Monday, January 12, 2015

History & the Movies: Selma

March 6 update: Hooray! One of my favorite podcasts recently took on this issue. Check out BackStory with the American History Guys recent episode about history & the movies.

Jan 17 update: In response to one of my tweets, I was alerted to this helpful resource from
teachingforchange.org, "The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today." Thank you to the ZinnEdProject.org for alerting me to it. Also, check out "Ten Things You Should Know about Selma before You See the Film" from CommonDreams.org.

And here is the link to read the transcript of the telephone conversation between LBJ and MLK on January 15, 1965. This is the key area in which the film's interpretation differs significantly from actual historic record. The film makes it seem like LBJ is really dragging; the transcript shows that LBJ wanted MLK to create the rationale to help LBJ move Congress (and public opinion) towards passage of voting rights bill.

June 5 update: This is one of the better reviews I have read about the film, since it came out. It discusses the Eyes on the Prize documentary about Selma in comparison to the film. Also, if you are looking for more Civil Rights resources, see my post, ""The Top 8 Mistakes Teachers When Teaching the Modern Civil Rights Era."

Original Post:

I don't usually teach about the modern Civil Rights movement until April, but if your students are going to see the new movie, Selma, it will be soon, so I figured I'd get this post in the bank, so to speak, right now.

I haven't even seen the film yet--hope to soon--but as soon as I heard it was coming out an alarm immediately went off in my head and I had these questions:

1. How historically accurate will the film be?
2. What inaccuracies will there be and will they matter?
3. I always liked showing episode 6 of the outstanding Eyes on the Prize documentary: Bridge to Freedom which is about the march to Selma. Will teachers still use documentaries instead of full-length feature films? Would students be bored with a documentary if they've seen Selma? Will they see the feature film as "truth" and then question the story told by the documentary (keeping in mind that documentaries, just like history books, also have their own "versions" of history and leave certain points out and others in)?
4. Who will students respond to more, the real MLK as seen in Eyes on the Prize and other documentaries or the actor who plays him, David Oyelowo? How could any actor top the man himself?
5. When we internalize fictional accounts of history, what is lost? what is gained?
6. What larger questions does this raise about who "owns" history? How do the stories and versions of history we tell ourselves shape our understanding of the past?

Because I haven't seen the movie yet, I don't have my own opinion to share, but lots of other folks have. So below are a few resources I've pulled together which may be useful for you to read so you can address the questions and comments from your students. I'm sure there are many more out there, but it's a start.

  • Ken Halla, on his US History Educator blog posted on this today. See his Resources on Selma, including some excellent ones from the LBJ Library.
  • Elizabeth Drew, "'Selma' vs. History," in New York Review of Books - about how LBJ is portrayed as being more opposed to MLK than he really was.
  • A few resources from NPR (National Public Radio), on their Code Switch blog, a site devoted to issues of race, culture and ethnicity:
reactions in Selma to the movie
"Selma backlash misses the point" - from Tufts University history professor Peniel E. Joseph. Really interesting. Says, "The real problem many critics have with this film is that it's too black and too strong." Ouch. 
"The Selma Criticism for How It Portrays Lyndon B. Johnson: Is It Fair?

An idea I'm thinking about, for when you do teach the Civil Rights movement: some sort of historical inquiry where students examine clips from some of the above articles and the historic record of Selma to make their own determination of either the accuracy of the film (this would require that students have seen the film, either on their own or a viewing that you arrange after class or something) or their own editorial about the extent to which historical accuracy in this film matters.

And for when/if you use Eyes on the Prize to teach about Selma or other parts of the Civil Rights movement, see the Study guide for Eyes on the Prize from Blackside Productions, the makers of the Eyes on the Prize. 200-plus page guide to the full film series with questions for each film.


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