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Whose story is Selma?

Whose story is Selma?

Those of you who have followed Denzel Washington’s career since its inception know that he won his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in the movie Glory.

Glory focused so much on Matthew Broderick’s character, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, and the issues he faced leading black troops that we never really got any idea about the issues the troops themselves were facing…despite their being the subject of the story … I thought about Glory as I sat through a screening of Selma on Sunday.

It was about a Civil War battalion made up of African Americans that fought in the Civil War. It also starred Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and Matthew Broderick, whose status as the husband of Sarah Jessica Parker kind of makes people forget that he’s a Tony Award-winning actor.

I bring that up because Glory focused so much on Broderick’s character, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, and the issues he faced leading this group of Black troops that we never really got any idea about the issues the troops themselves were facing…despite their being the subject of the story.

But a lot of people liked it and hey, Washington won an award for it, right?

I thought about Glory as I sat through a screening of Selma on Sunday.

Selma is told from a black perspective

The movie, which premiered nationwide on Friday, is about the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and focuses on the sacrifices made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his fellow members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to take this stand for the right to vote.

Joseph Califano, a former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, thinks that the movie should have given him more credit as a “bold ally” of the movie instead of making him King’s antagonist.

But while director Ava DuVernay’s film has been a hit with most critics, it hasn’t been a hit with everyone.

In a column in the Washington Post, for example, Joseph Califano, a former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson, thinks that the movie should have given him more credit as a “bold ally” of the movie instead of making him King’s antagonist. An article in the Jewish Daily Forward condemned Selma for “whitewashing” the contributions of the Jewish community to the Voting Rights effort.

(Granted, no one demanded that Steven Spielberg be shunned from award consideration for a Lincoln in which Frederick Douglass was never even mentioned, and Exodus: Gods and Kings is considered so inaccurate by the Egyptian government that the film can’t be shown in the country, but that’s none of my business…).

I get your consternation folks. I really do.

In your minds, for want of a better way to put it, Selma is a bit too, well, Black.

The opposition to Selma is political

Now when I read Califano’s objections, objections that he thinks diminish the Selma enough that it should be made ineligible for any cinematic honors like an Academy Award, they don’t quite pass the smell test for me for two reasons.

One, I hang out with politicians. And if I’ve learned nothing else about politicians, I’ve learned that they like getting re-elected…a lot.

Because of this, I know that LBJ might have wanted to be seen as a “bold ally”, his and King’s definitions of “bold” were probably a whole lot different. Bold to LBJ might have meant “I’ll get to it, but you’re going to have to wait.”

King’s version of “bold” obviously meant “Do it now or I’ll embarrass you.”

Guess we know which guy’s version of bold ruled the day eventually…

And the second reason is that the name of the movie is Selma, not “The LBJ Story”.

Selma changes the Hollywood dynamic 

As I mentioned at the beginning, one of my problems with Glory is that while the All-Black military unit was what the story was allegedly about, it was told from the perspective of the White officers, not the Black soldiers.

And it’s one that happens far too frequently when we talk about Black stories in American Popular Cinema. The death of civil rights leader Medgar Evers was just another plot device in a Ghosts of Mississippi that focused more on Bobby DeLauder, the White lawyer that eventually brought Evers’s killer to justice.

With Selma, Ava DuVernay has made a film that stands as a kind of correction to that established narrative. It’s a more holistic story that not only includes the people who came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge after having the beatings and bloodshed of the first attempt to cross beamed into their living rooms on the news, but also the people who had organized the marches and taken the beatings for their trouble.

In Selma, the heroes are Black and proud…

And at least one of them has appeared on a stamp… sj favicon 3

Photo: Alabama civil rights movement: Selma to Montgomery march: Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy Monday, March 15, 1965. Penn State Special Collections / Flickr Creative Commons


denise clay 2Denise Clay is a veteran journalist, a former adjunct professor, and an active member of the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a regular contributor to Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Denise.

Denise Clay
Written by Denise Clay