Advance Publications

Selma and the Place of Fiction in Historical Films

by Jeffrey Knapp

(In recognition of the speed at which the world and its histories are changing, we’re making this essay available well in advance of publication, now projected for February of 2019. The essay appears in full below.)

“This isn’t right.” Almost as soon as the man resembling Martin Luther King Jr. has begun to speak, he interrupts himself in frustration. “I accept this honor,” he’d been saying, “for our lost ones, whose deaths pave our path, and for the twenty million Negro men and women motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” What does he think isn’t right? Is it the racial oppression he has been evoking? Or is it the felt inadequacy of his words to that injustice? As the man turns away from us, we find that he has been speaking into a mirror, and that he is frustrated in the immediate context by his efforts at getting dressed. “Corrie” — it is King, we now understand, and he’s not alone; his wife Coretta is with him — “this ain’t right.” “What’s that?” she asks, entering from another room. “This necktie. It’s not right.” “It’s not a necktie,” she corrects him, “it’s an ascot.” “Yeah, but generally, the same principles should apply, shouldn’t they? It’s not right.”[1]

This opening to Selma announces the complexity not only of the movie itself but also of the genre to which it belongs — the historical film. First, there is the tonal instability of the scene, which swerves from the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the comedy of the ascot. Then there is the rhetorical switch from King’s earnest and formal speech to the colloquialism of his “ain’t” and the domestic ease of his “Corrie.” As the film reviewer Michael Sragow comments, these transformations seem intended “to signal to audiences that we’re in for an intimate, maybe irreverent look” at King; in general, A.O. Scott argues, Selma is dedicated to “restoring” King’s “human dimensions.”[2] But the start of Selma also briefly confuses us about the meaning of a word that one might have assumed was the last one the movie would want us to feel confused about: “right,” as in “the right to vote,” “the right to assemble, and demonstrate,” “equal rights,” “Civil Rights.” “I don’t like how this looks,” King says of his ascot: what’s troubling him seems to be an aesthetic, not a moral offense. Another change in emphasis apparently neutralizes that distinction. When Coretta replies that the ascot “looks distinguished and debonair to me,”

King clarifies that his objection has all along had a moral dimension to it. “You know what I mean,” he says to his wife: the ascot makes it seem “like we’re living high on the hog dressed like this, while folks back home are . . . it’s not right.” Just as King wants the language of his speech to match the weightiness of its subject, so he’s concerned that his clothes reflect his social commitments; in aesthetics as in ethics, he believes, “the same principles should apply.” Yet the disorienting shifts of focus in this first scene nevertheless emphasize the potential for principles to become misaligned. Something else “isn’t right” at the start of Selma: the man who speaks these words, the British actor David Oyelowo, is after all merely pretending to be Martin Luther King, Jr., and for a moment we might think that he’s expressing nothing more than his dissatisfaction with his performance.[3] The opening to Selma seems, in other words, to anticipate two sorts of skeptical responses to the film: first, that Selma falls short as a historical recreation, and second, that it does so because of its trivializing overinvestment in such merely aesthetic questions as how the recreation “looks.”

These are indeed the very charges that have been leveled against the film, although they have centered less on the portrayal of King than on the representation of another historical figure in the movie, Lyndon Johnson. In an editorial for the Washington Post, the former Johnson aide Joseph Califano Jr. argued that

the makers of the new movie Selma apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In Selma, Califano charged, aesthetics “trumped” ethics: the producers, screenwriter, and director felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead, just because they thought it made for a better story.” Even reviewers more sympathetic to the film have agreed with Califano about its misrepresentation of LBJ. Though praising Selma as “the best depiction of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s,” Albert R. Hunt nevertheless added that “it needlessly, and erroneously, casts Johnson as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act”; so, too, Ari Berman characterized the film’s account of Johnson as “unnecessarily one-sided.” What troubled all three critics was how “needlessly,” in their view, the makers of Selma had set their aesthetic desire for dramatic “embellishment” against a moral “obligation” to “the facts.”[4]

Proponents of Selma have by and large declined to defend the historical accuracy of Johnson’s portrayal in the film, instead choosing to criticize the very demand for accuracy as hopelessly naive.[5] “Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story?” David Carr asked. “Why yes — just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made.” Differentiating Selma from “a documentary or even a dramatized history,” Jamelle Bouie defined it as “a film based on historical accounts, and like all films of its genre, it has a loose relationship to actual history.” Consequently, Bouie added, “it’s better to look at deviations from established history or known facts” in Selma not as defects but rather “as creative choices — license in pursuit of art.” “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian,” Selma’s director Ava DuVernay similarly maintained in a televised interview with Gwen Ifill: “This is art. This is a movie. This is a film.” According to the reviewer Bilge Ebiri, the only relevant terms for judging the rightness of historical films are aesthetic ones: “These movies are not documentaries, nor are they acts of journalism. . . . They’re narrative works, and just like any other narrative work, they need to be true to themselves.”[6]

“Every year,” the film scholar Jeanine Basinger wearily complained when asked to comment on Selma, “I know someone is going to call me about distortion of history when we hit the Oscars.” But there’s a reason that the objection keeps recurring. If it’s a mistake to look for accuracy in historical films, then why do historical films bother with accuracy at all? Although DuVernay rejected the label of documentarian in her interview with Ifill, that is exactly how she began her directorial career, with the hip-hop documentary This Is the Life (2008) — and her next project after Selma was a documentary on the U.S. criminal justice system, 13th. What’s more, historical verisimilitude mattered enough to DuVernay in making Selma that she meticulously reproduced the look and feel of the sixties in her film, chose actors who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the figures they played, and even spliced actual documentary footage of the final march to Montgomery into Selma’s recreation of it. In the same interview where she claimed that she was no more of a historian than a documentarian, DuVernay expressed her dismay at the “jaw-dropping” ignorance of moviegoers regarding the events her film “chronicled,” and she hoped that her movie would help Selma “resonate with people in the way that it should as being just such a cornerstone of democracy.” Prominent participants in the march have indeed championed the film as historiography. “Everything” except the film’s “depiction of the interaction between King and Johnson,” Andrew Young has said, “they got 100 percent right.”[7] But then how could historical accuracy not be an issue for a film that ends with King’s proclaiming, “His truth is marching on”? The tensions between fact and fiction in Selma are anything but incidental to the movie: instead, they reflect the irreducibly hybrid nature of the historical film.[8]

Is it possible to argue that a mix of fact and fiction is necessary to Selma and to historical films generally? When Oyelowo interrupts his opening rehearsal of King’s Nobel acceptance speech to say “this isn’t right,” he implicitly acknowledges more than his own difference from King: the words he has just been speaking are themselves different from the ones that King actually delivered at the Nobel ceremony. The reason for the substitution, as the reviewer Jordan Zakarin explains, is that King’s speeches “are property of his family’s estate, which licensed them in 2009 to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for a biopic that Steven Spielberg hopes to eventually produce.” One kind of license, then, solved the problem posed by another: DuVernay, Ebiri maintains, “had to take historical liberties” with her material, inventing speeches for King that sounded like the real ones, “just to be able to make Selma in the first place.”[9] The domestic comedy of the opening scene underscores a further rationale for taking liberties with the facts: the film’s investment in distinguishing its historiography from mere accuracy. Many of Selma’s episodes begin, ominously, with typed FBI surveillance records: for instance, “King arrives in Selma, AL with Abernathy, Young, Orange and female agitator, Diane Nash. 10:12 a.m. LOGGED.” The precision of this “intel” is never in question: its humanity is. The FBI, as Bayard Rustin complains to Johnson’s aide Lee White in the film, has been “tracking us like animals.” King himself speaks in Selma of marching against “inhumanity” as well as “injustice,” and the Selma marcher John Lewis has praised the film for honoring the movement’s central focus on “human dignity.” To Lewis’s mind, that focus has the added benefit of strengthening the movie’s historiographical appeal: Selma, Lewis claims, “breaks through our too-often bored and uninformed perception of our history” in order to confront us “with the real human drama our nation struggled to face 50 years ago.” The reviewer Peter Travers makes the same point: Selma “blows the dust off history to find its beating heart.” Immediately before the movie reenacts his murder, the Selma marcher James Reeb describes precision as a kind of dead letter, the opposite of the exhilaration a preacher feels when “you’re just flying, you know, you’re not on the notes, you’re not on memory, you’re tapped into what’s higher, what’s true.” This is the expansive logic that DuVernay invoked when she assured Ifill that her goal in Selma was “to invite people into the spirit of the movement.” “Being more accurate,” as the reviewer Britney Cooper put it, “does not mean one has told more truth.”[10]

The surprise of Selma is how little reassurance it seems to derive from these strong defenses of its fictionality. A characteristically caustic review by Maureen Dowd exposes one of the film’s raw nerves. According to Dowd, DuVernay’s very “talent” at mixing truth with fiction is what makes “her distortion of L.B.J.” so “egregious”: “artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood,” Dowd asserts, “because fewer people see through it.” Dowd is equally critical of the fiction in other recent historical films such as LincolnZero Dark ThirtyArgo, and The Imitation Game: “the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough,” she declares; “why twist it?” Her answer is that the makers of historical films want more than either truth or fiction alone can provide them: they want to be able to cite the factuality of their work when the fiction comes under pressure, and the fictionality when the scrutiny falls on the facts. “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth,” Dowd remarks, “even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.” Even as they bank on it: for Dowd, it’s the self-interest of DuVernay that explains the bad faith of Selma. “I’m not a custodian of anyone’s legacy. I’m not a librarian. I’m not selling a book. I’m not trying to maintain an image of anyone,” DuVernay continued in her interview with Ifill, adding to the list of identities from which she believes her artistic license has liberated her.[11] Yet before she became a director, DuVernay worked as an entertainment marketer and publicist — and while she may not have been selling a book when she spoke with Ifill, she was certainly selling a movie, which went on to gross more than $60,000,000.

It can hardly count as news to anyone that a director might want to profit from her work. What’s telling about Dowd’s critique of Selma is not the importance of financial considerations to the film but rather the film’s noticeable discomfort with them. Although Selma begins with King’s receiving a version of the award that Dowd claims DuVernay so eagerly anticipated for herself, the thrust of this opening sequence is to sweep away the notion that King has any self-aggrandizing stake in his activism. After telling his wife how distressed he feels that folks back home might think he is living high on the hog, King confides his wish that he might one day be able to “lead a little church,” “teach a class,” take on “the occasional speaking engagement,” and so simply “pay all the bills.”[12] But if, as the film’s makers appear to assume, even Martin Luther King needs defending from the charge of exploiting the civil rights movement, then what hope can there be for the filmmakers themselves, who have turned King’s life into a piece of commercial entertainment? Commenting on Selma’s failure to secure Academy Award nominations for best director and best actor, the New York Times reporter Cara Buckley wondered whether “the filmmakers and cast” of Selma might have “hurt” the movie’s “chances” when they “inserted themselves into present-day events by wearing T-shirts that read ‘I Can’t Breathe’,” which “perhaps conveyed the sense, distasteful to some, that they were capitalizing on the politicization of the film.” No wonder DuVernay felt that she must downplay “selling” her film, when even the claim of Selma’s manifest relevance to current events could be dismissed as an unscrupulous “campaign tactic.”[13]

Yet while the high political stakes of Selma go a long way toward explaining the film’s uneasiness about itself as commercial entertainment, they do not displace the basic complexity of mixing fact with fiction that Selma shares with other historical films; on the contrary, each problem intensifies the other. In the next portion of this essay, I’ll turn to another historical film, William Wyler’s 1940 Oscar winner The Westerner, in order to highlight the generic as well as political nature of the difficulties that Selma must contend with. From all the many comparable movies I might have considered, I’ve chosen to focus on The Westerner for several reasons, the most important of which is its thematic similarity to Selma: both films depict a postbellum Southern tyranny that has sustained its power through legal fictions as well as violence. But The Westerner also differs significantly from Selma in its approach to its own make-believe. From its opening credits, which define the “story” as “legend founded on fact,” to its characterization of its hero and villain, who are both compulsive liars, to its climactic gun battle, which takes place in a theater, The Westerner appears to revel in its artistic license. In part, this greater openness to fictionality reflects the difference in historical setting between the two films: few people lived in the Texas wilderness of the 1880s that The Westerner aims to recreate; even fewer left documentary traces of themselves; and no action of theirs was ever as controversial or momentous as the events that Selma depicts, so no fictionalization of their actions could ever seem as controversial or momentous either.[14] The different cultural atmosphere of America in 1940 also eased the historiographical pressure on The Westerner, allowing the film to limit its critical depiction of the South to the figure of a single ex-Confederate who has nothing to say on the subject of race. Such avoidance of controversy, The Westerner suggests, is justified by the very history that the film believes itself to be dramatizing. “After the Civil War,” the movie claims at its start, the West represented a “free” space where the differences of the past could be forgotten and America could experience a “rebirth.”[15] I’ll argue that The Westerner draws boundaries around freedom this way not only to distance America from racial conflict but also to clarify the proper place of fictional license in a just social order. Selma, as its title indicates, is similarly attracted to the notion of demarcating a special space where the credibility of artistic as well as civil liberty can be restored. But the film also calls attention to technological and cultural developments since 1940 that seem to foreclose this option. Prominent among these changes is the increasing mobility and ubiquity of the media, which lead Selma to question whether racial injustice or commercial fiction can ever be plausibly represented as delimited or contained.


For many of its first reviewers, The Westerner was “something more than the usual horse opera.” “Without losing an atom of the drive and excitement of the ‘western’,” one critic declared, the film “looks at the old West with an historian’s eye.” Time and again, reviewers praised the “marked authenticity” of The Westerner in recreating “a fabulous era in this country’s history,” as well as the powerful “sense of reality” the movie conveyed of “real people doing things that really happened in a period that really existed.” The key to such realism, reviewers agreed, was the film’s “unorthodox” attention to historical detail. One critic expressed relief at “having at last seen a western hero stop shooting at the villain long enough to reload his smoking six-shooter,” while another was impressed by the convincing griminess of the hero as well as the villain, “two such unkempt renegades” as “you never have seen.”[16] The surviving production materials for The Westerner show how diligently the filmmakers conducted their research. One producer sought feedback on the script from the novelist Harvey Fergusson, “the foremost writer of westerns living today,” who advised him that the cattlemen of the time would have used wire-cutters rather than axes to break through the fences of homesteaders — and so the axes of the script were replaced with wire-cutters.[17] When a moviegoer later complained to the director William Wyler that it was anachronistic for Gary Cooper’s character Cole Harden to light a cigarette with “paper matches,” Wyler informed him that Cooper had in fact been properly equipped with “wooden sulphur matches as used in the 90’s.”[18]

This commitment to authenticity had its limits. Fergusson also pointed out that no homesteaders in the part of Texas where The Westerner was set would ever have built fences to protect their corn crops, because that territory was as dry as “the Mojave Desert.” “In the entire Vinegarroon country and for hundreds of miles northeast, south, and west,” Fergusson maintained, “there never was and never will be any corn” (his emphasis). Nor had there ever been “any war or situation between homesteaders and cattlemen” around Vinegarroon. Yet these basic, indeed fatal objections to the historiography of The Westerner sparked no revisions to the script at all. What mattered to the filmmakers, it seems, was the sense of reality that period details fostered – and that appears to have been what mattered to the critics, too. Although skeptics among the reviewers noted that “as history, ‘The Westerner’ probably could be shot as full of holes as the corpses that multiply during the story’s violent course,” no critic seriously complained about the movie’s historical fabrications. Fergusson himself advised the studio not to worry about the chief inaccuracies he’d identified: while “Texans,” he predicted, “might say ‘Oh, nuts!’ when they saw the picture,” The Westerner would no doubt “make enough money to justify” its “dramatic license.”[19]

And yet the perceptible “mixture of fact with fiction” in The Westerner, as one reviewer put it, was also strangely true to the history that the movie was interested in recreating, because the film’s “most improbable feature, Judge Bean’s saloon court,” wrote the same reviewer, was actually “copied from life.” From the very start, The Westerner makes clear that it views the historical figure of Bean as having had no “real” claim to being a judge.[20] The opening title sequence (which puts scare quotes around the word “judge”) describes Bean as someone “who took the law into his own hands, administering justice according to his lights.” “You’re no more a judge than I am,” says the indignant homesteader Jane Ellen Matthews to Bean once the action begins. She is all the more outraged to witness the supposed trial of a “prisoner” before “the bar,” Cole Harden, in a “bar,” Bean’s saloon. “You call this a court?” she asks Bean incredulously. The fictionality of the legal proceedings in the saloon extends to the statutes Bean claims to be enforcing. When Bean declares that “it’s agin the law to build fences hereabouts,” Jane Ellen demands to know “What law? Whose law?” And Bean answers, simply, “Mine.”

Bean is more than a mere impostor, however. The Westerner treats the historical fact of his saloon court as evidence that his pretending to be a judge amounted to a form of intoxication, like the drinking among jurors that Bean regards as entirely compatible with the “dignity” of his “courtroom.” Even more expressive of Bean’s delirium, according to the film, is the most famous historical fact about him: what one reviewer called his “strange, bizarre infatuation” with the stage actress Lily Langtry.[21] The first words we hear Bean speak in his saloon court are his toast “to the greatest woman in the world, the fairest flower that ever bloomed, Lily Langtry.” Images of Langtry are pasted everywhere on the

large mirror behind Bean’s bar; he later boasts of killing a man who put a bullet hole in one of them (“justifiable homicide,” he remarks). And yet Bean admits that he has never “met” Langtry, never even “seen” her outside the pictures of her he has collected. The make-believe judge, we find, is also a maniacal fan — a fantasist, in both instances. Why would the makers of The Westerner choose to associate their gritty recreation of the old West with such a mad figure, or select his twin delusions about the law and Lily Langtry as the part of American history they set out to recreate so authentically?

Even as it dramatizes Bean’s derangement, The Westerner nevertheless credits him with a “greatness” that “left” its “impress on the history of Texas.” The implication seems to be that Bean’s saloon court represented a harsh yet necessary stage in the civilizing of the West. Without the force of legitimating institutions behind it, any law (the film appears to suggest) will seem a fiction – but at least that fiction amounts to a first step, and the

advantage of Bean as a pretended judge was that he credited his own forgeries. Some reviewers made the same point: that while the “justice dispensed across Judge Bean’s saloon counter” might have been “crude,” one was “forced to admire” it nevertheless. In the primitive conditions at Vinegarroon, even the doubling of the courthouse as a saloon might seem justifiable, since the town has so few buildings to begin with.[22] But once civilization starts to grow, then so (the logic of this evolutionary defense would seem to demand) must its differentiation of the law from fiction. Near the end of the film, Cole begins the process of supplanting Bean and thus strengthening the credibility of the law by getting himself deputized in a larger and more sophisticated Texas town than Vinegarroon — Fort Davis, where the greater number of buildings allows the sheriff’s office to be distinguished from not one but two saloons. From the start, however, The Westerner had

already presented Bean as outmoded by emphasizing his continuing allegiance to a Confederate past that obstructs the rebirth of American freedom out west.  “He had the pioneer qualities, the judge did,” wrote another sympathetic reviewer of The Westerner, “but he outlived his time.”[23]

As a new stage in the civilizing of the Texas wilderness, Fort Davis does even more than help free the law from fiction: it also helps liberate fiction from the law. Back in Vinegarroon, fiction suffers from as much of a credibility problem as the law does. Although one of Bean’s posters refers to Langtry as a “charming stage star,” there is no venue among the limited spaces in Vinegarroon where her advertised talents as an actress can be validated or even displayed. Hence the art of “the Jersey Lily” looks as degraded and out of place in Bean’s saloon as the law does — not art in its own right, just as Bean’s justice is not law in its own right. Reviewers repeatedly characterized the pictures of Lily that “adorn” Bean’s “bar” as “garish” and “gaudy.” So did the shooting script for the film, which linked the saloon’s crude renditions of Lily to Bean’s historical obsolescence: a stage direction called for “the old scalawag” to be dressed “in his old Civil War uniform” as he gazes “in respectful worship” at a “lurid poster” of Langtry. Bean’s “naïve idolatry” of Lily demonstrates, moreover, that he is incapable of recognizing his fantasies as fantasies. Reviewers characterized his worship of Langtry as “the one chink in Bean’s armor,” the “one weakness” that makes him manipulable by the more sophisticated spinner of fantasies, Cole.[24] When Cole in an effort to save his own neck offers a toast to Lily as “the most beautiful woman I ever met,” Bean is incredulous: “You mean to tell me you met Lily Langtry, the real her, in the flesh?” “Oh, many times,” Cole replies, coolly adding that “I got a lock of her hair” — and now Bean is dumbfounded: “You mean to tell me you actually got the real . . . from her head?” Bean’s inability to separate fact from fiction in Cole’s tall tales is more than just a comical frailty of his: it’s the very reason that he can so confidently act like a judge; indeed, it seems to be the very reason that he has chosen to live out west. The great crime of the homesteaders, Bean believes, is their refusal to treat “this country” the way it should be treated — as “unfenced rangeland,” which is to say, as undifferentiated space. Cole himself is loose with the truth because he’s a drifter: “just passing through,” as he declares, coming from “no place in particular” and heading to “no place special.” By the end of the film, however, Jane Ellen has succeeded in convincing him that “all places aren’t just the same,” that distinctions matter. When Cole allies himself with Fort Davis rather than Vinegarroon, he accepts that fantasy and the law must be separated, fenced off, from one another. Thanks to the diversification of space that allows Fort Davis to distinguish its sheriff’s office from its saloons, the town turns out to have demarcated a special location for fiction, too — the Grand Opera House, which is the place where Cole will eventually kill Bean.

What makes the opera house so deadly to the make-believe judge? First of all, it redefines fiction as a matter of public consensus rather than tyrannical coercion. There are seats for four hundred theatergoers in the Grand Opera House, and this sizeable clientele

underwrites performances by a theater troupe that consists in our view of an usher, nine orchestra members, and six actors on stage, not counting Lily herself. These theatrical professionals also participate in an entertainment industry that extends far beyond Fort Davis: one poster for Lily’s show announces that viewers will see the “Original New York Production.” Bean cannot accept such alienation of fantasy from himself. He commands a subordinate to buy all the tickets to the performance he wants to attend: “I ain’t sharing the Jersey Lily with no one,” he declares. But he must abandon his personal “stronghold” at Vinegarroon to enter the theater, and his autocratic insistence on “strict privacy all during the show” leaves him unsupported by his followers when Cole challenges him inside the theater’s walls.

The second way in which the opera house liberates fantasy from Bean is by conferring respectability upon it. Attending Lily’s show in his bedraggled old Confederate uniform,

Bean seems conspicuously out of place in a setting where the usher and orchestra are all dressed in tuxedos. In part, the greater elegance of the opera house depends on its greater profitability in comparison to Bean’s saloon. Among all the painted signs on the saloon that publicize Bean’s talents as “Judge,” “Justice of the Peace,” “Notary Public,” and the “Law West of the Pecos,” only one placard, low-hanging and off to the side, indicates that the courthouse also doubles as a place where “Ice Beer” is sold. A similar indifference to merchandizing appears inside the saloon as well. Even though its rooms are filled with ads featuring Lily – such as the one with a bullet hole in it, which shows her dressed in flowers and laces as she promotes a certain brand of toilet soap – neither the commercial nature of these ads nor the refinements they proffer seem to have made any impression on Bean. The opera house, by contrast, markets itself as “grand,” circulates posters of its shows, and covers its stage curtain with advertisements for local businesses. This new frankness about the commercial nature of its fictions depends, in turn, on the freeness with which fiction can be acknowledged as such once the theater has visibly

distinguished it from other social operations. Even in Fort Davis, the law appears to have advanced only incrementally past the primitive state of legal affairs at Vinegarroon: the sheriff there is as grimy as Bean, and his slurred speech in deputizing Cole suggests that he is barely more committed to proper judicial procedure than Bean is. But the Grand Opera House defuses the skepticism that so easily attaches to Bean and the sheriff by making no pretense about its pretense. Mirroring the external differentiation of the opera house from sheriff and saloon is the internal diversification of space within the opera house that allows a platform and curtain to mark out the stage as the distinctive place of fiction.

This is not to say that the dissociation of fiction from the law in The Westerner is ever absolute. Cole uses his badge to enter the opera house through the stage door, without purchasing a ticket, and when he subsequently takes the stage to confront Bean, he so plainly violates the seeming autonomy of fiction in the theater that he ruins the show. It’s thanks to Cole’s intrusion, however, that Bean is defeated; justice happens only in the theater, as if the theater’s clarity about fiction helps define the law by contrast, helps it stand out as that which isn’t fantasy. By building a fence around fiction, the theater in The Westerner also marks out a place where justice can be effectively staged as real.


In Selma, the South has continued to fight the Civil War by denying the modern descendants of slaves “the right to vote.” “Technically,” King admits to LBJ, “we already have” that right, “but we both know in the South black voters are kept off the rolls and out of the voting booths by systematic intimidation and fear,” so the legality of that right is, practically speaking, nothing more than make-believe.[25] Selma too, then, focuses its historian’s eye on a fiction in America’s past, and an early scene of the film locates that fiction in a version of the spot where The Westerner had also found it – in a courthouse, where we watch Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey) trying and failing to register for the vote. “It’s all right this time,” Cooper assures the Selma county registrar, who replies with the same autocratic highhandedness as Judge Bean had: “It’s right when I say it’s right.”

Selma recreates the historical moment when King and his fellow activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) turned their attention to the Selma courthouse as a site where they could expose not only the particular fiction of the black right to vote but

also the more general “illusion” of white “supremacy.” “This here,” says the SCLC organizer Diane Nash early in the film, “is the place we need to be.” In a meeting with James Forman and John Lewis, two leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), King and his associates recount the lesson they believe they’ve learned from their failed protests in Albany, Georgia: that these illusions must be delimited before they can be destroyed. “In Albany,” King explains, “there were no clearly defined battle zones. The issue was segregation, and segregation was everywhere.” But “in Selma, we can concentrate our actions on one building. A citadel, defended by fanatics. The Selma Courthouse. A perfect stage.” Forman, who is hostile to King throughout the meeting, seems particularly infuriated by this association of the civil rights movement with theatricality. A further problem in Albany, King asserts, was that the sheriff there “kept arresting us in a humane way,” which meant “there was no drama” to the protest. “You mean there was no cameras,” Forman scornfully interjects. But King is unperturbed by Forman’s criticism: cameras are “exactly” what he means, he replies. Johnson will “ignore us if he can. The only way to stop him doing that is by being on the front page of the national press every morning and by being on the TV news every night. And that requires drama.” A few minutes later, we see King’s plan coming to fruition, as Johnson opens a

paper to a front-page photo of Annie Lee Cooper being dragged from the steps of the Selma courthouse.

What better way for Selma to defend its dramatization of the civil rights movement than by having King present the movement as itself a kind of theater? And yet Forman’s skepticism so unsettles the film that it repeatedly backs away from King’s frankness about protest as drama. In an earlier conversation with his wife, King himself had spoken of Selma not as a perfect stage but rather as “an ideal staging ground,” a first step in a developmental process. The cameras he hopes to attract to his protest, moreover, are exclusively documentary, journalistic — precisely what the advocates of Selma claim the film is not.[26] And by comparison with these cameras, a stage seems a slightly anachronistic platform for the kind of drama King has in mind. “Segregation was everywhere” in Albany, King maintains; while the “citadel” of the Selma courthouse may epitomize the militancy of Southern racism, it misrepresents the pervasiveness of the problem. To meet the enemy on its own ground, King believes, the movement must be similarly far-reaching: it must fight its battles in the media. Later, Selma will make King’s point by intercutting its reenactment of Bloody Sunday with the televising of that brutality in settings as diverse as movement headquarters, private homes, a diner, a barbershop, and the White House.

How could any stage possibly compete with television’s near-instantaneous mobility and reach?

According to The Westerner, this sort of tension between the theater and mass media had already been brewing long before TVs. The ultimate form of Bean’s delusion about Vinegarroon is his imagining it as so far removed from the rest of civilization that he alone can impose the law there. Yet his very devotion to Lily tells a different story. A closer look at Lily’s images in the saloon shows that they come from newspapers and magazines as far flung as the New York Clipper and the Illustrated London News; never having witnessed Lily perform on the stage, Bean has learned to admire her only through the media that have already penetrated his ostensibly separate world. Cole’s repeated claim that he is heading past Vinegarroon to California alerts us, moreover, to a future in which the West would soon become the producer of an even more widely distributed medium than newspapers. Such implicit associations of the civilizing process with technological advances in entertainment would seem to suggest that the delimitation of fiction to the theater must itself represent a primitive stage of cultural development, and indeed the historical play that Cole disrupts at Fort Davis, “The Blue & The Grey,” turns out to be a laughably crude version of the more realistic historical film in which it appears. But while the theater is literally shot full of holes at the end of The Westerner, it is never superseded in the film, as Bean’s saloon court is. It couldn’t be, according to the film’s own evolutionary logic, because at the time The Westerner was released, movies themselves were confined to theaters, even as they were also distributed everywhere.

In our own time, the ever-increasing detachment of movies from theatrical exhibition adds to the conceptual pressure that the mass media in Selma already exert on thinking of any one place as a perfect stage for the civil rights movement. Like King in his blurring together of stage and staging ground, the movie tries to reconcile the older paradigm of a delimited space for fiction with the newer paradigm of illimitable mass distribution by turning the Selma protest into the first stage of a march. “What’s your next move?” LBJ asks King after the courthouse action. “A march from Selma to Montgomery,” King replies, “to protest and amplify.” And now Johnson gives voice to the bitter cynicism about King’s histrionics that had earlier been expressed by Forman: “This was always part of the plan, wasn’t it? Provoke some tragedy in little old Selma, then go big.”[27] But King is as undismayed by Johnson’s charge that he has taken his show on the road as he had been by Forman’s accusation that he was playing to the cameras. Movements, King assumes, must move. His first words in Selma had linked the tragedy of “our lost ones” to the “path” that their deaths paved, and, when King later momentarily loses faith in his tactics, Ralph Abernathy reassures him that “we build the path as we can.” Over the course of Selma, the fiction of legal equality in the South will be most powerfully exposed not at the stage provided by the county courthouse but rather along the path of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Selma ends with the triumphant arrival of the marchers at the State Capitol in Montgomery, a far more towering citadel of white supremacy than any building in Selma, and yet the Capitol can hardly be considered the movement’s final destination. “We need voting, not marching,” King himself emphasizes; “we have to move beyond these protests to some real political power.” Coretta worries that being on the march all the time leaves you with “no foundation.” In The Westerner, even the drifter Cole ultimately decides to settle down; after killing Bean, he builds a home with Jane Ellen and declares Texas to be “the promised land.” This apparent renewal of the New World in The Westerner depends on more than the death of an old Confederate, however. In a film where whiteness has been abstracted into a woman named Lily and blackness into a man named Cole, the sole representative of America’s former slaves is an actress in “The Blue & the Grey” who appears on stage in blackface; racial difference has been reduced to the status of a fiction.[28] In Selma, by contrast, the unrelenting racism of the South makes it impossible to

pretend that the promised land can be reached simply by leaving the past behind you. “When will we be free?” King asks in his final speech; “soon, and very soon.” If you believe otherwise, he’d earlier maintained, if you think that “one struggle ends just to go right to the next and the next,” then “it’s a hard road” ahead for you. His own “disdain for hopelessness” had been among his first words in the film (although that phrase vanishes from the Nobel speech we hear him finally deliver). Yet just as the continuing denial of voting rights in Selma throws the decisiveness of the Civil War into question, so the continuing racial violence that led DuVernay and her cast to join the Black Lives Matter movement throws the decisiveness of the Selma marches into question. “Aren’t we done? Are we not done with this?” an exasperated LBJ demands to know about civil rights near the start of the film. Shortly before the release of Selma, DuVernay echoed Johnson’s frustration in a text she sent to Oyelowo around the time of the Ferguson killing: “Didn’t we just shoot this just a month ago?”[29] When can the civil rights movement be said to have crossed what King, in Selma, calls “the finish line”?

The longing for a settled place of truth and justice seems partially satisfied in Selma when the film shifts, as The Westerner had, from a primitive and fiction-ridden setting for the law to a more advanced and therefore credible alternative. Taking the place of the corrupt Selma county courthouse near the end of the film is the more progressive federal courthouse of Judge Frank Johnson, who rules that King and his fellow protestors have “the right” to march from Selma to Montgomery. Comparison to The Westerner highlights a corresponding development in Selma that might otherwise escape our attention: once this better Johnson banishes illusion from his courthouse, fiction appears for the first time in the film in a more advanced form of its own, as the separate and culturally respectable enterprise of entertainment. This newly differentiated activity arrives from the margins of Selma’s represented world, however, and it receives little explanatory notice once it does appear there. The scene immediately following Johnson’s verdict shows us a group of civil rights activists who have gathered for “march preparations” at Brown Chapel, as an FBI log informs us. Andrew Young reports to the group that “Bayard says that Harry says he can get Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary in”; “Bayard” is the movement leader Bayard Rustin, and “Harry” the entertainer Harry Belafonte. “Come on now,” replies Ralph Abernathy with some exasperation; “we don’t got money for that.” But Young explains that “Harry is chartering a plane himself,” and the rest of the activists then jubilantly break out in singing Belafonte’s signature hit, “Day-O.” It’s a song, clearly, that everyone knows, thanks to the pervasiveness of the mass media, although we don’t hear it sung in its commercial form, by Belafonte. Later in the film, when the march authorized by Judge Johnson reaches Montgomery, Belafonte himself momentarily

appears in the documentary footage of the march, along with equally brief shots of his fellow entertainers Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis, Jr.

It would be hard to grasp from these fleeting references why a civil-rights historian has recently called the Selma marches “the high point of celebrity activism” in the movement.[30] Belafonte himself did far more for the cause of civil rights than fly several entertainers to Selma. He was an indefatigable fundraiser for the movement; he mediated between King and SNCC, both of whom he supported financially; he opened lines of communication between King and the Kennedys as well; and “by the spring of 1960,” as the historian Judith Smith notes, he had become “a headliner at civil rights events.”[31] Selma not only sidelines Belafonte; it comes close to omitting any representation of commercial entertainment from the parts of the film that are historical reenactments. Early on in the movie, it is true, we do see and hear Ledisi Young singing as Mahalia Jackson, but she is not exactly entertaining anyone: she is in her bedroom, having just been awakened at night by a phone call, and she is singing a spiritual in private, over the phone, to King, who has just told her that he needs “to hear the Lord’s voice.” Later, we catch a glimpse of the lesser-known folk singer Len Chandler performing at the famous nighttime concert for the Selma marchers that Belafonte organized, but this image belongs to the film’s documentary footage, not its dramatization, and the footage is also silent.[32] Conversely, the soundtrack for Selma is filled with such popular commercial recordings of the period as The Impressions’ “Keep On Pushing,” Otis

Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble,” and Martha Bass’s “Walk With Me,” but these are all extradiegetical: none of them is heard by anyone in the film. And finally, whether it’s Mahalia Jackson or Otis Redding or the celebrities Young names or the ones we see in the documentary footage, only one kind of entertainer gains admittance to the film (with the sole exception of the comedian Dick Gregory) — singers. Strangely, Selma never refers to any of the movie stars who also participated in the Selma march, among them Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Ossie Davis, Gary Merrill, and Dennis Hopper. In her memoir, Amelia Boynton writes of the “stage and screen stars” who came to Selma; likewise, “movie stars” are the only celebrities that two different local activists interviewed for the oral history The Selma Campaign remember seeing at the march.[33] Belafonte was himself a movie star as well as singer, and in his own memoir, he recalls how one of the actions that turned Selma into a prominent civil-rights battleground was a failed SNCC attempt on July 4, 1964 to desegregate a movie theater.[34] Why should Selma pass up such opportunities to incorporate the movie industry in the history it is recreating?

For the filmmakers, it seems, the idea of playing to the cameras raises the specter not only of the movement’s theatricality but of its make-believe, too. Elsewhere in his memoir, Belafonte recalls how some angry SNCC members who were railing against “Martin and Coretta for their too-fancy clothes and social affectations” — the very criticism that initially worries King in the film — then turned their attack on Belafonte, “not just for defending Martin but for thinking that the movement had to have a star, as if it were a Broadway play or Hollywood movie.”[35] Another aspect of Selma’s opening shot that may not seem “right” to skeptical viewers is its exclusive, Hollywood-like focus on King. In her interview with Ifill, DuVernay herself stressed how “adamant” she felt “that this film be broadened to include the community of people who came together” at Selma. Similarly, Bouie ends his review of the film by arguing that “if Selma could have been better, it wasn’t because DuVernay didn’t do justice to Lyndon Johnson, but because there was so much to show about the ordinary people of Selma, and we – as viewers – don’t see it” (a judgment manifestly at odds with his insistence that the film be evaluated by aesthetic criteria only). The thrust of King’s attack on the pretense of voting rights in the South suggests an even deeper worry about Hollywood fantasy in Selma: why should the film place so much faith in the legal victories of Judge Johnson’s ruling and the Voting Rights Act?[36] “In the courthouse sits the heart of the matter,” King assures Forman, but as Oprah Winfrey cautioned in an interview about the film, “laws do not legislate people’s hearts.”[37]

The fictionality of movies cannot be Selma’s chief source of concern about them, however, because the film gives salience to other forms of illusion-making, and it treats them as unambiguously respectable. The first of these comparable media are the paintings by Edvard Munch on the walls of the assembly room where King receives his Nobel Prize. (This setting turns out to be another of the film’s fictions: Munch’s paintings reside in the Aula of the University of Oslo, not in the auditorium where King received his award.)[38] The size and beauty of Munch’s canvases might suggest that DuVernay is offering

them as analogues to her movie screen, if the setting did not link them with the ostentation that had pained King from the start, and if the abstract figures in them were not as exclusively white as the Norwegian presenters and audience we see gathered in the brightly lit hall. So keen, in fact, is the film to dissociate King’s activism from Munch’s paintings that it prevents us from witnessing him deliver his speech before them. Instead, we hear the speech as a voice-over in an entirely different setting: the dimly lit interior of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where several black adults and children are walking downstairs moments before the bombing. A different kind of art appears here as well, in two modest stained-glass windows featuring realistic portraits of a black man and woman. Never again in the film will we encounter anything like the modernist art at the Nobel ceremony, yet stained-glass windows will recur throughout the scenes of King’s speechifying in Selma’s Brown Chapel especially, shining almost as brightly in the dusky

church as a movie screen in a darkened theater. “This is art,” DuVernay declared of Selma, and the motif of the windows suggests that she modeled her film on the art best suited to what King calls the “demonstration of our moral certainty” — sacred art.[39]

So high a standard for Selma helps explain why the film avoids reflecting on its own status as commercial entertainment. Even when the movie finally draws back the curtain on the entertainment industry and allows us a glimpse of Belafonte’s participation in the movement, it presents him as the opposite of the man King claims to be at the start. From the very little we’re told about Belafonte, we understand that he has the wealth to charter a private plane, the sort of financial resources that Abernathy complains are out of reach for the movement otherwise.[40] Both the lavish spending and the untrammeled mobility it provides had troubled King in the movie’s opening scene, where he had worried not only about his living too high on the hog in Norway but also about his simply being overseas. Coretta had to assure him that it wasn’t “a crime to be away for a few days,” and while he confessed under her prodding that it was indeed “nice being away,” he still insisted that he’d rather be “back home.” King’s sense of displacement at the start of Selma highlights a feature of Munch’s canvases and the Brown Chapel windows that actually differentiates both of them from the mass-distributed entertainment of twenty-first-century film: like the Oslo paintings, which “are the only decorations by Edvard Munch that can still be viewed in their original context,” the Selma windows are unmistakably stationary, placed.[41] Along with its uneasiness about its commercialism, theatricality, and make-believe, Selma seems uncertain about how to respond to the increasing loss of a specially demarcated setting for movie-viewing. The consequent worry that commercial entertainment may now be too mobile, like the wealthy Belafonte, encourages the film to pretend that it has fenced off history from Hollywood in order to prevent the truth from being corrupted into a moneymaking lie.

Perhaps the most revealing representation of the entertainment industry in Selma is an affirmation of it that appears in the form of a denial. This is the uncanny tableau of Oprah Winfrey watching a primitive television. It’s worth pausing for a moment to catalogue all the ways in which this picture, too, isn’t right. Here, a producer of Selma who also happens to be the wealthiest African American entertainer in history appears at the opposite end of the financial spectrum: we see her character Annie Lee Cooper working as a nurse in a down-at-heels “rest home,” engaged in the menial task of wiping down the food tray of a sleeping old white patient. (Can it be an accident that the setting is another of the film’s

fictions? By this point in Cooper’s life, she had been fired from the nursing home where she used to work because her employer had witnessed her participating in a civil-rights protest.)[42] Intensifying the effect of reversal in the scene is the sight of Oprah not on TV but rather watching it — and the television she is watching is not hers, nor does she even mean to be watching it: her attention has been caught by the sound of LBJ delivering his March 15, 1965 Voting Rights speech, and Oprah as Cooper has slowly, almost reluctantly, turned away from her work in order to listen more closely. In interviews, Oprah

has claimed that she resisted taking on the part of Cooper until DuVernay informed her that Cooper had long been an avid viewer of The Oprah Winfrey Show; when Oprah played Cooper in this scene, therefore, she knew that she was putting herself in the place of someone who consumed the entertainment that she herself produced.[43]

In brief, what the scene affirms in denying, or denies in affirming, is Oprah’s celebrity as an entertainer. Why should Selma devote more of its attention to Oprah than to Belafonte, especially when Oprah’s recognizability in her part as Cooper would seem to risk fictionalizing the film in just the way that DuVernay had carefully avoided by casting actors for the parts of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King who were largely unknown in America? Like Mahalia Jackson, the only entertainer who speaks in the film, Oprah is a woman, and DuVernay has repeatedly stressed that, in order to broaden our awareness of the activist community in Selma, she had “to bring in the women.”[44] For all of Cooper’s stereotypically gendered quiescence in the rest home (which also recalls Jackson in her bedroom), Cooper represented a very different kind of protestor from the nonviolent King: at the Selma courthouse, as the film had earlier shown us, she punched Sheriff Jim Clark in the mouth. The star power that Oprah lends to Cooper helps balance a focus that might otherwise have seemed too heavily weighted toward King and King’s methods alone.[45] The mixed signals of the nursing-home scene also redefine the celebrity mobility that

in Belafonte’s case the film had half-condemned. Diegetically, everything about the scene insists on the oppressive restrictions to which Oprah’s character is subject — on her over-placement, as it were. And yet Oprah herself looms over the old television, liberated from the technology that made her famous, as her very appearance in Selma demonstrates. Oprah’s implicitly commanding relation to the media differentiates her from King as well. In the final shot of Selma, King speaks into microphones that he hopes will amplify his

message but that obstruct our view of him; indeed, they look like prison bars, fencing him off from us. Skeptics such as Forman would say that the microphones diminish King by theatricalizing his message and thus undermining his credibility – as Selma itself might also seem to do. But since Oprah is essentially a media personality, her association with the media lacks the same power to weaken her, while her mobility across the boundaries that separate one medium from another strengthens her in regard to each of them.

Oprah as Cooper also looms over the diminutive image of LBJ that we see on the nursing home’s TV screen. Far from a needless dramatic embellishment, Selma’s derogation of Johnson turns out to be integral to all of the movie’s major aims, political and historiographical as well as aesthetic. From the time that King and Johnson first meet in Selma, King starts absorbing the authority that Johnson progressively loses in our eyes. Unlike LBJ as he delivers his voting-rights speech, what’s more, King doesn’t need to stand behind the presidential podium to impress us. In fact, he doesn’t need to be anywhere in particular. Tellingly, neither the shot of King that begins the movie nor the one that ends it is set in the place, Selma, where the movie itself claims to be set: the first shot finds King in Oslo; the second, in Montgomery. King’s personal charisma, even his physical presence: this is what Selma asks us to accept as the genuine locus of truth and justice in the film. But when King watches Johnson on TV, there is no shot of him that’s comparable to the one in which Oprah eclipses the president. Perhaps Selma grants Oprah this special moment of dominance over Johnson because the film wants us to view the wealth, fame, and influence that an African American woman can now achieve as a step forward for civil rights, a mark of how far the movement has truly progressed since King’s lifetime.[46] A more striking difference between Oprah and King in the voting rights speech sequence, however, is that Oprah’s charisma does not need to be reenacted; whatever authority she possesses, she herself displays it. Selma may lack confidence in its own credibility as a historical film, but at least, it appears to believe, Oprah is for real.


[1]. I refer throughout to the 2015 Paramount Home Entertainment DVD of Selma.

[2]. Michael Sragow, “Deep Focus: Selma,” filmcomment (29 Dec. 2014),; A.O. Scott, “A 50-Mile March, Nearly 50 Years Later,” New York Times (24 Dec. 2014), C1.

[3]. In his review of Selma for Rolling Stone (23 Dec. 2014),, Peter Travers calls it “ironic” that English rather than American actors should play the key parts of King, Coretta Scott King, and Johnson — “but why grouse,” he adds, “when acting is this artful?”

[4]. Joseph A. Califano, Jr., “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw,” Washington Post (26 Dec. 2014),; Albert R. Hunt, “A Villain in ‘Selma’, But Not in Real Life,” NYT (18 Jan. 2015),; Ari Berman, “What ‘Selma’ Gets Right – and Wrong – About Civil-Rights History,” The Nation (8 Jan. 2015),; Califano, “The movie ‘Selma’.” The film’s most controversial claim about Johnson is that he tried to blackmail King with FBI tapes of his adulterous affairs.

[5]. A notable exception is Amy Davidson’s New Yorker article, “Why ‘Selma” Is More Than Fair to L.B.J.” (22 Jan. 2015),

[6]. David Carr, “Why the Oscars’ Omission of ‘Selma’ Matters,” NYT (18 Jan. 2015),; Jamelle Bouie, “What Matters in Selma,” Slate (2 Jan. 2015),, my emphasis; Gwen Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay on sharing the story of ‘Selma’ and deconstructing American heroes” (8 Jan. 2015),; Bilge Ebiri, “Oscar Films and the Prison of Historical Accuracy,” Vulture (7 Jan. 2015), A legal disclaimer at the end of Selma “emphatically” states “that this motion picture is not a documentary and is not an effort to precisely reproduce the historical events depicted in this motion picture.”

[7]. Basinger, quoted in Cara Buckley, “When Films and Facts Collide in Questions: ‘Selma’ Questions are Nothing New for Historical Films,” NYT (21 Jan. 2015),; Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay”; Young, quoted in Karen Tumulty, “‘Selma’ sets off a controversy amid Oscar buzz,” Washington Post (31 Dec. 2014),

[8]. I don’t mean to say that this problem is exclusive to historical films: it holds for any genre of historical fiction, as Shakespeare learned to his dismay when his fancifully satirical depiction of Sir John Oldcastle in 1 Henry IV offended powerful contemporaries who viewed Oldcastle as a religious martyr.

[9]. Jordan Zakarin, “Making ‘Selma’ Without Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Speeches,” Yahoo! Movies (23 Dec. 2014),; Ebiri, “Oscar Films.” King’s actual speech began this way: “I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice”; see

[10]. John Lewis, “John Lewis Tells His Truth About ‘Selma’,” Los Angeles Times (16 Jan. 2015),; Travers, “Selma”; Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay”; Britney Cooper, “Maureen Dowd’s clueless white gaze: What’s really behind the ‘Selma’ backlash,” Salon (21 Jan. 2015),

[11]. Maureen Dowd, “Not Just a Movie,” NYT (17 Jan. 2015),; Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay.”

[12]. The only time in the movie when King seems personally offended is when he recalls how Malcolm X “said on national television that the white man pays me to keep Negroes defenseless. The white man pays me!”

[13]. Buckley, “When Films and Facts Collide.” The only Oscar the film ultimately received was for best original song.

[14]. For the problem of documentation in relation to Selma, consider the Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, who argues in her discussion of the controversy surrounding the film that “a mountain of available records” on the Selma marches “suggests that there are places where the director and her critics are each right – and ones where each is wrong” (

[15]. So averse is The Westerner to replaying the Civil War that the film’s climactic gun battle literally stops a Civil War play from starting.

[16]. I quote from reviews collected in Scrapbook #2 of the William Wyler Papers at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA: from Scholastic (21 Oct. 1940), Film Daily (20 Sept. 1940), National Box Office Digest (undated clipping), Movie & Radio Guide (5 Oct. 1940), Boston Herald (undated clipping), and Newark News (undated clipping).

[17]. Fergusson’s response is detailed in a memo from Edwin H. Knopf to Samuel Goldwyn (24 Nov. 1939), William Wyler Papers, Folder 439.

[18]. Letter from Frank Ferguson to William Wyler (15 Jan. 1941), William Wyler Papers, Folder 442. As a tombstone and calendar in the film reveal, the events of The Westerner actually take place between 1882 and 1884.

[19]. Fergusson, paraphrased in Knopf memo; clipping from Harrison Carroll’s review in the Los Angeles Herald Express (William Wyler Papers, Scrapbook #2); Fergusson, in Knopf memo.

[20]. Undated clipping of Donald Kirkley’s review in the Baltimore Sun (Scrapbook #2). I refer throughout to the 2014 Warner Brothers Home Entertainment DVD of The Westerner.

[21]. Undated clipping of review by “Beverly Hills” in Liberty.

[22]. Undated clipping from the review in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (Scrapbook #2). In Vinegarroon, the people are too few as well: just as Bean plays the dual roles of bartender and judge, so “Mort” the mortician also serves as the town’s dentist and barber.

[23]. Undated clipping from Corbin Patrick’s review in the Indianapolis Star (Scrapbook #2).

[24]. “Beverly Hills” in Liberty; undated clipping of review by Jay Carmody in the Washington Star (Scrapbook #2); “Vinegarroon,” Final Shooting Script (15 Nov. 1939), William Wyler Papers, Folder 438, my emphasis; undated clipping of review in the Canton Repository; “Beverly Hills” review (Scrapbook #2).

[25]. In her memoir, the Selma protestor Amelia Boynton remembers thinking of the march from Selma to Montgomery as “a wonderful opportunity for Alabama to stop fighting the Civil War” (Amelia Platts Boynton Robinson, Bridge Across Jordan, rev. ed. [Washington, DC: Schiller Institute, 1991], 271).

[26]Selma grants the news media the kind of humanizing power that defenders of Selma have associated with the film itself. Over the course of the film, the cameras that King envisions are displaced by the single sympathetic figure of the New York Times reporter Roy Reed, whose voice also eventually displaces the FBI’s dead-letter logs as a transitional device. In a recent interview, Richard Valeriani, a television reporter who was nearly killed in Selma the night that the protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered, insisted that “the TV coverage” of the protests “was much more important” than the newspaper coverage. “In fact, when I called Roy Reed about the film,” Valeriani adds, “he was astonished that he had been portrayed so prominently instead of the TV coverage” (Nancy Doyle Palmer, “Selma and Richard Valeriani: A Reporter’s Story,” Huffington Post [5 Jan. 2015],

[27]. Speaking over the telephone with King, Andrew Young similarly uses theatrical terms to describe the “finale” of the march, “when you make the big speech at the end, right on Wallace’s doorstep.”

[28]. It’s no accident that the actress’s anomalous skin color can be washed away: the film represents the civilizing process as itself a matter of cleaning oneself up. The last we see of Hardin, he is neatly dressed and combing his hair; grimy Cole has become Lily-white. A further sign in the film that the Civil War has been suppressed rather than resolved is the unmentioned source of the name for Fort Davis — Jefferson Davis.

[29]. Oyelowo mentions the text in Felicia R. Lee, “The Man Who Would Be King: David Oyelowo’s Pivotal Role in ‘Selma’,” NYT (18 Dec. 2014),

[30]. Emilie Raymond, Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 176. While acknowledging the importance of celebrity involvement in the 1963 March on Washington, Raymond cites John Lewis in support of her claim “that it was during the Selma to Montgomery March that the civil rights movement finally had a ‘true cadre’ of celebrity support” (185).

[31]. Judith E. Smith, Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 169; see also 167-72 and 213-15. For more on Belafonte and the civil rights movement, see among many possible sources his memoir My Song, co-written with Michael Shnayerson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), and the chapter on Belafonte in Raymond, Stars. In his own memoir, co-written with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Stokely Carmichael argues that “the effective and consistent contributions of Harry Belafonte to our peoples’ liberation struggle in our time is not fully or widely enough understood or appreciated” (Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture] [New York: Scribners, 2003], 213).

[32]. For more on Chandler in the footage, see Ross Altman, “Shining in Selma: Odetta, Dylan and Len Chandler,” folkWorks (20 Dec. 2014), My thanks to Benjamin Franklin V and Amy Ciesielski for helping me identify Chandler.

[33]. Robinson, Bridge, 268; The Selma Campaign, 1963-1965: The Decisive Battle of the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Wally G. Vaughn and Mattie Campbell Davis (Dover, MA: Majority Press, 2006), 167 and 196. The movie stars that Mrs. Shirley Stewart Evans remembers were actually television stars: “Parnell [sic] Roberts, Loren Greene, and Michael Landon” from “the cowboy show Bonanza” (Selma Campaign, 196).

[34]. During the protest, blacks tried to move from the balcony of the theater to the whites-only main floor. A mass meeting the following evening resulted in Judge James Hare’s injunction against any gathering of three or more civil rights activists; see Belafonte, My Song, 300; Gary May, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 36-39; and the reminiscence by Mrs. Jacqueline Hunter in The Selma Campaign, 126.

[35]. Belafonte, My Song, 245.

[36]. Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay”; Bouie, “What Matters in Selma.” In his 1972 memoir The Making of Black Revolutionaries, reissued in 1985 (Washington, DC: Open Hand Publishing), Forman similarly criticized “mass marches like the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery March” for their delusory “cathartic effect”: “Their size created the impression that ‘the people’ had made a show of power and changes would be forthcoming, but actually they served as a safety valve for the American system by taking the pressure off – pressure created by local activity” (441-42). Forman did nevertheless insist on the “reality” of the Voting Rights Act as a signal achievement in the “struggle against tyranny” (xix).

[37]. Winfrey, quoted in Joe Neumaier, “Oprah Winfrey’s new movie, ‘Selma,’ links Martin Luther King to today’s racial crises,” New York Daily News (19 Dec. 2014),

[38]. As one can see from the YouTube video of King’s acceptance speech, (, he delivered it with a small orchestra, not paintings, behind him.

[39]. Ifill, “Director Ava DuVernay.”

[40]. For a contrasting perspective on Belafonte, see Forman’s declaration during a 1965 SNCC staff meeting that the “wealthy” star “is more radical than anyone in SNCC” (quoted in Raymond, Stars, 199-200). It’s worth noting in this context that Forman devoted considerable effort to enlisting celebrities in the civil rights movement; see Raymond, Starspassim.

[41]. See the University of Oslo’s website on “Edvard Munch in the Aula,”

[42]. See John H. Britton, “Selma Woman’s Girdle a Big Factor in Fight With Sheriff,” Jet [11 Feb., 1965], 6-8; and Gary May, “Dr. King Goes to Hollywood: The Flawed History of ‘Selma’,” Daily Beast (2 Jan. 2015),

[43]. See Neumaier, “Oprah Winfrey’s new movie,” and Marc Malkin, “Oprah Winfrey Opens Up About Her Violent Scene in Selma,” ENews (30 Dec. 2014),

[44]. DuVernay, in Gavin Edwards, “We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’,” Rolling Stone (5 Jan. 2015),

[45]. Asked by a Jet reporter shortly after the incident whether she would “strike the sheriff again,” Cooper replied, “I try to be nonviolent, but I just can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing all over again if they treat me brutish like they did this time” (Britton, “Selma Woman’s Girdle,” 8).

[46]. In her brief discussion of the recent dispute between Belafonte and Jay Z on the contributions of contemporary black celebrities to the cause of civil rights, Raymond notes Jay Z’s position that he provides “more opportunities for African Americans as a businessman than as an activist” (Stars, 244).

JEFFREY KNAPP is the Eggers Professor of English at UC Berkeley and author of An Empire Nowhere: England and America from Utopia to The Tempest (1992); Shakespeare’s Tribe: Church, Nation, and Theater in Renaissance England (2002); Shakespeare Only (2009); and Pleasing Everyone: Mass Entertainment in Renaissance London and Golden-Age Hollywood, published this year by Oxford University Press. He is also a contributing editor for Representations.