We saw “Selma” last night. It is a powerful movie. Young as we are as a country, our mythical events are mounting steadily: Roanoke; the Pilgrims; the American Revolution; the Founding Fathers; Lewis and Clark; Lincoln and the Civil War; FDR and the Great Depression; the assassination of JFK; the Civil Rights Movement; a man on the moon. A short history compared to other countries, but with a sense of mythical mission and many enshrined moments.
I don't know if we have more myths than other countries – probably not, I probably just know them more because I'm an American. We are certainly a self-conscious nation, and it seems a nation given to drama. But in contrast to other nations, we have a command of media that no other nation has in the present day, and certainly far beyond any nation in the past.
Think about the ancient Greeks, just for contrast. They were a people filled with mythology, not just the gods, but the historical Trojan War, and the historical House of Atrius. In that time of low technology, how amazing it is that they preserved their myths for all time. For the Trojan War, they preserved it by oral tradition – oral tradition! They made it into a coherent story, and then they had to remember it, so they used repetitive phrases (“rosy colored dawn”) and most importantly, rhyme – rhyme is beautiful, but it is most importantly an aid to memory. That was their technology in the Mycenaean civilization. The oral tradition preserved the Trojan War epics until papyrus emerged in the classical ancient Greek world half a millennium later, and miraculously, the epics were thus preserved in written form.
At the same time, classical Greece had performance art to present and preserve their myths, not only of the Trojan War, but of the House of Atrius. Luckily for us, although the actual performances of their plays were themselves evanescent, the scripts of perhaps 1% of their plays were preserved on papyrus. It was a small sample, but it is enough for us to appreciate their dramatic sense of themselves.
Then, with the technology of writing on papyrus at hand, the classical Greek world invented history with Herodotus and Thucydides. Without the need for gods, drama, and rhyme, facts as the writer knew them could be approached directly, and causes postulated and probed. The search for facts wasn't then what it is now, but at least direct experience could be accurately transcribed.
Contrast the Mycenaeans and the Greeks to us. How easy it is to collect facts; how easy it is to write about what people have done with a fair degree of accuracy; and how incomparably powerful it is to convey visions with the most powerful instrument for conveying someone's vision that has ever been invented, the movies. A play is one thing, it allows one to imagine that the abstraction one sees on the stage is truth. But a movie is something far more powerful -- it shuts you in a room, dampens any other sensory distractions, focuses your attention on colors and giant images that are as clear as can be, and envelopes you in surrounding sound. There is nothing like a movie. Movies are the most persuasive, impactful, and indelible of any media ever invented. Movies are not only powerful, they are so easily accessible; more people see movies than read books or see plays by orders of magnitude.
So, where does that leave us with the movie Selma. It is, as I said, a very powerful movie. It is professionally done, with some excellent performances, and I think especially excellent camera work. It is impactful. It is in service of one of our most important myths, the Civil Rights movement, and one of our most important heroes, Martin Luther King. The problem with Selma, however, is that it contains a horrible lie. It is factual with the African-American protagonists, but it is terribly wrong in the way it treats Lyndon Johnson. It casts LBJ as an adversary to MLK, when in fact he was an ally. The story of the Voting Rights Act in fact has two heroes, and the film proffers only one.
Now, if you are trying to remember the Trojan War and you have only an oral tradition to use, you might well have to simplify, you might have to create a drama that centers on a central truth, and to invent and distort other truths so that the epic can be remembered and retold. It's something you might have to do. Your mission might not be history, but eternal truths, and to get there you might distort facts, but everyone knows who listens that this is the case.
If you are a historian of the Peloponnesian War, many facts might not be available to you, and you might have to tell only the part that you know to be factual. You might seek to highlight some eternal truths, but you do it within the facts as you know them.
Here in modern day America, we have different conditions from the Greeks. Both traditions continue, drama and history. We have new technologies that make drama more compelling (at least technologically), and we can ascertain historical facts as never before. We also have some of the same limitations – a movie like Selma has to make its money back, and so it needs to be dramatic. It also wants to make its essential points of bravery, glory, personal foibles, internal differences of opinion, etc.
But how far do you have to go in this mission? Do you have to lie? Does drama inevitably have to distort reality? Does drama have to disserve history? And if so, how much? What does “artistic license” entitle you to? (And, how much does artistic license act as camouflage for poor artistic ability?)
I can see the need sometimes to collapse two characters into one memorable character, if they are not the main roles. Maybe it's even OK to say Connecticut was against the Emancipation Proclamation when it wasn't (I actually don't think it's OK, but maybe I'm wrong). I definitely don't think it should be permissible to say that torture evokes information to locate Osama bin Laden when it didn't, that's really a lie that's too important to justify.
The issue is this: in the modern world, drama morphs into history. So many more people see a movie than read the books, and a movie is by nature so powerful, that the movie's “facts” are what people remember as truth. So you can say you have a drama, but you really need to act with the constraint of being reasonably close to history. What is “reasonable” is the point of contention.
To my mind, the lies of Selma are so profound as to be infuriating. They shouldn't have done this. What they have done is to sully the reputation of a great if terribly flawed man, Lyndon Johnson, when what he deserves is the exact opposite.
Selma doesn't shade the truth – Selma lies. Selma depicts Johnson telling Martin Luther King, “Not now. Wait.” This is simply untruthful. We have documentary evidence, we have recordings(!) of their conversations where LBJ tells MLK to find the best examples he can of the injustices laid on the African-Americans and publicize them, and the people will see, “That's not fair!” And then Johnson can deliver. That's what LBJ says.
We have the truth from Robert Caro's LBJ books – the truth is more than available. LBJ rose from poverty and the disgrace and financial decline of his father, from his own deficient education, to become adopted by the Southern masters of the Congress, and to lead and command the Congress as no one ever had. He worked as hard and as skillfully as anyone has ever worked in politics, and when he got to the top, he double-crossed his mentors. While they supported continuing the status quo and segregation, the LBJ of his boyhood turned on them, skillfully and with some compassion, but he turned on them for what he knew was right. Having risen by dint of their patronage, he now led the nation not toward their way, but toward the way of Martin Luther King. He threatened and cajoled and got the most significant civil rights legislation passed in over 100 years – and anti-poverty legislation as well.
But what do we see in Selma? We see a limited, self-interested man in cahoots with J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, which is just not true. In fact, Hoover was an insubordinate opponent to be outwitted and ultimately overpowered, with great skill and even bravery from LBJ. We don't see the conjunction of two stars, the preternatural leadership genius of the young MLK who has known only one way, and the older genius LBJ who has led the more tortured and circuitous way to greatness. I'm sure it's harder to make a drama with two stars coming together, rather than one star with an adversary. Maybe the writers of Selma weren't up to it. But the way it is, it's a distortion, it's a desecration of LBJ, and it's a desecration of the truth. Even if our view of LBJ doesn't have the policy implications of Zero Dark Thirty's utility of torture distortions, it's still important.
It's true that the Civil Rights movement deserves to live in the mythology of the nation. The Black heroes of Selma deserve to live in history and myth. But because of taking the easy way out and gratuitously desecrating a white man who was a true hero of civil rights, this film is truly, truly misbegotten.
The Greeks would have done it better.