There has been much discussion in the media over the past week since the Oscar nominations were made public about Hollywood's alleged racism. Most of it focused on the fact that that the film Selma, about the historic 1965 civil rights march led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior – whose birthday we celebrate today as a national holiday – was nominated but its African-America director, Ava DuVernay, was not. But the biggest slight was done to history and truth by DuVernay, who smears President Lyndon Johnson in the film and completely removes King's Jewish allies.
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Above and above right: Marching from Selma: John Lewis of SNCC, an unidentified nun, Rev. Ralph Abernathy; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche (former U.S. Ambassador to the UN), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. Heschel is removed in the film "Selma."
There has been much discussion in the media over the past week since the Oscar nominations were made public about Hollywood's alleged racism. Most of it focused on the fact that that the film Selma, about the historic 1965 civil rights march led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior – whose birthday we celebrate today as a national holiday – was nominated but its African-America director, Ava DuVernay, was not. In fact, the enire span of major Academy Awards nominations this year is lilly white – the first time that has been true for many, many years.
But what most of the media has not focused on is Ava DuVernay intentional distortion of history that damages what should have been a seminal film.
DuVernay reportedly turns Democratic President Lyndon Johnson into a near-enemy of King, when the truth is that he was an ally who went far out on the political limb to pass legislation – the Voting Rights Act, for example – and to take other steps to help African Americans. What Johnson did got Republican Richard Nixon elected president after him and drove many southern Democrats to either support racist George Wallace or vote Republican. Johnson backed the Voting Rights Act and took those other steps knowing all this could happen. But he did it anyway because it was the right thing to do. DuVernay removes these facts from the film and turns Johnson into a craven, weak near-enemy of King.
But that is not all that DuVernay removed from the film.
All of the rabbis who marched with King at Selma, including Abraham Yehoshua Heschel, have been excised, as if they were never there. According to reports, watching the film you would never know that Heschel was in the front row less than three feet from King. You wouldn't even know Jews played a role.
DuVernay defends her abuse of Johnson (and, presumably, her excision of Jews) by claiming it's her artistic license.
“My response is that this is art. This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian. I am an artist who explored history. And what I found, the questions that I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into this project that I have made,” DuVernay told the PBS News Hour. (Please see the ful interview below.)
But to distort the role of a US President and completely excise some of King's closest allies seems much more like bias.
Why DuVernay did what she did is open to interpretation. It is certainly art, even if it is wrongheaded and offensive to many.
But DuVernay cannot claim that what she has done is act responsibly, or that she has been faithful to the history she claims to be "exploring."
And, just perhaps, it is that unfaithfulness and those distortions that cost her an Oscar nomination she otherwise likely would have received.