Thursday, January 29, 2015

What we talk about when we talk about Selma

I went through three stages of reaction to the debate surrounding LBJ’s portrayal in the otherwise-awesome Selma. First, before I’d even seen the movie, it seemed strange to be centering the discussion about the first civil rights-era movie made by black people on a minor white character. If there are inaccuracies, I figured, that’s because the movie is fictional and aiming at some larger truth, and it seemed petty to get so upset about the one white character in a film made by an industry overwhelmingly dominated by white people. Not to mention, the larger story of civil rights in America really is about the resistance of powerful white people to the emancipation of black people, so it’s hardly unreasonable to portray a President hesitantly embracing the movement.


Then I saw the movie. During the Johnson scenes, I couldn’t help but think about the criticisms I’d read and, not being a Johnson scholar (or any kind of scholar, for that matter), I fixated on the moments that seemed to ring false. I wasn’t trying to, it just happened. The rest of the movie was great, but during the Johnson scenes I cringed. Afterward, as I thought about it, all manner of alternate approaches suggested themselves - Johnson’s hardly the only white foil in the movie, so it seemed gratuitous to me to take liberties with the historical record when the critiques of white society that any civil-rights movie has to make can easily rest on the truly loathsome figures of Gov. Wallace and Sheriff Clark.


In the last day or two, though, I’ve started to reconsider. I’ve read and listened to a number of black critics discuss Johnson’s portrayal as rather moderate in their eyes. The white critics I’ve read have seen Johnson in the movie the same way I did - as pretty alarmingly racist. And that difference has been what’s caused me to rethink.


If black people hear Johnson as a moderate, and white people hear him as a flaming racist, well, that says something pretty interesting about what we’re bringing to the film as individuals. It strikes me that for white people, this is a movie with relatively few figures to identify with - certainly there are the solidarity marchers who come to Selma, and martyrs like James Reeb who die there. But they’re not really individual characters in the movie; they’re more like a concept, a mass of people standing in for a mass of people.


There are only a handful of white characters in the movie with enough screen time to subconsciously identify with. And they’re all awful, but Johnson is the least awful, and unlike all the rest, he’s not vilified today. So naturally, modern white people identify with him (at least on some level; I’ve never been a ridiculously tall Texan President, but I think you know what I mean). And when he then goes on to, in the movie, endorse really despicable acts like the FBI’s surveillance of King’s private life and their manipulation of his marriage; and when we learn, after the movie if we didn’t already know it, that LBJ (apparently) never actually did that, it feels a bit like a betrayal. Like an unnecessary savaging of an otherwise-ok white person who I had been identifying with subconsciously for a few hours.


All of which is to say, it’s about time. American culture has been inaccurately and gratuitously misportraying non-white people for as long as there has been American culture. The sensation of, “There’s only one person in this movie I can relate to, and they kinda made him a jackass” is not a new sensation for black people, or asian people, or hispanic people, but it is for white people. So this is something we’ve just got to get used to.


But there’s something else. This is a movie by a black woman, about one of the most important black figures of the 20th century. This is not a movie made by committee, or screen-tested to appeal to every demographic. This is a piece of art, made by a specific person with a specific vision. Like all art, liberties are taken in service of a larger truth, but more specifically, this is the world seen through a lens in which LBJ’s portrayal really is pretty accurate. Maybe there’s no tape of him endorsing Hoover’s ugly spying on King, and maybe he was marginally more sympathetic to civil rights for black people than it felt like the movie portrayed. But the movie is about King, and about the struggle for equality, and in the context of that struggle it is no inaccuracy at all to say that the white power structure was reticent to extend equal rights to black people.


This is what happens when you let people who aren’t white men make movies: they tell stories from their point of view, and the whole point is that their view is different from mine. Why watch, otherwise?

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