Was Selma unfair to LBJ? Does it matter?
  • Atsushi Nishijima
  • Was Selma unfair to LBJ? Does it matter?

Talking back to the Sunday paper . . .

. . . and not in anger. It’s a civil conversation. We’re warm, at home, and it’s a perfect winter day outside the window. The Sunday Tribune and I are simply kicking around some ideas.

And I’m telling the Trib its “Focus Human Rights” feature from the Washington Post, on dissent in Saudi Arabia, misses an important point. Here’s the passage:

“[Samar Badawi, a human rights activist] has been especially affected by the government’s imprisonment in the past two years of at least a dozen activists for speech it deems criminal, but which would be considered harmless by Western standards. In addition to her brother, who angered authorities by saying the country’s religious establishment had too much influence, her husband, Waleed Abul-Khair, has been in jail since April 2014.”

An unnamed Saudi official told the Post that the brother, blogger Raif Badawi, “insulted Islam.” He was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Does the Post think insulting Islam is harmless, or does it think Islam wasn’t really insulted? And what are those “Western standards” of which it speaks? Does the West, to the last man, woman, and child, shrug off insults to its religions? And is the First Amendment a toothless document that guarantees our right to free expression so long as it is harmless?

The West—or let’s say the American Constitution—doesn’t draw a line neatly between what is harmless and what is criminal. It permits all sorts of harm. It allows insult. It allows ridicule. It allows the mighty to be cut down to size and laughed off the stage. Harmlessness has very little to do with freedom of speech.

And in the arts section, I find essayist Chris Jones raising a question I don’t think anyone’s definitively answered. Writing about the Oscar nominations with an eye to racial oversight, Jones wonders about the disappointing showing of Selma. “There was [among other things] the distracting matter of whether or not the film had been fair to President Lyndon B. Johnson,” says Jones. “(As an artistic work, was it under any obligation to be fair?)”

Roger Ebert liked to wonder this, and his answer was not really, and I always wished he’d think about it a little harder. Jones knows better than to let himself get distracted by his question. He states it and leaves it behind.

But the snow is falling harder and the Super Bowl is still a couple of hours away and I probably won’t be able to watch it anyway because it’s storming and we’ve got a dish. So why not indulge myself in more reverie? I’m thinking that every artistic work sets its own terms, and these include the terms of its obligation to violate neither the letter nor spirit of history.

Argo won the Oscar for best picture two years ago after Zero Dark Thirty was hammered for not portraying torture as both totally immoral and and also useless in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty‘s fidelity on this point mattered deeply to a lot of people.

Argo was also supposed to be true, or based on a true story—kind of, sort of. Anyway, American embassy personnel were smuggled out of Iran in 1979 and that’s the story Argo purported to tell. In the details it was vastly less true to history than Zero Dark Thirty, but no one really cared because what it was—and set out to be— was simply, in one reviewer’s words, “a piece of top-notch genre entertainment.”

If, in the last analysis, it doesn’t matter if a film gets history right, why does its verisimilitude matter? A president called, oh, Bradford Whittaker could have said and done everything Selma‘s LBJ did; but Selma‘s creators didn’t dare call him that. They wanted to honor history, so they were stuck with a real president and with audiences who’d bring into the theater their preconceptions of that president. You can’t just say to an audience with some foreknowledge of a movie’s events and characters, forget all that and go with the flow. It has to earn that dispensation, and when it cuts a historic corner audiences that object have a right to.

The movie that really got me on this account was Rudy. It’s the “true” story of a Notre Dame walk-on who finally, at the end of his career, got to play a down. I knew the actor playing Rudy’s best friend, so I was more invested in the movie than I should have been, and when, as Rudy neared its climax, Notre Dame acquired a new head coach, I became more invested yet. The coach Rudy’s senior year was Dan Devine, who’d been the popular, successful head coach at Missouri when I was a student there. I thought highly of Dan Devine; but Rudy needed him to be a jerk, the last obstacle Rudy had to overcome to take the field. So in the movie, a jerk is what Devine was.

Ebert liked Rudy a lot. He wrote, “The last big scene is an emotional powerhouse, just the way it’s supposed to be.” To most viewers I guess, but to me and other Mizzou alums the climax was lazy slander. And that’s why there’s no certain answer to Chris Jones’s question. Every artistic work sets its own rules, and the public has every right not to respect them.

The game’s beginning. It’s still snowing. Time to face the music and find out if we’ve got any reception.