Distortions in 'Selma' make for richer discussions

Finally, “Selma” the movie is here. And with it arrives the echoing controversy over its historical accuracy and fairness in retelling the saga of this landmark voting rights campaign.

Having been part of the Selma movement, published two books about it, visited the city recently and seen the film, here’s my take:

Foremost, “Selma” is a good movie. I wish it box-office success, not least because that will open the door to more films like it. The 1960s civil rights struggles are a great store of dramatic material.

“Selma” is a movie, a drama. Based on actual events, it squeezes months of struggle into two hours. To do that, there had to be major molding of the record.

As for the historical controversy, it swirls mostly about the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s shown onscreen urging Dr. King to put off his protests against black disfranchisement.

While the record shows that LBJ was more favorable to the campaign than that, director Ava DuVernay’s script is not far off the mark: Johnson did have other priorities, and in the key scene, he tells Dr. King that he wants first to pursue his “war on poverty” before moving on voting rights. Fighting poverty was one of his passions.

If the actual conversation is fiction, the tension of priorities it surfaced was – and still is – all too factual. Selma and its county today, 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, still has the highest poverty rate in Alabama, itself one of the poorest states in the nation.

“Give us the vote!” DuVernay has King shout at his first Selma rally. (It was actually “Give us the ballot!” but never mind; the King family did not permit the filmmakers to use his exact words.)

Yet gaining the ballot has not lifted Selma or most of the Black Belt out of poverty. The film’s LBJ was not wrong to feel pulled between fighting poverty first and putting blacks on the voting rolls. Here cinematic “fiction” intersects all too fully with cruel, continuing reality.

The filmmakers made other important historical changes, which critics in coastal media centers haven’t noticed. The biggest for me was the omission of Selma Public Safety Director Wilson Baker from their story.

Baker and his antagonist, the brutal Sheriff Jim Clark, provided a classic good cop-bad cop clash in the real-life movement drama. The confrontation was complex – and important.

I can see why DuVernay decided to omit it. It would be a big plot distraction. But it’s still a loss. Baker was a good man. His role had long-term implications: He later ran for sheriff against Clark and beat him – with new black votes.

Even uber-segregationist Gov. George Wallace gets short-changed a bit in “Selma”: The script has him all but order state trooper commander Col. Al Lingo to attack marchers on their first trek over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I interviewed Wallace for my book. He told me that Lingo, abetted by Sheriff Clark, in fact defied his orders to avoid violence when stopping the march. Wallace had even informed Wilson Baker that there would be no trouble. (Baker, shrewdly, didn’t believe it and kept his city police away from the assault.)

After the attack, Wallace privately called in Lingo and fired him, delaying his departure for several months to avoid outraging vocal segregationists.

So Wallace, in the record, was in fact double-crossed by the bridge attack.

But DuVernay’s hinting otherwise is a minor distortion. After all, Wallace had built his career on cynically inflaming racist attitudes. By 1965, he had plenty of blood on his hands. And in a few years, a would-be assassin’s bullet brought his chickens home to roost.

The film’s closing credits included a disclaimer, which began by emphasizing that “Selma” is not a documentary, and the record had been altered for dramatic purposes.

I accept that. The historical differences make for an enriched discussion of the movement record, which I hope the success of “Selma” will only promote and expand.

Charles Fager of Durham was a junior member of Dr. King’s staff in Selma. Fager’s history of the movement, “Selma 1965: the March That Changed the South,” has just been re-released in an updated 50th anniversary edition.