Why I Wish Selma Had Won Best Picture

Even without awards, this movie has the power to transform.

First, a brief overview in case you haven’t seen it: Selma, a biopic directed by Ava Duverney, tells the story of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the historic march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital. Duverney focuses on this short period of time as a way to magnify the various issues at stake during the Civil Rights Era. In this case, the conflict centers around giving African Americans the right to vote, and the film remains focused on a short time period during the early spring of 1965. It brings up the relationship between the federal government, local activists, and state regulators. It explores King’s role as a leader, a husband, a father, and as a man of faith. And it offers a visceral portrayal of the horrific violence perpetrated against African Americans and their allies throughout this struggle.

The film came under criticism mainly for its portrayal of the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. King. Historians claim LBJ offered far greater support for King’s efforts than Selma Suggests, and they claim the film portrays LBJ as a villain of sorts. I didn’t think the film deserved this degree of criticism—LBJ and MLK make it clear early on in the film that Johnson is a politician and King an activist, and to get to a voting rights bill they will necessarily have to antagonize one another. Moreover, if Duverney—an African American woman—gave us a view of history that emerged out of the African American experience of waiting and waiting and waiting for justice, well, from that perspective Johnson took too long and could have done more. Johnson supported King, but he still had an FBI director in J. Edgar Hoover who mistrusted King and his …

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