Two of the most moving scenes in the film Selma—about Martin Luther King’s drive for voting rights in 1964-1965—show Oprah Winfrey, as a black woman trying to register to vote, reciting the Preamble to the Constitution, and Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand” to a discouraged MLK over the phone.
Winfrey’s line, which doesn’t prevent a bigoted white courthouse clerk from rejecting her voting application, captures the film’s laudable theme that King was an unabashed American Exceptionalist who believed in the promises of America’s founding documents. Jackson’s late night hymn points to the Christian heart of the civil rights movement, from which the film does not shy away. King was a Baptist minister whose core constituency was black churches and whose cadences were undeniably biblical.
A third moving scene has MLK marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with a Greek Orthodox archbishop and a senior Jewish rabbi, illustrating the ecumenical and interfaith solidarity of the push for voting rights.
Less moving are the scenes with Lyndon Johnson, portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, who specializes in grumpy authority figures. In their White House summits, LBJ berates and patronizes MLK, telling him to postpone voting rights for LBJ’s preferred War on Poverty. A predictably sinister J. Edgar Hoover offers LBJ the opportunity to destroy King, an offer LBJ later accepts, resulting in an ostensible FBI sex tape of MLK’s adultery being mailed to an understandably upset Coretta Scott King.
LBJ defenders are justifiably distressed by the portrayal of LBJ as an MLK foe who only proposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when politically compelled. Witnesses and White House phone tapes confirm that LBJ and MLK interacted cordially and were mutually supportive. After one meeting with MLK, LBJ enthusiastically directed his surprised acting Attorney General to explore extra-constitutional ways to register disenfranchised black voters, such as through U.S. Post Offices.
As to the sex tape, former FBI deputy director Deke DeLoach insists in his memoir that his overly zealous colleague William Sullivan acted on his own, without direction from Hoover, much less LBJ. Hoover disdained MLK not because he opposed civil rights but because he had dared to criticize the FBI and because of King’s ties to white leftists like Stanley Levinson, a onetime Communist Party USA member, whose influence on MLK prompted then Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1962 to authorize wire taps of MLK. President John Kennedy had tried but failed to persuade MLK to discard Levinson.
LBJ angrily turned against MLK, and became more interested in MLK’s personal vulnerabilities, only after he felt MLK betrayed him by denouncing the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in 1967. With MLK’s womanizing in mind, LBJ, who evidently had listened to or read a transcript of FBI tapes, privately denounced him as a “hypocritical preacher.”
Of course, LBJ’s own personal sexual morals were less than stellar, and JFK’s womanizing almost certainly exceeded LBJ’s and MLK’s combined, although a tape emerged several years ago of Jackie Kennedy ironically disparaging MLK because her husband had told her of MLK’s sexual misdeeds. It’s unfortunate that ambitious men with great and admirable appetites for political accomplishment often have equally large and reckless personal appetites that threaten to destroy them.
MLK, LBJ, and JFK each had similarly tremendous talents, courage and vices. Each would suffer tragic, premature ends in pursuit of their ideals. And they alternately respected, distrusted, collaborated with, and turned against each other while largely sharing many of the same political goals, including civil rights. They were the dominant political personalities of their decade, and each is inseparable from the other two. JFK and LBJ possibly would not have been elected in 1960 without JFK’s famous phone call to Coretta Scott King after her husband’s arrest at an Atlanta sit-in.
It’s nearly impossible for any film to fully capture the moral subtleties of complex interactions among complicated and large personalities, such as MLK and LBJ. The brevity of films almost requires more simplistic, superficial interpretations, which is one reason among others why almost no film should be treated as much more than entertainment much less as reliable history.
David Oweloyo, an ethnic Nigerian of English birth, is masterful in the role of MLK in Selma. But the script does not allow him to portray adequately the inner hardness and political audacity that enabled MLK, while still a very young man, to become a national and international political force. He was only 26 when first leading the Montgomery bus boycott, 29 when he met President Eisenhower, and still only in his mid-thirties when dealing with LBJ, who was old enough to be his father, as a virtual political equal.
MLK’s proficient interactions with LBJ, the most vulgar, hard-nosed, competent, and successful retail politician of his day, confirm that MLK was himself no less shrewd, craven, and tough. As they both politically exploited each other, there was also grudging mutual respect. And surely, even if he didn’t admit it, LBJ, who arose to political prominence from hardscrabble obscurity as a young man only through his own relentless ingenuity, must have seen a bit of himself in his young preacher interlocutor who was transforming American politics and culture.
Selma’s final moments portray LBJ delivering his momentous voting rights appeal to a joint session of Congress. (Unfortunately, presumably as a cost saving measure, the scene looks to have been shot in the old Illinois State House, whose small chamber with large windows looks nothing like the much larger and windowless U.S. House of Representatives.) “We shall overcome,” LBJ famously intones, although the film fails to offer context, because no marchers are ever shown singing the famous civil rights anthem, presumably due to copyright issues. Likewise, MLK’s real words are never spoken because the King family sold their use to Steven Spielberg for another film.
LBJ had before his speech told segregationist Governor George Wallace, whom the film justifiably demonizes, that he would, unlike Wallace, stand on the right side of history. The film neglects to show that LBJ had, with his usual political skill, reduced Wallace to tears by reminding him that he had entered politics to help the poor but had lamentably sidetracked into defending segregation.
Epitaphs at the film’s conclusion report that Wallace later was crippled by a near assassination. It omits that amid his suffering, during his final days, Wallace sought and received forgiveness from Congressman John Lewis, whom the film portrays heroically as a young marcher beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Recalling that reconciliation would have made a gracious conclusion for the film.
Whatever its historical oversights, Selma offers moral grandeur, especially as American flag-waving marchers, led by the Kings, successfully convene at the Alabama State House, where the old Confederacy was inaugurated. But the truth of history is almost always more compelling than dramatized fiction.