Selma’s false history are the root of the weakness of its drama. Selma’s historical lies are serious, and its omissions robs the film of humanity and even flatters bigots.
President Johnson, was not against MLK, nor was he against civil rights. Johnson understood and hated southern bigotry, hypocrisy, lynchings, and the rest of that good old boy garbage. Johnson was a key ally, a strong progressive, the man who called for, and got, “The Great Society.” It is as great a falsehood to depict Johnson as an opponent as it would be to depict Dr. King as a terrorist. It’s just not true. The director, Ava DuVernay, excused it as necessary to provide dramatic tension.
However, J. Edgar Hoover definitely was an opponent of Dr. King, and Hoover tried to shut down the civil rights movement by using the FBI as his personal instrument of felony blackmail. We have documentation that Hoover harassed Dr. King, smeared Dr. King, and in a blackmail letter threatening to reveal King’s affairs, appears to call on MLK to commit suicide. There is reason to suspect the possibility of Hoover’s complicity in James Earl Ray’s purported murder of MLK, and the real possibility that Ray was innocent. That letter linked to above was carefully hidden for decades, and redacted in ways that prevented the finger of investigation pointing back at Hoover. What is documented of Hoover’s actions toward Dr. King is criminal, and despicable.
If DuVernay was unaware of those basic facts, that ignorance is hard to excuse. But if she is aware of them, (and it doesn’t take much to find them) then we must conclude that Ava DuVernay is unable or unwilling to face the grim reality of black history, which is Ava’s own history. J. Edgar Hoover was not only a closeted gay man, Hoover was passing for white. Those facts are also documented today.
So why didn’t Ava stick to real history? If she had used real history, she would have hammered a nerve that is current today, and her movie would be winning awards. She would have nailed one of the key horrors of racism and lynchings in the old south that is whitewashed even today. That some of the most vile enforcers of racial bigotry in the USA were people like J. Edgar Hoover: black ancestry, with dark-skinned relatives, and passing for white.
Ava chose not to tell the real story, that an out-of-control FBI director, a black man passing as white, led the opposition to King and quite probably killed him.
The real story would have shown how racism even poisons families based on skin color. The real story would show how some people with black ancestry choose not just to run away from their heritage, but to viciously turn on their own. The real story could have questioned whether James Earl Ray’s guilty plea was coerced, and shown that Ray tried for the rest of his life to clear his name. The real story would have shown how Dr. King had affairs, and tried to understand it. Dr. King was as human as they come. Yes, biopics tend to lie about their subjects. JFK’s affairs and the skinny-dipping starlets at the White House pool parties are left out if his profiles. I don’t think that makes it right though.
Beyond that key piece of black history there are other egregious errors that let historical activists against civil rights off the hook, and somehow ignores others who were key helpers. Selma puts the Orthodox Christian church into the marches on the side of Dr. King. But that church’s leader hated King and worked against civil rights. The movie removes the role of American Jews strong (and key) support for King and for black civil rights completely. That wholesale removal of Jewish support is like leaving France out of the story of the American revolutionary war.
So, that is how a little “dramatic license” on Ava DuVernay’s part is really not little at all. Ava’s film is so false, that if it were a white director who made a movie depicting black people so wrongly, that director would be called a bigot.
It is rare that history presents a true story with such a nemesis as J. Edgar Hoover. Great writers and directors don’t shy away from treason and treachery. These are part of the human condition. To portray how racism also infects its targets with self-hatred opens up depths inside us that need the light. Hoover is Shakespearian in power and scope, and not only for his black ancestry. Hoover was apparently a homosexual man who persecuted homosexuals.
The puzzle of why Hoover wasn’t in the film as Dr. King’s nemesis is something I will never understand. “Selma” could have been great. I hope Ava has more courage to confront treachery and the uncomfortable next time.