Whitesplaining ‘Selma’: A Hall of Shame


Over the past month, there’s been a steady drumbeat of mostly white voices complaining about the historical accuracy of Selma. We can now reasonably conclude that, in part, this disproportionate outcry really did hurt Selma‘s Oscar chances. All this even though, as Amy Davidson’s piece at the New Yorker shows, the historical liberties taken aren’t egregious, but instead reflect the proper context of the LBJ/MLK relationship around the time of the Selma march.

In the interest of furthering productive discussion, let’s review some of the prominent voices who felt it incumbent upon themselves to bemoan Selma‘s exclusion or misrepresentation of white narratives, specifically its allegedly insufficient veneration of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jewish civil rights heroes. I’ll call it a whitesplaining hall of shame.

Before I name names, I want to add that I’d be happy to watch a movie about LBJ’s legendary legislative machinations, and I’d also be intrigued by a feature film that honestly detailed Jewish involvement in civil rights. But Selma is not that movie — and, honestly, thank goodness. It’s a creature entirely its own, original and powerful. And what we need more than white narratives is more movies like this, which do what Brittney Cooper at Salon describes as creating a “new racial lens” that focuses on black lives, conflicts, and achievements in a way that’s unfortunately revolutionary.

1. Jonathan Chait:

In a piece about the Obama legacy, of all things, Chait felt the need to include a dig:

The current film Selma inaccurately depicts Johnson as an opponent of the civil-rights struggle he had, in reality, thrown all his energy behind. Five decades on, Johnson still has not escaped the feelings he engendered — indeed, he still requires rehabilitation by figures like Obama.

Chait is exaggerating; the film does not depict LBJ as a staunch opponent at all. It depicts him as a savvy politician with a very good competing agenda (ending poverty!) who has to be brought around on timing, urgency, and priorities. By the end of the movie, he has come around and done the right thing, with both heart and head. Writes Davidson:

In DuVernay’s staging, there is no doubt that Johnson means it, and that what he has just done is epochal. Her film is fair to Johnson; the portrayal is multifaceted and respectful, and fully cognizant of his essential commitment to civil rights. What “Selma” is not, though, is cartoonish or deferential. Is that, again, the problem?

2. Elizabeth Drew

Drew seems to have seen a different work than the rest of us. She’s also convinced that the film has encouraged young people to boo Johnson, which really seems like quite a stretch given that Johnson is maddening, charming, and fully engaging as a film character, and not adversarial in the manner of George Wallace.

The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

Look, the very fact that dozens of writers are now presenting the historical record to the public means we actually do know many more details about MLK and LBJ’s collaboration and relationships, including transcripts, anecdotes from biography, and eyewitness accounts, than we did. We actually owe that broadening of historical understanding and debate to Selma‘s popularity.

3. Maureen Dowd

Dowd topped Drew, doing a bit of her typically shallow anthropological research by going to a theater full of black teenagers and cataloging their reactions to Selma, including oohs and cheers. These kids’ interest in the film, she writes, makes it all the more egregious that they’re getting “misinformed” about LBJ.

I cannot even begin to describe how offensive this is, on so many levels. But first, we should ask ourselves: how important is it, really, that black youth have unmitigated fealty to LBJ for helping to grant them certain basic human rights they should have had in the first place (and which are now under attack)? Is the endgame of using one’s power for a good cause to get cheered by the future’s schoolchildren, or to see them living with full human dignity?

Brittney Cooper’s riposte sums this up: “This white racial anxiety of not being at the center feels to me far more dangerous to black youth than seeing a film that tells them a story about themselves and their history.'”

4. Ledia Snow and Suzannah Heschel

A chorus of Jewish voices have now been added to the mix, complaining about the omission of Jewish leaders, specifically Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Jewish contributions to Selma. Yes, Jews did contribute to the movement, but Jewish organizers were presumably there for voting rights, not to get a handwritten thank-you note, in perpetuity, from all those who create narratives about any part of that era. As Chanel Dubofsky writes in response: “there is a difference between contributing to a movement and having that movement be the means to your own liberation. People who are white skinned, Jewish or not, do not get to control that narrative. Repeat after me: You, as a white skinned person, do not get to control that narrative.”

5. David Edelstein

Edelstein’s glowing review of the movie was undercut when he felt obligated to issue a correction regarding the LBJ controversy, which just seems egregious — couldn’t the historical consideration of the film been a different piece?

But let’s give the floor back to Davidson, who writes that LBJ was not in fact given unfair treatment by the film, and that in some respects, he comes across as a domineering figure in the recordings of his phone calls with King that, when brought up by Johnson aide Joseph Califano, sparked the controversy to begin with.

Did it embarrass Califano at all, when he played the recording, to notice how often Johnson interrupted King, or talked over and past him? … It would be hard to find a purer example of what might be called POTUS-splaining.

6. Anonymous Academy Members

Entertainment Weekly queried Academy members and concluded that race, and the historical “controversy,” hurt DuVernay.

… through interviews with voters, most of whom spoke to EW on condition of anonymity, it seems this response came off as strident and defensive. “[The filmmakers] misrepresented history with the way LBJ was presented,” says a member of the actors’ branch. “They had an obligation to present it correctly and they didn’t.” … “It’s almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees,” says one member. “I think that’s racist. Look at what we did last year with 12 Years.”

Right, anonymous Academy member. That’s what’s racist. Not, you know, you.

The total effect of all these, and many more, high-profile complaints from white voices is dispiriting at best. At worst, it paints an ugly picture of white critics’ inability to consume narratives that don’t center on them.

As Cooper writes, “In Selma, we learn what films look like when directors and cinematographers who love and respect black people turn their gaze on us. Selma artfully displaces a white gaze, and it is this unnamed and unsettling anxiety that sits at the heart of so many of the critiques of the film.”