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.

Posted on February 9, 2015

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