Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seeing Selma

Mark Harris in Grantland, writing on the critical response to Selma's history:
On Salon, Zelizer, the author of a just-published book about Johnson, claimed that the movie makes the president seem “hostile to civil rights” (it does not). Updegrove wrote on Politico that it “humanizes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (an odd phrase to use about someone already widely seen as human) while turning Johnson into “an obstructionist” (it does not). And in the Times, Dowd charged that the movie turns Johnson into a “faux … vile white villain,” a charge that is, at best, so uncomprehending of or inattentive to Selma, and at worst, so dishonest that in either case it ought to disqualify anyone who makes it from writing authoritatively about issues of truth or accuracy in the pages of a national newspaper. As the film critic Sam Adams noted on Twitter, “the only way to come out of Selma seeing LBJ as the movie’s villain is if you expected him to be its hero.”
The other day I talked with a friend who'd seen Selma. She's intelligent and attentive but not especially historically minded. She had no idea there was a controversy and came out of the movie assuming that Johnson was indeed an "obstructionist"--a false friend to the civil rights movement, essentially.

Now, I'm not saying that is what the movie actually portrays. Good films, whether "historical" or not, usually approach their subjects with a certian degree of complexity and even ambiguity that allows for multiple conflicting interpretations. Consider the current debate over whether American Sniper is a piece of hawkish nationalist tripe or an anti-war screed--and the remarkably similar squall a couple years ago about Zero Dark Thirty (pro- or anti-torture?).

But, contrary to what Harris writes, it is possible for an intelligent viewer without a predisposed bias towards or against Johnson to end up seeing him as essentially a villain. Following in the vaunted footsteps of Howard Dean and the NEW New Republic, I am indeed talking about a film I haven't seen. In this case, though, I actually think my friend's impression is more telling than whatever mine will be--given that I've already read about the controversy, and given that I'm perhaps more engaged with the historical setting than most viewers.

Again, I wish merely to point out that it is possible for an intelligent viewer to come away with a very bad impression of Johnson--regardless of whether this reflects manipulative filmmaking or not, or even if it really matters that a piece of art doesn't happen to correspond perfectly with its historical referent.