the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.

I asked Gwen about the movie showing John Lewis (now a congressman, back then the head of SNCC) as the only SNCC person on the march:

"There were SNCC people on the march. There are photos of Stokely (Carmichael) and (James) Forman on the march (both were SNCC leaders-I.G.). Over 2,300 Tuskeegee (Institute) students, who were working with SNCC, marched...Refer to the book 'Black in Selma: The Uncommon Life of J.L. Chestnut Jr.'."

Bruce comments:

"The confusion stems from the fact that there were three different marches... The brief explanation is that the first march ("Bloody Sunday") was led by Hosea Williams of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC (King was not there) ... "SNCC as an organization opposed the march and provided only the minimum logistic support stipulated by a previous agreement. Bob Mants of SNCC accompanied John on the march because of SNCC's 'no one goes alone into danger' policy. ... A number of college and high school students who had been working with SNCC organizers did participate, and some were badly beaten.

"The second march ('Turn Around Tuesday') had a lot of SNCC (participation), as Gwen (Patton) says. They were all very angry when King turned the march back, a controversy that boils to this day.

"On the third march, which actually got to Montgomery, some SNCC members boycotted it, other SNCC members participated in it and provided organizing and logistic support including the radio cars that Gwen mentioned. 'Selma' the movie alluded to these contradictory SNCC currents through the device of arguments/debates between the actors playing James Forman and John Lewis. I thought that while the film greatly over-simplified matters they basically got the gist right, but most SNCC folk I know strongly dispute that."

Another analysis comes from Glenn Ford:

"Selma: Black History According to Oprah" (Black Commentator). "Like all historical dramatic films, Selma is a political work ... (Oprah Winfrey's) ... conservative Black political worldview is all over the film ... "... the film is a crude insult to SNCC... These hundreds of heroic young people ... who invited Dr. King to come to Selma, are personified in the film by one confused sounding, infantile behaving youth who we are supposed to believe is James Forman, the SNCC executive secretary who was, in real life, a ... ground-breaking organizer ... In the film ... Forman ... comes across as petty-minded, while Dr. King is made to seem like the only adult in town. Veterans of SNCC have a right to be hurt at being consigned to the dustbin of history by the likes of Oprah Winfrey ...

"Some people are missing from the film that absolutely should be in there ... the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, who were the ones who authorized the bugging of Dr. King's phones and office and hotel rooms. But Oprah loves the Kennedys, and so the movie leads the audience to believe that (FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover and President Lyndon Johnson set out to surveil and destroy King because of his push for voting rights. But Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed the order while his brother, who was then president, was still alive ...

"Finally, near the end of the film, Dr. King is depicted as yearning for an end to mass protests, so that Black people could achieve real political power — quite clearly meaning the election of more Black people to office. As if that's what the mass movement was all about, in King's mind. We know that's not true, because Dr. King said the opposite ... He was seeking social transformation, a new system of living."

A friend of mine has serious differences with Glenn Ford:

"Personally, the film gave me the impression (which, as I understand it, is correct) that Dr. King had a lot of respect for SNCC and their chosen work, which was long-term grassroots community organizing. He also understood that the media went wherever he went and pretty much nowhere else, so he didn't think of going to Selma as butting in on SNCC's territory, but rather as bringing national attention to the situation they were combatting ... I don't know how Glenn Ford got the idea that the only SNCC person portrayed in the film was James Forman, when John Lewis was a main character ... Maybe he thinks that because John Lewis got elected to Congress he can't ever have been a true SNCC person ..."

There are other areas of contention in the movie. One example: Some Jews have criticized the "airbrushing out" of Jewish participation; other Jews disagree. Space prevents elaboration.

Selma's" strongest virtue is that it fully credits the mass struggle, especially women and youth. It also avoids the "great white savior" syndrome.

Copyright © Ira Grupper


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