Does Accuracy Matter? Selma and Historical Dramas


The preponderance of films based on actual events in contention for this year’s Academy Awards has reopened the public debate on film’s responsibility to history, on whether accuracy should be a first principle. Historians and other cultural commentators have pointed to the inaccuracies in how Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park code breakers are portrayed in The Imitation Game, how the American Forces activities in the Middle East and Chris Kyle’s role in those activities are represented in American Sniper, and, perhaps most vociferously, how Selma depicts the events surrounding the 50-mile march from the titular town to Montgomery, particularly in its depiction of Martin Luther King’s relationship with President Johnson. Former Johnson aides, presidential historians, and journalists have written defenses of L.B.J., maintaining that the relationship between the President and Dr. King was cordial and productive, and have condemned director Ava DuVernay’s insistence on vilifying the President for dramatic effect. There were “plenty of vile white villains” for DuVernay to draw from, claims New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and therefore “no need to create a faux one.”

Controversy over the accuracy of Selma and other films based on true events seems to center on a concern that moviegoers will take a film’s representation of history as fact rather than as representation. As Sumiko Higashi argues, such concerns aren’t entirely unwarranted, since “competing visions of the past are invoked to influence social attitudes and shape public policy,” whether they are marked as fictions or not. That defenders of Johnson, presidential historians, participants in the Civil Rights movement, contemporaries of King and the President, and various other social commentators have felt the need to set the record straight by offering their own versions of the film’s events reminds us that history is not a singular truth, but a contentious arena in which multiple truths are presented in the struggle over larger points of contention. Many of the articles addressing the accuracy of Selma highlight the film’s importance and the importance of an accurate representation of the events it depicts in light of the renewed tensions in the US surrounding race relations and the power differential between African American citizens and white law enforcement, folding the film into the ongoing conversation about race in the country. For Dowd, since the film wades into such an important element of America’s past, and consequently of its future, “there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate” than that which burdens films that don’t touch on issues as fundamental as race. DuVernay’s appeals to the film’s status as art are insupportable for Dowd; the “‘Hey, it’s just a movie’ excuse doesn’t wash” when dealing with matters that should be treated with an eye toward truth above all else.

In an op-ed response to critics of the film, John Lewis, one of the leaders of the marches depicted in the film, acknowledges its role in the discussion of the larger issues surrounding the events in Selma while still reminding us of the multiplicity of history: “It breaks through our too-often bored and uninformed perception of our history, and it confronts us with the real human drama our nation struggled to face 50 years ago.”

The idea that there are multiple histories and that those histories are shaped by the usages to which they are put, however, points to a fundamental difficulty in addressing historical accuracy. As Higashi argues, most moviegoers think of history not as a polyglot amalgam of multiple voices speaking to the same event, but as a matter of known facts supported by “empiricist research.” The perceptual richness of film, its ability to show us what it is representing with an impression of reality greater than any history text could provide, offers a compelling sense of empirical fact that competes with our knowledge that filmmakers shape the history they tell to suit the needs of the medium. Duped by this sense of reality, it is feared moviegoers will be satisfied with what the film offers as truth, not look for anything else, and therefore be left with a distorted vision of that “truth.” (I hate scare quotes, by the way, but it can’t be helped here.) Dowd’s suggestion that “artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it” speaks to such a concern over film’s ability to overpower our cognisance of its status as fiction.

Selma, however, offers a caution against the idea of a singular, evidenced based history in its portrayal of King’s activities in Alabama by both reminding us of the uses of history, and by demonstrating that the evidence used in an empiricist approach to the past is often inadequate to fully capture the events it is meant to represent.

After his initial arrival in Selma, Dr. King confronts the leadership of a local student group fighting for voting rights in the area and resentful that he has parachuted into their territory after years of slow but steady ground-work. King applauds the young men’s efforts, but points out that their inability to achieve real gains is due to a critical tactical blindness: in order to effect change one has to affect opinion, and that requires “drama.” It requires, in other words, that events be shaped into a specific form for a specific purpose. Selma was chosen, King argues, because it has in place the right ingredients to trigger the right kind of drama. The ensuing brutal attack on the unarmed marchers on Edmund Pettus Bridge, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, is presented through multiple voices and forms of representation – the voice-over narration provided by the sympathetic newspaper reporter, the television news reports, and the film’s direct dramatization of events – all of which serve as means of persuasion, of shaping public opinion. The film stresses the importance of the television coverage of the events on the bridge in shifting public opinion, showing future supporters of the marchers reacting in horror to the footage.

That a single event can be rendered as multiple different versions of history depending on the needs of the teller is also suggested in a pivotal scene close to the end of the film, when King, wearied by the ever-presence of death shadowing his struggle, is reminded of the power of his leadership by John Lewis. Before their efforts in the Civil Rights movement converged in Selma, the young man had attended one of King’s speaking engagements despite having not recovered from serious injuries suffered after his group of demonstrators was attacked and brutally beaten by a group of white civilians. King, seemingly remembering the event only as one in a series of such speeches, but recognizing its meaning to John, says only that the two men remember the day differently. He therefore asks to hear John’s version of the day, since his own memory cannot provide the necessary motivation to continue fighting. In this case John’s version is better – not truer or more factually based, just of more use.

Political tactic and subjective vision could be dismissed as distortions of the actual nature of events since they are tainted by struggle for power and by the fallibility of sentiment. The film, however, suggests that the seemingly more authoritative representations created by historical record are similarly fallible.

The FBI closely monitors King, his fellow Civil Rights demonstrators, and his family, including bugging the Kings’ home and wire-tapping their phones. Throughout the film the record of these surveillance measures is displayed directly over the image – the FBI seal, followed by a dated and time-stamped record of what was observed. The seal, the precision with which the time is recorded, and the font, which emulates a type-writer, imbue the texts with a sense of authoritative documentation of events without any subjective colouration. The dispatches are pithy, relating basic information about the location, the persons present, and their actions. The documents often appear after the depiction of the events they are meant to encompass, but the information recorded can in no way sum up what we have just witnessed, so that the documents’ ability to fully represent those events is constantly put in question. To take one example, the film suggests that the FBI attempted to destabilize the Kings’ marriage by delivering audio tapes that implied King was unfaithful. Coretta’s revelation of the tapes to her husband triggers a deeply-felt discussion on her role in their marriage, the danger into which his struggle has placed her and their children, and how the deaths surrounding that struggle have impacted her. The surveillance dispatch, on the other hand, tells us only that the tape was delivered to the King home and that the couple was present.

Joseph A. Califano, a former aide to President Johnson, lamented the fact that the film did not accurately follow the version of events that could be found in the public record. The film’s use of the FBI surveillance documents, however, cautions against relying too heavily on evidence of this kind to understand the past.

I often complain that the argument for the necessity of historical accuracy doesn’t give filmgoers enough credit; to suggest that a film’s version of events will be taken as the truth makes it seem as if they do not have the intelligence to tell fact from fiction, or to remember that “based on a true story” doesn’t negate a film’s status as fiction. While I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, I understand the anxiety over authenticity, the need to caution against the histories presented in film. Selma, however, seems to offer a similar caution, even as it takes advantage of what Dowd calls a filmmaker’s “artistic license to distort the truth.”


3 thoughts on “Does Accuracy Matter? Selma and Historical Dramas

  1. That’s a great point of history being a combination of stories from different perspectives, and even I’m guilty of not considering that when I complain about historical inaccuracies in movies.

    I have, however, witnessed people actually taking an event as truth based solely on the portrayal of a movie “based on a true story.”
    I often try to remind people that that phrase doesn’t mean the filmmakers are required to keep things accurate or not allowed to take liberties.
    After all, their job first and foremost is to make a good movie that tells a compelling story.


    1. Yes, I’ve heard people accepting what a movie portrays as truth as well. I have a friend who’s a historian and her objections to historical inaccuracy are based on the fear that more people than not will do so. I still prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it can’t be denied that some will forget that based on a true story doesn’t mean the film is accurate or even that the filmmakers were trying to make it accurate. The multiplicity of history is a good thing to remember when engaging in this debate since it reminds us that exact accuracy isn’t really a possibility. I had my issues with Selma, but it seemed uniquely aware of that.

      Liked by 1 person

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