Does “Selma” Deserve an Oscar? Ask Butch and Sundance

With the Wild West fading and the railway men closing in, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid head for the untamed terrain of Bolivia to continue a string of bank and payroll robberies, (spoiler alert) only to meet their end when an entire army descends on them

Except it didn’t happen that way. It was Argentina, not Bolivia, where they lived as comfortable ranchers for a few years until Pinkerton’s finally caught up with them, leading to a single, less-than-successful jaunt to Bolivia for a holdup that culminated in a murder-suicide at their own hands.

I cite that from among thousands of kinda-based-on-a-true-story movies because it’s history we all think we know that’s accepted as close enough. Yet the controversy over the historical retelling du jour, 
Selma
, isn’t going away — not with the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 22, six remaining days of Black History Month after that, and the 50th anniversary of the actual Selma marches on March 7, 9 and 21-25 yet to come.

Among outrages that have poured in so far are that it improperly depicted an adversarial relationship between President Johnson and Martin Luther King, that Jewish participation in the Selma voting rights campaign was airbrushed out, and that Coretta Scott King was portrayed as something less than a strong, powerful partner to her husband.

Historians do treat Johnson kinder than director Ava DuVernay did. It’s a bit hard, though, to buy the assertion by former LBJ aide Joseph Califano in a Washington Post commentary that the president, not King, hand-picked Selma as a Neanderthal outpost guaranteed to deliver televised violence against blacks trying to register to vote. It’s possible Johnson believed he did; one tactic used by Jim Farmer and George Houser, King’s predecessors in the movement, was that a sure-fire way to get buy-in on a campaign was to let others think it was their idea.

The film’s failure to clearly depict Jewish activists is a curious omission, particularly in leaving out Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who walked side-by-side with King in Selma. That’s particularly noticeable because it goes out of its way to show King greeting Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos, though not by name. Actually, I applaud that scene. Elsewhere in the movie, the dialogue is painfully stilted when characters introduce themselves by slowly pronouncing their credentials or affiliations, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — far better known as SNCC (pronounced snick) to anyone remotely familiar with the movement.

And if no kippot are shown gracing the heads of background characters, I can deal with that. It hardly means Jews weren’t there — or for that matter, that they were exclusively among the white marchers. A major leader of SNCC leading up to the Selma campaign was Charles McDew, described by fellow activist Bob Moses as “black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”

So movie history is spoon-fed and facts moved around. Why does Selma spark such calls for accuracy and inclusion?

In part, it’s because this history is recent, with many of the participants still alive. It’s also because Selma is an ultimate good-and-evil battle, and everyone whose group was anywhere near the good side demands recognition. Even the son of segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace has complained that Dad didn’t really want his state troopers to bash anyone’s head in as they’re shown doing with glee.

To that, DuVernay did well to ignore the revisionists, and go with the artistic license of movie-making, just as a thousand other directors have before her.

If you want a more historically accurate, and harrowing, account of Selma told through primary source interviews of the people who lived it — including segregationists Sheriff Jim Clark and Mayor Joseph Smitherman — find a copy or download “Eyes on the Prize Episode 6: Bridge to Freedom,” (as of this writing on youtube, though likely to be removed for copyright issues.) Every bit as compelling as the movie, it too received an Academy Award nomination, for Best Documentary in 1988, though producers Callie Crossley and James A. DeVinney fell short of taking home an Oscar.

And if you want an accurate telling of Butch and Sundance, check out the excellent
American Experience
documentary by the same name that aired last year, though it didn’t make the Oscar hunt.

The Butch Cassidy movie did win several in 1970, including for best original screenplay — a perfectly appropriate honor for a Hollywood rewrite of history.

Best picture for Selma? That’s not a stretch, either.

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