I am a historian by profession, and a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century Africa more specifically. I have also worked in the film world for over a decade, from running small African film festivals to working as a programming associate for artistic director Cameron Bailey and programmer Rasha Salti at the Toronto International Film Festival. I have curated academic programs on African and Black diaspora filmmaking and have taught courses on the relationship between film and history: film as source of history, film as reconstruction of history, and film as history itself.
And so the debate around Selma and the responsibility of filmmakers to the historical imagination hits particularly close to home. These debates emerge periodically, usually when particular pundits or involved parties, sometimes with academic credentials though often not, charge a big budget, historical drama with historical inaccuracy. They trot out their lists of grievances: historical omissions, problems of chronology, personal knowledge of particular aspects of the events in question, and the retreat to artistic license at the expense of historical fidelity.
Running through these debates is the assumption of a tension between the imagination and what "really happened," between fiction and history. This tension speaks directly to a pervasive misapprehension about what the study of history is now. Very few historians today would define their work as the collection of objective and verifiable facts that allow for the writing of a singular, complete, and "true" history; few historians today believe this actually exists. Indeed if it did, we would not have jobs as everyone would agree on what history was and means, which is certainly not the case. More and more, historians define their work as an engagement in evolving struggles over the multiple meanings of the past, as the exploration of the diverse and often dissenting narratives and voices from the past only heard and understood in the present.
When I teach history and film, the first hurdle to clear is to convince students that our job is not to judge the "historical accuracy" of the film. This is a fool's errand, as multiple historical narratives always co-exist, and it is also not a very interesting exercise. What we are looking for is what historical argument the film presents, and they all present one (though some more self-consciously than others). If there are blatant inaccuracies or anachronisms, so what? And more importantly, why? How do they impact the ways in which the film constructs an argument about the past? Do they reproduce stereotypes and biases or do they prompt new ways of thinking about the past?
The critiques around the portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma are not actually about historical accuracy -- they are about weight and ownership, about who owns particular historical achievements and who can claim the authority to speak these histories. Johnson does come across as fairly impotent and even cranky in the film, but he also speaks to current frustrations over the limits of the office.
To say Johnson and King disagreed only on the way to achieve civil rights and not on the principle is disingenuous. Timing matters. The stakes were, and are, much higher. Whether or not Johnson was as committed to the civil rights movement as some of his proponents claim, whether he was reluctantly pushed or waiting and grateful to be pushed, it remains that the Voting Rights Bill did not come to the floor until after -- after the deaths of so many, after the brutality experienced and witnessed on Edmund Pettus Bridge, after the activism and sacrifice of thousands of black men and women made it politically undesirable to wait any longer.
If Spielberg's Lincoln can erase Frederick Douglass from the story of abolition with little opposition, and if American Sniper can repackage Chris Kyle's memoirs through rebooting cowboy movie aesthetics to shape a mythic version of the Iraq war that recasts a kind of patriotic racism as heroism and entertainment, then certainly Selma should be allowed to put the contribution of Johnson into sharper perspective.
The historical accuracy of each of these cases is not really the question. Cinematic histories are important, but also dangerous, precisely because of the powerful role they play in shaping our historical imaginations. Frederick Douglass's omission from Lincoln is damaging not because it is historically inaccurate but because it perpetuates the myth that freedom was given to black people, that black people were not part of the struggle and intellectual debates over the end of slavery in U.S. history. Historians need to engage in these questions, but to do so they need to come to grips with the form and language of this particular source; they need to meet the filmmaker on the plane of representation and argument.
Robert Rosenstone, one of the foremost scholars on history and film, writes of "true inventions" -- examples when historical and imaginative license is taken to better illuminate broader social truths.
And this is where Selma succeeds so brilliantly, bringing out multiple, often silenced or obscured social truths from this critical historical moment without sacrificing character or complexity. I won't detail the contribution Selma made through its depiction of the particular events leading up to Bloody Sunday and Dr. Martin Luther King's triumphant speech at Montgomery on March 25, 1965 -- fellow historian Professor Peniel Joseph did a masterful job on these subjects and on why the film's particular vision ("too black and too strong") has caused such controversy in his piece on NPR. Instead, I want to examine some of the quieter moments in the film and how they reveal director Ava DuVernay's sophisticated engagement with larger historical questions.
A perfect example of "true invention," DuVernay opens the film by intercutting two chronologically separate events: King's 1964 speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Oslo and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young girls lost their lives over a year earlier. While the sequence may mislead viewers to think the events depicted occurred simultaneously, their juxtaposition serves a much larger purpose. Putting these events in the same frame, DuVernay implores us to think about historical time in a different way, about the ways people might remember historical trajectories, tensions and motivations differently: through their emotive and ideological connectedness, through acts of remembrance, expressed in King's re-imagined speech, even if not representing his actual words (as the film did not get the King's estates' permission to use his speech in its original form) and even though separated in time. It is all, after all, "one effort."
DuVernay also makes several bold choices in her treatment of the man himself. She opts to foreground King's personal life and to include claims of his infidelity. But she also convincingly argues that the judgment on such issues lies with Coretta Scott King (beautifully captured by Carmen Ejogo) alone: she made her choice, for all the complex reasons a woman might make that choice, and we should respect it. In this quiet moment, DuVernay articulates a much larger point: that the choices black women faced during the struggle were different, constrained by a different set of social impositions, but no less heroic or dignified.
And while King is certainly the leading man in this story, he is often subsumed within an overwhelming collective: an intelligent, angry, disciplined, and committed collective. Some of the most powerful scenes come when diverse members of the movement gather together to discuss and dissent on what the way forward should be. Here we get the voices of women, of students, and of the multiple civil rights leaders that are too often sidelined in hagiographic biopics about great leaders.
The inclusion of Malcolm X in the film also speaks to this willingness to confront historical complexity. The conversation between Coretta King and Malcolm X, as well as Coretta's later recounting of the conversation to her sceptical husband, provides a window into the multiple layers -- personal, political, emotional, ideological -- that informed debates over the strategies of resistance and change.
The new generation of protesters and social activists coming of age right now will find in Selma a powerful lesson -- every movement seeking dramatic social change needs to decide whether it believes the system can be reformed or whether the system itself must be destroyed. Where King succeeded, a point forcefully made throughout the film, was in tying specific protests to specific calls for legislative change. The pragmatism involved in King's approach might not be as appealing as the grand revolutionary narrative, but it speaks volumes of the intellectual and moral positions available to him. But some, including King in his portentous jail-house conversation about the limits of rights in the face of economic and educational poverty, might argue this is also where he faltered, or did not go far enough; and why Selma still has such great resonances today.
It is not enough to say historical fiction has different rules than History with a capital "H." Indeed DuVernay mobilizes multiple techniques to draw attention to the film's historical provenance and bolster the film's argument: archival snippets in the form of periodic logs from FBI surveillance, re-animated photographs and newspaper reportage, and authorial commentary that sketch out the future fates of the film's protagonists punctuate the film's more personal approach. DuVernay actively, and self-consciously, engages in the historical project.
What historians need to engage with in turn, in the films that will undoubtedly be seen and remembered far more widely than any academic monograph or lecture, are not derivative debates over historical accuracy or completeness -- a standard we do not even hold ourselves to. Both historians and filmmakers can only hope to provide representations of the past, not the past itself. Historians need to ask, of filmmakers as much as of themselves, what contribution these versions of the past make to our understandings not only of past hopes and hardships but moreover of current and future struggles to build better worlds.
And that is the true achievement of Selma: to reveal the social truths about the limits of power and the triumph of spirit and moral argument in complex times. As long as blackness is seen as a weapon, the black man can never be unarmed. As long as rights and justice depend on perspective and privilege, King's vision will remain unfulfilled. As long as history is past, we as a society will struggle to see what is right in front of us. In so many ways, Selma is now.
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