When filmmaker Mario Van Peebles made “Panther,” his highly stylized film about the stunning rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, some former members of the once-revered and feared organization castigated the film’s historical deficiencies. Panther cofounder Bobby Seale branded the movie as “poetic lies.”
So, on a balmy July afternoon shortly after its release in 1995, I went to see the film — with Kathleen Cleaver who, decades earlier, was the Panthers’ high-profile communications secretary and spokesperson. In a near-empty theater in Harvard Square, I watched as Cleaver, then a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, watch dramatized versions of events she had lived firsthand. Sitting in her office after the film, Cleaver refused to add her voice to those denouncing the two-hour drama.
“A movie is a movie; a movie is not history,” Cleaver said. “History is presented by scholars, and I don’t think anyone will say Hollywood is a hotbed of scholars.”
If only more people exhibited Cleaver’s logic. Instead, there’s another cultural fracas about a movie, and the history it portrays. Recently, the makers of the civil-rights era drama “Selma” have been accused of sullying President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legacy by, among other things, portraying him as undermining Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts to secure what would ultimately become the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a Washington Post opinion piece, Joseph A. Califano Jr., once a Johnson assistant for domestic affairs, says MLK and LBJ were “partners” on voting rights. He decried what he alleges is the filmmakers’ “trumped-up license,” and even went so far to suggest that the film be “ruled out” for “the ensuing awards season.”
For the most part, that’s exactly what has happened. Last week, “Selma” one of the year’s most acclaimed films, picked up only a best song Golden Globe, despite four nominations. The Directors Guild of America this week overlooked Ava DuVernay, its director. And Thursday, “Selma,” once considered a shoo-in for numerous Academy Award nods, was ignored in the best director and best actor (for David Oyelowo as MLK) categories. Its best picture nomination seems almost an afterthought.
On one hand, the push against “Selma” has the distinct stench that seems to permeate Hollywood when it’s time to hand out all those shiny tchotchkes. Since all, apparently, is fair in love and awards seasons, some in the industry choose to spend as much energy denigrating their competitors as promoting the merits of their own films. It happened to “Hurricane,” Norman Jewison’s 1999 biopic of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was acquitted in a triple murder after nearly two decades in prison. Star Denzel Washington seemed destined to win a best actor Oscar until complaints about the film’s inaccuracies scuttled his momentum. Somehow, Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” though needled for its very loose interpretation of facts surrounding the rescue of some American hostages in Iran in 1980, was spared a similar fate two years ago, and snagged three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
To acknowledge its medium’s limitations, filmmakers usually include a disclaimer to say that while their movie is based on true events and real people, compressed time frames and composite characters are a necessary narrative device. DuVernay’s proviso, however, offered her and her collaborators no shield from disparagement. At a question-and-answer session last week in New York, DuVernay said of the brewing controversy, “For the film to be, I think, reduced — reduced is really what all this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, I think is unfortunate.”
What’s also unfortunate is the fact that no other film based on true events this season is being held up to such scrutiny. Very little has been said about the historical accuracy of “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s memoir about being American’s deadliest military sniper. Even if Eastwood followed Kyle’s book to the last letter, one could argue about the subjective nature of any memoir in the first place. Still, the film snagged several big Oscar nods.
So “Selma,” the first film to bring even part of MLK’s life to the big screen, has been pushed to the back of the bus. No one walks into a movie theater expecting blow-by-blow historical accuracy. Yet DuVernay’s electrifying film has been kneecapped by LBJ truthers, who inexplicably behave as if the president has been cinematically transformed into George Wallace.
Awards aren’t everything, but they often garner attention for smaller films that moviegoers might otherwise overlook, especially those recalling difficult chapters in American history. What with renewed concerns about voter suppression and this nation’s race relations fraying, perhaps “Selma’s” greatest failing for its critics is to deftly remind its audiences that battles, once thought won, are still being waged today.
Renee Graham is a writer in Boston.