Blog: 100% Historical Accuracy (or why Selma and other historical dramas can get a pass or two)

change the world selma

by Ken B.

It seems like it’s been impossible to navigate through this awards season without encountering some criticism leveled at Ava DuVernay’s Selma – specifically, controversy over the film’s depiction of Lyndon B. Johnson as reluctant to work with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his causes. “You’ve got one problem, I’ve got a hundred and one.” Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) says to King (David Oyelowo) at one point in the movie. The context of that scene is Johnson explaining that he is a full-on politician – the President of the United States, and King is seen as a lobbyist, by definition focusing largely on one issue, which at that time was transitioning into the birthing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The allegations have been quick and heavy, from small comments issued by historians all the way to full articles run in major publications. Joseph A. Califano, Jr. was LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs during the president’s second term, and offered a scathing indictment of Selma’s apparent disinterest for accuracy, writing in a December 2014 op-ed for The Washington Post, “Did they [the filmmakers] consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story?”

The short answer is yes. But I think to a degree, “yes” is a perfectly valid response to that accusation.

Let me explain. While nobody would want to see a movie that claims to be historically based, and considers no basis in reality at all, there is an extent of which this kind of revision is entirely justifiable. DuVernay has said “I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller.” Selma is not a documentary. It is a fictitious film, which uses real life people and events in order to craft compelling drama. And taken on that basis, the film largely succeeds. A screenwriter or director in this case has no obligation to read directly from a history book and translate that onto the screen.

Look to the case of David Fincher’s The Social Network. That movie, on the surface, is a recreation of the founding of Facebook. I’ve done some research into the full magnitude of the public outcry from many of the individuals depicted in the film, claiming that there was at times almost no correlation between what was created in Aaron Sorkin’s script and what actually occurred in real life. I imagine some of you might remember this (it predates my heightened interest in movies, so I didn’t follow the story at the time). Sorkin said, quite eloquently and definitively, “I don’t want my fidelity to be the truth. I want it to be storytelling.” The inaccuracies of The Social Network don’t take away from the fact that it’s a great movie – the screenplay is tight and slick. Fincher’s directing is surehanded, moody, and engrossing, and the performances from the movie’s large cast are roundly terrific.

Creative liberty is an essential component of the artist’s toolbox. There is part of me that thinks for a movie like Selma to work in a sufficiently theatrical/cinematic way, such detours from one’s history book are almost mandated. One of the great draws of the film for me is how it isn’t about the nice white people saving the oppressed black people – it is about said minorities coming together and leading an independent movement that requires people like the white politicians in power to make changes. And by dialing back the amount of screen time devoted to people like LBJ, DuVernay is able to highlight the work done by King and the protesters within a reasonable runtime and in a way that is the most accessible and consumer-friendly; a shortcut yes, but never marginalizing to anyone’s intelligence or never deliberately going out to sabotage Johnson’s life or legacy.

Seeking an empirical end-all-be-all requirement for historical movies to be comprehensive transcripts of the events that they adapt themselves from indicates a key misunderstanding of why such films are likely made in the first place. Ideally, such projects find a chapter in history, recognize that they contain inherent dramatic potential, and seek to flesh it out in order to interest the viewer into further thought and discussion, which will sometimes involve the altering of reality in order to serve a filmmaker’s first cardinal purpose – to engage the audience. Most of these kinds of movies are not flat-out history lessons, and that’s because most of them don’t intend to be. It’s only when you apply unrealistic or unintended superlatives to what you think a movie is trying to achieve, especially when it’s doing nothing of the sort, that you really shouldn’t be surprised when you come back disappointed.