Here’s my take. Much of the criticism of “Selma” is accurate. However, why is there so much criticism of “Selma,” but not of other Hollywood historical films? it’s not the substance of the criticism which I find problematic, but the ferocity and amount of it.
From what I know, LBJ and King were partners in the civil rights process, but that relationship later fell apart over the Vietnam War. I’m sure that King was pushing harder for the Voting Rights Act than Johnson, but the dynamic was a lot more subtle than “Selma” shows. I also did not find Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson at all convincing. It just didn’t ring right for me. Personally, I was particulary bothered by the absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was replaced by a Greek Orthodox figure. This photo of King and Heschel from the Selma march is iconic, and one has to wonder what was the motive for air-brushing out a prominent Jewish activist. Does this say something about current Jewish-Christian and African-American-Jewish relations? Was this an attempt at Christianizing a more diverse event? Is this about Israel? Or is there something else going on, some kind of Hollywood soap opera? Anyway, I think it’s fair to say that many Jews were saddened by this.
That said, “Selma” was a powerful film with brilliant portrayals of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King. It shows a flawed hero and the importance of community activism. King did not come out of nowhere, but emerges out of a broad movement (which also includes women).
Where was the same criticism of “Lincoln,” which edited out the prominent role of Frederick Douglas? More recently, the “Imitation Game” played fast and loose with the story of Alan Turing. Turing was not as difficult and rude a person as Cumberbatch portrays (though I thought his portrayal was nevertheless also brilliant). The Turing machine was much smaller than the one depicted. There were others that worked on this project before Turing, particularly Polish mathematicians (never once mentioned). And the depiction of Commander Denniston as a hectoring, bureaucratic bully is not accurate either (thanks to Dianne Bazell for this info).
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” won an Oscar for best picture in 2013, and yet the entire film was essentially a fiction that had little to do with the historical event depicted with Iran and the Khomeini revolution. “Argo” makes “Selma,” “Lincoln,” and “imitation Game” look like milquetoast documentaries (which I realize is unfair to documentaries–a genre that I love). Looking at “Argo” is no better than watching “Quo Vadis” in order to understand the historical Roman world and early Christianity. I noted this in an essay on my blog in 2013, and there were others who did so as well, but the bigger-click oped writers carried the day: and they loved “Argo.” There was very little prominent or strong criticism of “Argo.”
Why do “Argo” and others get of the hook, while “Selma” receives such deep historical analysis? Why didn’t David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress?
I think the answer is clear. There is an element of prejudice and racism in the focus on “Selma.” Critics (particularly white liberal critics) are much more defensive of “Selma,” because they feel a personal connection to the event which is not the case with most other films. And they feel hurt and slighted, because they feel lumped together with LBJ as resistant to civil rights progress.
I have never understood why drama and historical accuracy have to be opposed to be one another, but that is the way Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers seem to view the matter. That is the reality of these films. Critics, who know this full well, have to be consistent in their critiques. If you criticize historical inaccuracies, then you should do it consistently. Don’t lower the boom on one film, while letting the others slip through the cracks. If you do, be prepared for the return volleys that you will inevitably receive from the other side. This is rightfully so.
Addendum:I keep looking at the thumbnail photo accompanying, and I just can’t it out of my mind how Heschel is air-brushed out. I still find “Selma” a superb film, but this erasure saddens me deeply. So here’s the original photo:
CHARLIE HEBDO AND THE COMIC TRADITION
I’ve read and watched an awful lot of news analysis of Charlie Hebdo, but rarely do pundits mention some of the salient facts about what Charlie Hebdo actually does and about the tradition of satire:
1) Charlie Hebdo mocks all three Abrahamic religions, not just Islam, and it does so offensively with no special favorites, but Jews and Christians do not attack and demonize Charlie Hebdo;
2) The tradition of satire and caricatures or religion in France is very old going, back to at least the French Revolution, and is tied to the deep distrust of religious institutions (the Catholic Church primarily) that was closely linked to the royal dictatorship that crushed economic, social, and political freedoms in France;
3) Charlie Hebdo does not only mock religion; it mocks other institutions and prominent public figures;
4) Charlie Hebdo is a part of a tradition of offensive satire that goes back to ancient Greek comedy. It includes writers such as Aristophanes whom many profess to love (mainly because they don’t understand, or care about, the ancient references). However, if Aristophanes were alive today, he would probably engender hatred among the people he would gleefully pillory and mock.
5) Commentators are shocked by all the sexual references in Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. However, ancient comedy (and drama), which is the literary predecessor of Charlie Hebdo, was associated with phallus processions, accompanied by obscenities and verbal abuse.
So what some consider juvenile, stupid, and offensive in Charlie Hebdo has roots in literature and dramatic traditions that we profess to admire and call “classic.” We in the U.S. live in a culture that is still relatively Puritanical in its approach to public sexuality, and that is coming out in the U.S. media coverage.
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