The ‘Selma’ “Controversy” Isn’t About History; It’s About Oscars

Late last week, The Washington Post ran an Op-Ed titled “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw,” penned by Joseph A. Califano Jr., “President Lyndon Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969.” In it, Califano contends that Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed new film — covering events that transpired, by the way, before Califano took that position in the Johnson White House — takes “dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama.” He contends that the film’s central conflict, between an LBJ who asks for patience on the voting rights issue while he pursues other agendas and an MLK who will not wait, does not jibe with the historical record, and attempts to shame the filmmakers for “feel[ing] no obligation to check the facts” and “fill[ing] the screen with falsehoods.” (“In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano writes, with “in fact” a spiritual stand-in for “Actually…”) And what does Mr. Califano demand in exchange for this betrayal? An amendment of the film? An on-screen correction? A public apology? Nope: “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” That line, which ends Califano’s “editorial,” is a rare bit of transparency — because that piece, and the furor that has accompanied it, is not about correcting the record. It’s about keeping Selma from winning Oscars.

You see, there’s no such thing as accidental timing in Hollywood, particularly at this time of year. Califano’s Post piece ran on Friday, December 26; four days earlier, Politico posted an essay (with the Slate-ish title “What ‘Selma’ Gets Wrong”) by LBJ Presidential Library and Museum director Mark K. Updegrove, making basically the same argument. And then, on Monday, the first batch of Oscar ballots went out. Right on time, that very day, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, and Entertainment Weekly covered the new “controversy.” And voila, like magic, people aren’t talking about how great Selma is — they’re talking about how it’s controversial, and maybe factually inaccurate, and gee, should the Academy honor a movie like that?

This is a town that runs on franchises and reboots, and this is nothing we haven’t seen before. The “accuracy” whisper campaign is one of the oldest tricks in the award season playbook, experimented with in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with controversial historical dramas like Mississippi Burning (a kind of reverse Selma, charged with unduly lionizing Hoover’s FBI in the Civil Rights era), JFK, and even Schindler’s List. But the key point was probably 1999, when Norman Jewison’s biopic The Hurricane, an early favorite, was hit with multiple op-eds and testimonials charging factual inaccuracy. It ultimately managed only a nomination for Best Actor (which Denzel Washington lost to Kevin Spacey).

David Oyelowo and Tom Wilkinson in "Selma"

Two years later, frontrunner A Beautiful Mind was the target of what Down and Dirty Pictures author Peter Biskind called “a smear campaign unprecedented in the history of the Academy Awards for its viciousness.” According to Biskind, early in awards season, a consultant for Miramax — then run by notoriously effective Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein — pointed the L.A. Times towards a Matt Drudge post detailing considerable omissions from Mind’s source material. Shortly after Oscar ballots went out, Drudge ran another post, running down alleged anti-Semitism by Mind subject John Nash. The campaign didn’t work — Mind won Best Picture — but the mold had been set.

In the years since, similar whisper campaigns have attached themselves to such Oscar hopefuls as Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, Munich, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and The Wolf of Wall Street. The accuracy claim isn’t the only tact; when Slumdog Millionaire became the frontrunner in 2009, there were questions of child actor exploitation, and during The Pianist’s 2003 campaign, the 30-year-old deposition of director Roman Polanski’s molestation victim suddenly appeared on The Smoking Gun.

Several of those whisper campaigns have been attributed to Weinstein, a tough competitor first at Miramax and now at The Weinstein Company. Of such suggestions, Weinstein joked in 2011, “What can I say? When you’re Billy the Kid and people around you die of natural causes, everyone thinks you shot them.” But it’s worth noting that Weinstein may be campaigning extra-hard this year, as indifferent commercial and critical response seems to have sunk Big Eyes, leaving all his company’s eggs in the Imitation Game basket. And while that film may be the subject of an inaccuracy campaign itself, the ads surrounding Deadline’s report on the “erupting” controversy over Selma are telling:

Interesting ads on Deadline's coverage of the "Selma" controversy

(First noted by Brian Duffield. Oh, and there’s one more at the bottom of the post.)

In that piece, Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond insists, “Califano has specifically infused himself and this issue into the Oscar race, so attention must be paid.” That logic is bewildering; in point of fact, by making his Selma bone-picking specifically about the Oscar race, Califano’s claims are far less worthy of our attention. It seems silly to keep having the same argument annually, so I’ll direct you to this piece from around this time last year, as a reminder that drama and documentary are two different things, and that the best of historical fiction does not consist merely of characters standing around stating historical facts. Characters, events, and conflicts can (and often must) be streamlined for the sake of brevity and drama — and the tension between LBJ and MLK helps propel Selma, with Johnson’s concerns of patience and practicality echoing not just the commonly-held good intentions of that era, but of the current one.

And that’s ultimately all that the conflict in Selma amounts to. Johnson does not come off like a civil rights-obstructing monster, but merely as a savvy politician who doesn’t share King’s sense of urgency. A peek at his own voting record indicates that LBJ wasn’t always a friend to the movement; whether his subsequent (laudable!) efforts were the result of an honest change of heart or merely smart politics is a question historians continue to ponder. But Selma, to these eyes at least, tends to lean towards the former interpretation, and that’s part of what’s so infuriating about this manufactured furor: that a woman of color gets a chance to tell an important story about civil rights, and she’s critiqued by white sycophants, progressives, and Oscar bloggers for not giving enough credit to the white guy. And even if that were the case, such self-proclaimed truth seekers don’t even seem to get that they’re being used as tools to screw a great movie.