Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Selma, Historiography and Movie Reviews

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.

That is advice I constantly tell my students. Indeed, I have often argued that while the dissertation is a vital proving ground for doing history, for bringing all of the training into practice and making your own contribution, the general (or comprehensive) exams are the central proving ground for the profession. For it is in that process that graduate students, aspiring historians, learn about the depth of literature and the development of historiographical arguments. And it is in that process that most of us came to learn to be incredibly wary of books bearing the subtitle "The Untold Story Of . . ." because there are few truly untold stories, and even fewer untold stories that sell themselves as such.

I was reminded of this several weeks ago when I saw Chris Nashawaty's Entertainment Weekly review of Selma. Now, I usually like Nashatawy's reviews. He's smart and he writes well. But in that review he argued something silly: "British actor David Oyelowo . . .  miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth. He reveals to us the King who’s not in our history books — his humor, his human failings, and his self-doubt." It is a silly argument made all the worse by the fact that as a pronouncement it reveals Nashatawy's almost aggressive ignorance in which he purports to speak about "history books" he has not only not read, but clearly does not even know exists.

 Far from revealing something about King absent from "our history books" Selma reinforces a King familiar to many. Nashatawy cannot have read any of the many (dozens of? Hundreds of?) books on King and the Civil Rights Movement that have been published over the course of quite literally three decades. King's humor, human failings, and self-doubt are nothing new to more than a generation of historians who have even dipped their toe into a widely published, widely reviewed, and widely praised literature that has hardly been confined to the shelves of university libraries. No one would expect Nashatawy to be familiar with this literature except when he explicitly writes as if it does not exist.

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.


As for Selma -- I really did think it was a fine, powerful movie. The director Ava Du Vernay did a generally effective job but she made some odd choices with exposition and on at least one occasion decided to fill a largely unnecessary scene with Michal Bay pyrotechnics -- I have no idea why she chose, in an otherwise closely rendered film focusing on the events surrounding the Selma March, to depict the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham except as emotional manipulation -- 1964, which she almost entirely skips over between the bombing and the events of Selma, was not exactly devoid of far more relevant events to the struggle for voting rights. I thought the casting of Oprah was gimmicky and distracting. But otherwise the acting really was spectacular almost across the board and it was in that arena that I believe that the film really did get snubbed during awards season. Du Vernay really did commit historical malpractice in depicting LBJ, and no, I do not believe that filmmakers get to hide behind the cloak of artistic license once they choose to take on historical topics, something Du Vernay and her defenders have tried to do since this criticism emerged. Her depiction of LBJ did not jibe with even the most critical, revisionist interpretations of his role in dealing with the demand for voting rights. Historical liberties in filling in gaps or trying to cover a lot of material quickly is one thing. No film can do justice for history's depth and expanse like a book can (my guess is that the word count for the script probably amounted to that of a longish chapter in a book) but she went beyond this and tainted an otherwise quite faithful rendering of important events, events important enough to warrant an honest, fair rendering.