​David Edelstein: "Selma" gets it mostly right

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) leads a civil rights march in the new film, "Selma."

Paramount Pictures

The debate over a new film about events half a century ago has attracted the attention of our critic David Edelstein:

The civil rights epic "Selma" has been playing in a limited number of theaters since Christmas, but as it opens nationwide, it's being talked about largely for alleged historical inaccuracies.

The film recounts the months in 1964 and '65 leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.'s 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which ended with 25,000 people converging on the State Capitol.

The marchers' aim was straight-ahead: To tell the governor to stop letting cities like Selma keep black people from registering to vote.

Central to the film is King's relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who thinks King's pursuit of voting rights is a bad idea -- it will rile up Congressmen he needs to pass his War on Poverty legislation.

In the movie, LBJ's stubborn inaction is the main motivation for King to provoke Selma's notoriously racist, hotheaded sheriff to attack peaceful protesters.

That's where the supposed inaccuracies come in. Joseph Califano, a former aide to Johnson, says the president was on board the whole time, and that the movie slanders Johnson to make King even more of a rebel hero.

So, is "Selma" fair to LBJ?

Well, I've spent the last week immersed in biographies and listening to LBJ's White House tapes, and I'm bound to say, "Not entirely."

It's true that early in his presidency Johnson wanted to concentrate on his War on Poverty. But he was passionate about social justice. He fought hard for voting rights, without any push from King -- in part, I admit, to show up the late President Kennedy's brother, Robert, whom he hated.

Having said that, "Selma" gets about 90 percent of the story right.

It's still a great film.

As played by the stupendous British actor David Oyelowo (the best performance of the year), King looks as if he bears the weight of millions of souls. It costs him, ages him.

And those LBJ scenes -- they're not wholly off. These men were titanic forces. They were shrewd, wary; they manipulated each other. Yes, they had their eyes on the prize, but they tempered their emotions; they were always, always playing the long game.

We can still learn a lot from them -- and from this superb film.

To watch a trailer for "Selma," click on the video player below.


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