Fact-Checking the Film: 'Selma'
Oscar season is here, which means a flurry of fact-based movies are in theaters. EW is fact-checking these films—everything from The Theory of Everything to Wild—to see just how true-to-life they turned out.
Selma has won critical raves for its depiction of Martin Luther King Jr., and the crucial 50-mile civil-rights march from the small Alabama town to the state capitol in Montgomery in March 1965. But the stirring and tense historical drama, which opened in select theaters on Dec. 25 and expands on Jan. 9, has also drawn the ire of some historians and members of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration who resent the way that LBJ is portrayed in director Ava DuVernay’s film.
Written by Paul Webb (with uncredited input from DuVernay), Selma tells the riveting story of how King and other civil-right leaders chose Selma to press for the right to vote in Southern states, where registering was made difficult if not impossible for African-Americans. In 1964, Johnson had pushed through the Civil Rights Act that supposedly outlawed discrimination. But in practice, blacks remained prohibited from voting in several old-Confederacy states that were lagging in their enforcement of new federal integration and equal-rights laws. A year and half after his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, and a month after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, King brought his celebrity and his strategy of non-violent protest to Selma to demand that Alabama’s most politically intransigent counties allow African-Americans on the voting rolls.
Movie: After King (David Oyelowo) accepts the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, a terrorist bombing of a black church in Birmingham kills four girls.
Real life: King accepted his Nobel in December 1964, shortly before turning his attention to Selma. The horrific blast in Birmingham occurred more than a year earlier, on Sept. 15, 1963. But King cited the tragedy in his speech, giving the filmmakers license to fit the two events together. Even if it’s not immediately clear that the shocking blast is a flashback, the two scenes work together to establish the stakes for King and other black Americans in 1964-65.
Movie: Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is murdered by an Alabama state trooper while trying to protect his mother and grandfather from being beaten during a nighttime march in Marion, Ala.
Real life: Jackson, 26, was shot twice by a trooper inside a restaurant he and his mother and grandfather had slipped into after their nighttime march on Feb. 18, 1965 was violently set upon by police and vigilantes. He didn’t die on the restaurant floor, as depicted in the film, but stumbled back into the street, where he was beaten further. He clung to life for a week before dying, and he became a martyr for the Selma marches that followed.
Movie: President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is mistrustful of King’s agenda and rejects his urgent pleas for federal legislation that will specifically secure and protect the right to vote for minorities. He resents King’s meddling activism and needs to be dragged to a point of acquiescence before taking up the cause. In fact, Johnson is portrayed as one of the film’s antagonists, though not as dastardly as Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and the local Selma rednecks.
Real life: This has become a major point of controversy, since Johnson had lobbied King to make the right to vote his next major project and to find the perfect battleground—i.e., one with a short-fused segregationist government that would violently attack protests—in order to galvanize the nation. Just before his 1965 inauguration, Johnson spoke with King by phone and said the following:
LBJ: I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination … [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 and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow—drive a tractor, he’s say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.” … And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.
DuVarnay has responded to the criticism with a tweet: “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to [civil rights groups] and black citizens who made it so.” She referred to a 2013 New Yorker story by Louis Menand that includes the following passage:
“… But [the 1964 Act’s] voting-rights provisions did not address the use of voter-qualification tests to disenfranchise registrants on the basis of race. Johnson recognized the need for additional voting-rights legislation, and he directed Nicholas Katzenbach, soon to be his attorney general, to draft it. ‘I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise,’ is the way he put it. But then progress slowed. Johnson had the most ambitious legislative agenda of any President since F.D.R. (his idol), and he explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait. King thought that if you waited for the right time for direct action (as nonviolent protests were called) you would never act. So on Jan. 2, 1965, he went to Selma, where efforts by local activists and members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to register African-Americans had been under way, with little success, for several years.”
Andrew Young, who was close to King during the Selma marches and went on to become a U.S. congressman and Atlanta mayor, told the Washington Post that King and Johnson’s relationship “was the only thing I would question in the movie. Everything else, they got 100 percent right.”
Movie: Johnson swats away King’s demands for prompt action on voting rights with a dismissive, “You’ve got one big issue… I got 101.”
Real life: Every president has to juggle competing issues, but in early 1965, Johnson was focused on Vietnam and the hugely fateful decision whether to commit the full weight of the American military to prop up a failing South Vietnamese regime. Vietnam leaks into Selma only sparingly, when John Lewis is quoted as saying, “‘I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam … and can’t send troops to Selma.” In reality, Vietnam was consuming Johnson’s mind and soul 24/7. But then, this isn’t a movie about Johnson and Vietnam.
Movie: King is absent from the first Selma march, so-called Bloody Sunday, after the Alabama state troopers and horseback posse brutally attack the unarmed and peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The film suggests that he was delayed in Atlanta to steady his faltering marriage.
Real life: According to Taylor Branch’s history of the civil-rights movement during the King years, At Canaan’s Edge, King had tried to postpone the march until Monday, but he was then convinced on Sunday morning to let the march begin without him because of a large turnout. King never really believed the initial march would get far; Wallace had declared that he would not allow it to take place, and King replied that if they were stopped, they would just “lie down in the road” rather than provoke an altercation. King may have assumed the Sunday march would quickly end in inevitable arrests, and he would arrive on Monday to mount a second, stronger attempt. But it’s also impossible to ignore the very real death threats that King faced daily, and that he would’ve been extremely vulnerable during the march in hostile territory. “To give himself some wiggle room about Lowndes County, he told reporters that he might break away from the four-day pilgrimage and rejoin its conclusion in Montgomery,” Branch wrote. King’s father, also a minister, was always aware of that danger, and some of King’s inner circle suspected that the elder pastor had exaggerated an illness that Sunday so that King would stay in Atlanta to preside over mass at his parish in his stead. There does not seem to be any documented evidence that King stayed in Atlanta to smooth over marital discord.
Movie: An anonymous tape is sent to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) that accuses King of infidelity, and when he’s confronted by her about the rumors, he indirectly confirms her suspicions.
Real life: King did have mistresses, and he was, in fact, engaging in an extramarital affair in the weeks surrounding the Selma marches. He later confessed to his wife, and presumably, considering the anonymous letters that did get mailed to her home, she had suspicions in 1965. However, there were other major stresses on their marriage, beginning with the obvious: the constant death threats against King and his children. Moreover, King insisted on living in relative modesty—a theme that DuVernay captures in Selma‘s opening scene, as King laments getting dressed up for the Nobel ceremony—and the couple rented a house for years. But since Coretta rarely traveled with her husband, out of fear that assassins could make their four children orphans, she was left home while King was whisked off on jets and living a life normally reserved for heads of state.
Movie: The FBI monitors King closely and was responsible, with Johnson’s approval, for the anonymous letter and audio tape that caused the fracture in his marriage.
Real life: FBI director J. Edgar Hoover despised King and started bugging his offices and phone lines when he suspected that King was a Communist. The Nobel committee’s decision to honor King with the Peace Prize agitated Hoover to no end, and he authorized the blackmail package that advised King to commit suicide rather than have his dirty laundry aired in public. “You are done,” the letter threatened. “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” To his credit, however, it appears that Johnson never ordered the crude package or used the illicit surveillance against King.
Movie: When King is feeling depressed, he calls Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) late at night and asks her to sing to him.
Real life: The legendary gospel singer had become a constant and soothing presence around King ever since the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott. She played a crucial role in many of his campaigns, including the March on Washington, where she urged him to share his dream with the people. She became his lifeline when he had no place left to turn. “I guess you would put it now as ‘telephone gospel therapy,'” King’s attorney Clarence B. Jones told NPR in 2013. “And he would speak to Mahalia Jackson and he would say, ‘Mahalia, please sing to me. I’m having a rough day today.’ And she would sing one or more of his favorite songs, and … he would close his eyes listening to her. In some cases, tears would come down his face and then he would say, ‘Mahalia, you are giving me the Lord’s voice this morning.'”
Movie: When King first arrives in a Selma hotel, he is welcomed with a sucker-punch in the face by a white man.
Real life: James George Robinson, a member of the National States’ Rights Party, assaulted King in the lobby of the Hotel Albert in Selma. The bigot actually got two punches in to King’s head and a kick to the groin. He was arrested, fined $100, and sentenced to 60 days in jail.
Movie: Coretta Scott King meets with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) in Selma, while Martin is in a local jail. He fumes when he hears that she’s met with his rival.
Real life: Malcolm X and King had met only once, for a brief moment in Washington, D.C., in March 1964, and the two men had conflicting visions and methods for attaining equality: Whereas King preached non-violence, Malcolm X demonized white America and was more confrontational. Malcolm X had belittled King at every turn, calling him an Uncle Tom and a “traitor to the Negro race.” But by early 1965, Malcolm X had somewhat softened his stance after splitting from the Nation of Islam. As the film correctly depicts, when he arrived in Selma, he claimed to be there only to help—not to hijack the proceedings. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he assured Coretta, according to her biography. “I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.” Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem just a few weeks after meeting with Coretta.
Movie: King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is not always on the same page with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led by John Lewis (Stephan James) and James Forman (Trai Byers), who’d laid much of the groundwork in Selma. Lewis split with SNCC to march on Bloody Sunday, where his skull was fractured in the melee. Later, SNCC leadership, which had boycotted the initial march, criticized King for turning back on the second march.
Real life: The SNCC resented King’s celebrity and the SCLC’s tendency to swoop in at the perfect moment to steal their thunder. Lewis, however, elected to march and was welcomed in the ranks. After Sunday’s violence, however, the SNCC became committed to the subsequent march and was incredulous when King failed to follow through.
Movie: The second march is scheduled for Tuesday, two days after Bloody Sunday, and King is back in Selma to lead it. The White House sends Assistant Attorney General John Doar (Alessandro Nivola) to Selma to persuade King to postpone the demonstration until the federal government could protect the marchers. King leads the march as planned back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge where the same Alabama state troopers await—but this time, the police make way, opening the path to Montgomery. But instead of marching forward, King takes a knee in prayer. The followers wait for his command. Then, he turns around and leads the procession back to the church where they had gathered.
Real life: In the film, Doar hints ever-so-slightly to King about a deal where he would agree to postpone the second march to a later date when the federal government would completely endorse it. In reality, there was a negotiation, with former Florida governor LeRoy Collins playing go-between. He floated the idea to King about crossing the bridge but then turning around, so as not to violate the recent court-order prohibiting the march. (King was always adamant that non-violent protest had an obligation to follow the law; plus, he needed the federal government’s eventual support if his cause had any prayer at success.) As King and his supporters made their way to the bridge on Tuesday afternoon, Collins arrived to tell King that he’d secured a pledge from the troopers not to attack as long as the processions followed a particular route. Still, no one knew what King would do. Nor could they predict what might happen if one shot was fired by a trooper with an itchy trigger-finger or a rock thrown by an angry protestor. As in the film, the troopers did clear the road when ordered, tempting King and the marchers to continue. But after kneeling in prayer, King turned around and announced the march was over for the day. He hoped that others would follow him back to the church. Many were perplexed and others angered by what they saw as King blinking. But as King says in the film, “I’d rather people be upset and hate me than be bleeding or dead.” Two weeks later, after the injunction had been lifted against the march, King led his group back across the bridge towards Montgomery. With federal protection en route, they trekked the 50 miles to the state capitol in five days.
Movie: A white minister named James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), who heeded King’s call and came down from Boston to march on Montgomery, is targeted by epithet-spouting white segregationists the night after the second march, beaten senseless with clubs, and dies.
Real life: The film captures this gruesome assault quite accurately and vividly, though there were two other victims—not just one other companion with Reeb. Reeb lingered for two days before dying, but his chances for survival suffered when red-tape and vehicular misfortune cost him two hours before he was treated at an emergency room. Reeb’s murder was another disgrace that angered many stunned Americans who were watching the evening news or reading the morning paper. Four days after his death, Johnson spoke to Congress and the nation and pleaded for prompt and full legislation guaranteeing all Americans the right to vote. “So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man—a man of God—was killed,” said LBJ. “But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Reeb’s killers were never convicted; three Southern men were acquitted by an all-white jury.