Do film producers have an obligation to be accurate in their movies about historical persons and events? The recently released film “Selma” about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement of 1965 has reignited that debate.
The march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama half a century ago was a pivotal moment in the long struggle culminating in passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act the same year.
The list of motion pictures, television programs and digital/online productions inspired by actual persons and events is long. Often the storylines are purely fictionalized accounts loosely based on history but so translucent as to be more entertaining than informative.
In this instance, critics of “Selma” argue the film casts President Lyndon B. Johnson as a negative actor in the events of 1965. LBJ Presidential Library Director Mark D. Updegrove asserts that President Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr, were partners in the movement rather than adversaries as the movie implies.
Historian Julian Zelizer posits a more centrist reaction to the film. Self-avowed MLK admirer Richard Cohen of The Washington Post bemoans the film’s selective depiction of key actors of the period. And former Civil Rights leader Julian Bond says LBJ was unjustly cast as a villain.
President Johnson’s domestic affairs adviser Joseph A. Califano, Jr, is even more adamant in his defense of the LBJ record going as far as to claim LBJ was responsible for the Selma march.
What then is the responsibility of motion picture producers? Should they defend their portrayal of historical figures and events? The Constitution, after all, protects freedom of expression and director Ava DuVernay certainly has the right to promote her view of history. Even most critics of “Selma” acknowledge that the film is a moving albeit inaccurate portrayal of the momentous developments of 1965.
Some pundits express concern that viewers of the film—especially the young and uninformed—will leave the theater with a distorted understanding of a key historical moment in the U.S. fight for civil rights and equal justice.
The journalist in me seeks greater allegiance to historical accuracy. That, of course, is the role of pure documentaries. Non-journalists, no doubt, may have fewer reservations and feel comfortable with creations that are less constrained
I would hope that motion pictures like “Selma” would post disclaimers at the beginning that read, “The following film is based on actual events. In some instances, however, the producers have embellished the historical record for dramatic affect.”
At the end of the day, we are wise to seek as broad an understanding as possible of our nation’s history. That requires exposure to multiple interpretations from a range of scholars, journalists, and artists.
Although perhaps a skewed account of persons and events of 1965, “Selma” certainly is one more contribution to that collection.