This post isn't about Selma (photo below from Atsushi Nishjima/Paramount Pictures via Slate), a movie undoubtedly quite entertaining with impressive acting and directing. I probably won't see it, nor practically any movie. We all use our entertainment dollars as we wish.
Selma- as well as the controversy surrounding it- is not the issue anyway, or at least shouldn't be. Being straight with his readers, Slate's Jamelle Bouie concedes
At worst, DuVernay depicts Johnson and King as wary allies. In the film, Johnson agrees with King on the need for a Voting Rights Act, but he wants him to wait—Johnson has a Great Society to build—and warns that he doesn’t have the votes to push another civil rights bill on the heels of the 1964 Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. It’s not that King and Johnson are enemies—they both want to dismantle Jim Crow—as much as they have different responsibilities and priorities. In order to act, Johnson needs a push. And King gives it to him.
Now, there’s a case that even this is unfair to Johnson. While it’s true he didn’t want to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964—he needed votes for his economic program, and he didn’t want to alienate Southern Democrats—it’s also true that, in late 1964,
Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write the “the goddamndest, toughest voting rights act you can devise.” This draft was written with help from Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and was the basis for the bill the leaders introduced in March 1965. The Johnson of Selma, in other words, is much more reluctant than the Johnson of reality.
Still, Bouie argues
Selma, simply put, is about the men and women who fought to put voting rights on the national agenda, and it engages history from their perspective. By hardening Johnson—and making him a larger roadblock than he was—DuVernay emphasizes the grass roots of the movement and the particular struggles of King and his allies. In the long argument of who matters most—activists or politicians—DuVernay falls on the side of the former, showing how citizens can expand the realm of the possible and give politicians the push—and the room—they need to act.
By those terms, Selma mostly succeeds.
And so it does- but at what cost? Astonishingly, Bouie excuses a slightly older Hollywood production when he writes
Just as egregious is the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which shows a relentless Central Intelligence Agency—personified in Jessica Chastain as Maya—whose methods, including torture, lead to Osama Bin Laden and the military raid that killed him. The factual problem, as detailed in December’s Senate Intelligence Committee report, is that torture didn’t lead to unique intelligence. As such, it’s not clear that it helped find Bin Laden. But Bigelow made a choice to say otherwise, and in the context of the film, it’s defensible. Zero Dark Thirty—to my eyes at least—is less about the particulars of finding Bin Laden and more about the costs of obsession. What happens when you’re willing to give up everything for a single goal? What will you sacrifice? In this reading, torture is the moment when we—through Maya—commit to darkness in pursuit of our ends.
These movies don't pretend to be documentaries. But works such as these and American Sniper are not marketed as fiction or mere entertainment. They are meant to enlighten or, as in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, propagandize.
This is all to say that it’s wrong to treat nonfiction films—even biopics—as documentaries. Instead, it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices—license in pursuit of art. As viewers, we should be less concerned with fact-checking and more interested in understanding the choices. Why did the director opt for this view and not a different one? If she omits and distorts, why? What is she trying to communicate?
People don't think of nonfiction films as documentaries, which is much of the reason they pay to watch nonfiction films while documentaries are ignored by Bouie and almost all of media. But viewers believe them- in part, ironically, because they believe what Bouie terms "nonfiction" films are not meant to be political, to present a particular side of an issue. Consequently, the folks who create the film bear a responsibility for accuracy no less than do documentarians.
Bouie does, however, lay bare the larger issue when he argues "it is better to look at deviations from established history or known facts as creative choices- license in pursuit of art."
No, it is not- not when a work is presented as history.
It gives the film industry too much license- and too much credit. (Understanding history, especially the history of a movement and of an American president, is more important than understanding art.) Similarly, though in a different context, too much credit is given Hollywood by one of America's greatest political bloggers. Linking to Think Progress, Heather Digby Parton points out
After leaked emails in the Sony hack showed unequal pay between male and female actors, Charlize Theron insisted she get the same payas her male co-star Chris Hemsworth for “The Huntsman.”
She succeeded, netting a $10 million increase that puts her on par with Hemsworth.
Conceding she is "not in favor of hacking," Digby adds
... this revelation is important. It's been an open secret in Hollywood for years but this may have made it impossible to pretend that it wasn't so.
And on what planet can it possibly be true that Chris Hemsworth is worth 10 million dollars more than Charlize Theron? It's ridiculous.
(I actually can't believe anyone is worth that kind of money but that's a different subject ... )
Uh, no. It's not a different subject. No one is worth that kind of money; not even professional athletes nor the owners of their teams, though they can afford that and a whole lot more. We have no difficulty complaining about exorbitantly paid athletes, even though they can do what the rest of us can only dream about. But we invariably turn a blind eye- except when gender discrimination is involved- toward the huge sums paid out to actors, who do what many others in the population could do.
Good thing Charlize Theron got a $10 million raise. (Transparency, however, is vital.) A woman can barely get by, hardly even put food on the table or pay the rent, when she's worth $110 million. But then that's Hollywood, where we weep over someone not getting the millions she's owed and fiction is licensed as a holy "pursuit of art."