Selma: Voting Rights film Distorts Truth but Powerful and Inspirational

David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

Despite its distortion of the truth, Selma, the story of the campaign for equal voting rights, is both inspirational and powerful at a time in which we are reminded that this still a lot of work to be done.

Directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma stars David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alessandro Nivola, Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, with Tim Roth and Oprah Winfrey as “Annie Lee Cooper.” Only in Selma will four British actors be cast as Americans.

Despite the casting of British actors portraying Americans, the film’s sole fault lies with the relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Baines Johnson. This isn’t to take away anything from the actors as they had to work off of a screenplay written by Paul Webb. Oyelowo does a marvelous job at bringing Dr. King, Jr. to life on the big screen.

Joseph A. Califano, Jr. was the top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969. He recently penned an editorial in The Washington Post. On the amount of material available, Califano writes:

All this material was publicly available to the producers, the writer of the screenplay and the director of this film. Why didn’t they use it? Did they feel no obligation to check the facts? Did they consider themselves free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story?

Califano brings up a really good point. I have a major problem when it comes to distortions of the truth–this is what led to Foxcatcher being removed from my top ten list of 2014. President Johnson already has a bad legacy when it comes to Vietnam. He doesn’t need a negative legacy when it comes to both civil and voting rights. We all know the truth so why is it that they decided to dramatize what happened without telling us what really happened?

All that aside, this is not a biopic in as much as it is just a three-month period that takes place in 1965. There have been numerous attempts at getting a King film on screen but they’ve had problems with getting the okay from the King family. Lee Daniels was previously attached as a director but he left the film only to be replaced by DuVernay.

Dr. King led the campaign in Selma, as dangerous as it was, in order to get equal voting rights for African-Americans despite the violent–and yes, even racist–opposition. The march from Selma to Montgomery helped pave the way for the signing of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act is one of the landmark victories of the civil rights movement.

King was a visionary and a leader. Is this the film treatment that he deserves? I don’t know. Did much of the events that transpired on screen actually happen? Yes, it did. But it’s the treatment that President Johnson gets that brings this film down a few notches.