Monday, January 19, 2015
I applaud Maureen Dowd’s recent editorial in the New York Times regarding some of SELMA’S allegedly flawed historical reconstructions. Admittedly, my complaining about historical inaccuracies in a biopic seems the height of hypocrisy, considering I have devoted a fair measure of my writing life to valorizing the biopic genre. Yet, she pinpoints cogently the many complaints about the depiction of LBJ’s relationship with Dr. King. I agree with her when she says, at the outset, “I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant.” Dowd follows that with a critical commentary that I find equally compelling: “But the director’s [Ava DuVernay] talent makes her distortion of LBJ more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.” DuVernay’s response is revealing: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” Thus, President Johnson comes across here as more of an obstacle than a valued complement to Dr. King’s agenda. Undeniably, there is some distortion here. In his provocative defense of the “alternate history” deployed in biopics, the eminent historian Niall Ferguson demands that a measure of “probability” be observed. Historical “alterations” must be grounded in careful historical research. According to Dowd, however, DuVernay has boasted, “I’m not a historian; I’m not a documentarian.” Dowd responds, “There was no need for Duvernay to diminish LBJ, given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.” Indeed. There are “white devils” aplenty in the film, without rearranging the historical record to provide a new one.