Essays, Film

Notes on Dr. King’s Legacy in “Selma”

I’m still in awe at how much attention the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in the film Selma has received in the last few days. Some have even gone as far saying that what happened in Selma was actually his idea (we shouldn’t take these criticisms seriously to say the least). To be honest, I didn’t think the film really made much of his legacy besides appealing to his vanity. Remember when he plagiarizes Dr. King when confronting Governor George Wallace about the repercussions of suppressing the movement? That’s about it. Maybe a few details have been rearranged or some have differing opinions on his role in the matter, but are we really having a discussion on the lesser of two historical figures presented in this film? I say lesser to emphasize that this is a black narrative. If anything, Dr. King gets a worse rap than the President.

His legacy, which is often oversimplified for the sake of understanding, is  much more vulnerable to revision. In this case, it’s a good thing. Revealing, but not damaging; Selma is honest enough to have Coretta confront her husband about his past infidelities (such a beautiful and unexpected scene in the film). His organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), is criticized for its tactics and some of the mistakes they had previously made (by another black, grass roots civil rights group no less). Dr. King is vilified for not attending the first march and prematurely ending the second one. He’s even portrayed as a careless role model to Andrew Young, unable to remember what he said during speech that had clearly inspired one of his closest followers. All of these details contribute to a much more humanizing and more importantly, nuanced interpretation of his character. In this way, the legacy of Dr. King has more to lose than that of President Johnson. Selma is a far cry from the innocuous, somewhat neutered representation of Dr. King as a messianic figure devoid of flaws or controversies. Why aren’t we having that conversation? Are we supposed to distract ourselves with nonsense, wait for his birthday to pass, and then move on? Besides, this is still the 1960s, let’s not give white people too much credit. Or do we have to go back and have a talk about Abraham Lincoln?