Why the Selma Movie is Terrible

by Benjamin Studebaker

The movie Selma has achieved near universal critical acclaim. It has a score of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 100% among top critics.  It’s been nominated for 2 Academy Awards, and many people think it should have been nominated for even more. This is a problem, because Selma has a fatal flaw–it lies to us about how our political system works. Here’s the trailer, if you haven’t seen the movie:

You might notice that there are a few occasions in the trailer where we see a man portraying President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the movie, LBJ seems disinterested in the civil rights movement, telling King:

You’ve got 1 big issue, I’ve got a hundred and 1.

Indeed, at one point in the movie, Johnson even appears to threaten King and the protesters, telling them that if they proceed with their march, it will be “open season” on the protesters.

The implication is that King’s marches forced Johnson to pass civil rights legislation. Johnson is at best an indifferent bystander, and at worst a hostile obstacle. The larger theoretical implication is that grassroots political action by a minority can be effective on its own–that King’s movement didn’t need Johnson (or other powerful white people) to be successful. This was clearly done with good intentions–as some have pointed out, Hollywood movies often don’t put black characters in central starring rolls or show them achieving things politically. The trouble is that it’s not even close to a true account of what happened.

Here’s an actual recording of MLK’s conversation with LBJ. Here’s what Johnson said:

We take the position that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote…whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is….I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a black man’s got…to quote the first 10 Amendments…and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat.

And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina…and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through congress in the end.

And if we do that we will break through. It will be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this ’64 [Civil Rights] Act, I think the greatest achievement of my administration.

This is very clearly a collaborative effort between King and Johnson, in which both of these individuals are contributing to a joint strategy. This is not to minimize the role of King or African-Americans at all, only to recognize the fact that the movement benefited a great deal from having support from Johnson, a president who was historically exceptional in his ability to compel congress to pass sweeping, revolutionary legislation. While LBJ is often remembered today more for his role in escalating the Vietnam War, the list of major domestic legislative accomplishments during the Johnson years makes Bill Clinton and Barack Obama look like feckless buffoons:

Did all of this government spending and regulation sink the country? Not even close–LBJ not only passed laws, he put up stats. During the Johnson presidency, there were no recessions and annual economic growth rates never dropped below 2%. Unemployment fell to less than 4%. Even inflation stayed under 5%, and for much of the Johnson presidency it was under the 2% target. The entirety of the modern reduction in the poverty rate occurred during the 1960’s:

This is a legendary presidency, epic in the scope and seriousness of its achievements. Aside from FDR, no president in living memory had anything like the impact of LBJ. It’s not even close. The sad thing is that most of these programs are now taken for granted. Many of the people who benefit from them do not even realize that they are taking advantage of government programs, according to a Cornell study:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4
Source: Suzanne Mettler, “Reconstituting the Submerged State: The Challenge of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” Perspectives on Politics (September 2010): 809.

Minimzing LBJ and his legacy only serves to render aid and comfort to those who would claim that government policies that help poor and working people are unnecessary or ineffective. This is particularly important because the left in America today has demonstrated no substantive capacity to pass transformative legislation since Johnson. In today’s America, the left talks about Obamacare as if it were Medicare or Medicaid. It’s not in the same class. It’s not even close.

How did Lyndon Johnson do all of this? Robert Caro‘s biographies of Johnson reveal that Johnson was the godfather of political manipulators, a living, breathing Frank Underwood who would say anything and do anything to get the power and votes he needed to pass his legislative monsters. The dude was a mythical figure in American history.

But in Selma, he is at best an accessory. Window dressing. And at worst? Selma makes it look like the power structure of the United States is putty in the hands of a dedicated grassroots movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. If LBJ didn’t get behind civil rights legislation, it would not have passed in the 1960’s. It might not have passed for decades thereafter. There are a lot of things that Johnson made possible that were not possible before and have not been possible since.

King’s movement was also indispensable. As I’ve written before, the civil rights movement engaged in disruptive protests and civil disobedience that drew national attention to civil rights issues and helped create the national support that was required for LBJ’s machinations to have traction. By disrupting life in places like Selma and Montgomery, King illustrated that the status quo was not sustainable and pushed the state to act. But just because Johnson couldn’t have done it without King doesn’t mean that King could have done it without Johnson. The two had a symbiotic relationship. Proponents of the movie act as though the only alternative to minimizing Johnson was to minimize King, and of course that would have been deeply racist and in some ways a worse thing to do. But it was also possible for Selma to celebrate the cooperation between both figures.  Instead of deciding to make the movie either about the black guy or the white guy, the movie could have been about how both are instrumental to building a better world.

This is particularly important today, as America’s racial discourse has become increasingly adversarial. The right wrongly accuses racial minorities of “playing the race card” and blames “black culture” for racial problems. But at the same time, the left has started engaging in a hostile “call-out culture” in which individuals who express racist views are blamed, attacked, and ostracized. Instead of engaging with race issues at the policy level, the left has been content to victimize individual racists and drive them from public life. It is failing to see racism as a systemic, structural problem, a belief that is socially acquired and harms racists too. This has prevented the kind of constructive dialogue and cooperation that were essential for King and Johnson to succeed together. Instead of singling out individuals, King and Johnson helped people see that the status quo was in no one’s interest, that racism wasn’t good, not even for the racists. Instead of Tweeting about how offended they were by what the racists were saying and what bad people those racists are, they persuaded the public to empathize and to see how much talent and potential we waste by keeping people down based on race or class.

For all of these reasons “it’s okay because they made the movie about the black guy instead of the white guy” is not in any way a valid justification for what Selma has done. Some may say it’s not a documentary, but let’s get real here–how many people who go see this movie are going to do their research and learn about what really happened? The movie isn’t clearly fictionalized. The black civil rights leader is called “Martin Luther King” and the president is called “Lyndon Johnson”. People are going to walk away from this movie with the same alienation, the same polarized racial attitudes they went in with. The only difference is that they will believe that history reflects and supports those attitudes. It doesn’t. And as for Johnson? Selma just continues to feed the Vietnam narrative that LBJ was a screw-up president, and in so doing diminishes the tremendous impact of the laws and policies he was instrumental in passing. The movie is a pack of lies, it’s terrible, and going to see it makes us more stupid and ignorant about our history and our politics than we were before. It wasn’t “snubbed” at the Oscars. In its current form, we would be better off if it had not even been made.