‘Selma’ and the particles of memory

By Tom Baxter

It’s not the big things, but the tiny particles of factual grit that lodge in the memory and stick with you over the years. The song that always brings the 1965 Selma-to- Montgomery march back to mind for me isn’t one of the movement anthems, but Petula Clark’s “Downtown.”

That’s because when a group of us teens cut church to sit on the hood of a friend’s car and watch the first wave of military vehicles rolling into Montgomery in advance of the march, which would not arrive for another four days, “Downtown” was playing on the car radio. As every other detail of that moment faded over time, that tune remained.

I remember the Selma march in a larger way, of course, as one of a series of pivotal moments that changed the nation, and most particularly the part of it I lived in. The film “Selma,” which has ignited controversies on several fronts, is about that larger idea of Selma and its meaning, and not so much the grainy fragments. It was not made for an audience that might remember what was playing on the radio at the time.

It’s interesting how time affects such considerations. “The Long Walk Home,” a 1990 film based around events in the Montgomery bus boycott is remarkable for its verisimilitude. It captures, in a striking way, the look and feel of the kitchens, living rooms, driveways and streets of 1950s Montgomery, on both sides of town.

Working with similar material a quarter century later, Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma” made it clear in a PBS interview that verisimilitude of that sort was not what she was after.

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said, responding to criticism that the film misrepresents Lyndon Johnson’s role in the period that led up to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

This is a curious argument on both sides. The LBJ defenders are right to cry foul over the scene in which the president gives J. Edgar Hoover approval to wiretap and harass the King family. But former Johnson administration official Joseph Califano’s suggestion that people shouldn’t go to the movie and it shouldn’t get any awards is over the top. Too spirited a defense of LBJ might prompt the re-airing of his White House tapes, some of which make the characterization of Johnson in the movie look politically correct.

The way DuVernay chooses to defend herself is curious, as well, considering the movie she made. “Selma” has more in common with “The Longest Day” — reverent tone, lots of choice cameo roles, a lot of move-the-furniture dialog — than any of the artsy films it is competing with this year for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Any director who sets out to make a movie centered around Martin Luther King Jr., without the ability to quote directly from any of his speeches, has got a lot of chutzpah, and can’t be sidelined by too many details. She is a historian, of the Darryl F. Zanuck variety. The “Longest Day” producer wasn’t interested in verisimilitude either, but he was a master of the historical tableau. That’s the genre in which “Selma” will most likely come to rest.

White Montgomery generally reacted with horror at the thousands of activists, clergymen, hippies and Hollywood celebrities who at last reached the city and rallied in front of the Alabama State Capitol 40 years ago. It was said that urine flowed down Dexter Avenue in deep streams, which may not have been so much an expression of open hostility as result of the absence of public toilets.

But the level of open resistance to black participation in the political process was never the same after that day. The murder of Viola Liuzzo the night after the Montgomery rally gets only a parting mention in the movie, but that was what prompted LBJ to go after the Klan more aggressively, and it may also have been the final act of violence that convinced a lot of white Alabamians that it was time to take another path.

Maybe that’s another movie.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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