PostBourgie Podcast: #26: Selma.

NPR’s Bilal Qureshi and the writer Joshunda Sanders join G.D. to chop it up about “Selma,” the much-discussed historical drama by the director Ava Duvernay. (Alas, we recorded this a week before the Academy Award nominations were announced, so we don’t get into the film’s perceived Oscar snubbing here.)

Also, Bilal stumps hard for Beyond The Lights, a movie that like Selma, boasted a black woman at its helm. Lights garnered strong reviews but tanked at the box office, but it so moved Bilal that inspired him to start his own podcast, The B Sides.

(Shout-outs to Channing Kennedy, who produced this week’s podcast.)

  • Didn’t see the movie, but she seems like a very talented producer. However, I think it does a tremendous disservice to present factual information anything other than factual. Is this her problem as a producer? No. The public is generally uniformed about history so they have a responsibility to self inform. Will this happen? No. So, I feel this perpetuates the over deification of Dr. King and his individual impact beyond the reality of that impact. I have visited all of the African American Civil and non civil rights sites except for the Racism museum in Ohio and have read the autobiographies so I fully aware of what happened (happening) on the civil rights front. At some point, looking for movies/books that reflect what you want to see rather than what things are or were is very troubling for me.

    • Strobe-

      Ehhh. The “historical inaccuracies” of Selma don’t bother me nearly that much, because LBJ’s legacy regarding the Civil Rights Act is pretty secure. And as Amy Davidson wrote in the New Yorker, “Selma” is not a hagiography of LBJ or King.

      Indeed, after hearing all of the pro-L.B.J. complaints about the movie, it can be disorienting to watch scenes like the one in which Johnson tells off George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, saying that he isn’t willing to go down in history paired with “the likes of you.” The climax of the film is Johnson’s address to Congress, in which he stunned the chamber with the ambition of his legislative plan, his invocation of America’s soul and its destiny, and his use of what had been seen as a slogan of the streets: “We shall overcome.” In DuVernay’s staging, there is no doubt that Johnson means it, and that what he has just done is epochal. Her film is fair to Johnson; the portrayal is multifaceted and respectful, and fully cognizant of his essential commitment to civil rights. What “Selma” is not, though, is cartoonish or deferential. Is that, again, the problem?

      Our homie Eric Rauchway, a historian at The Edge of the American West, says that historians and directors have different aims.

      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.

      That’s not to say that he didn’t have issues with it. He felt that Duvernay’s characterization of LBJ as the person behind the “suicide letter” was off the mark — that was all Hoover.

      But it seems odd that folks are zeroing in on the directorial liberties taken in THIS film, when the Oscar slate — American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher — all play fast and loose with the facts and condensed timelines and invent characters out of whole cloth. It’s what movies do. Historical fiction is not only documentary.