Despite all the Oscar buzz and critical acclaim that Selma has been receiving, critics continue to accuse the creators of the film of not having their facts straight. From the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, to an exact count of just how many blows Martin Luther King Jr. took every time he was physically attacked by racists, it seems that critics are more concerned with historical accuracy than any of the other criteria one would normally use to judge a film.
Portraying King was a very ambitious undertaking for Ava DuVernay and also for David Oyelowo. Martin Luther King Jr., is not just a civil rights figure, he’s the Civil Rights figure. Since his death, his very existence has been transformed into the movement itself, wrapped up in neat platitudes and those four famous words — “I have a dream…” To create this film, DuVernay was tasked with humanizing King. In order to accomplish this, she had to make a film not just about King, but about a movement.
Since his assassination, King’s name has been invoked and misused in a variety of ways, many of which are steeped in white supremacy. Over the past few months alone, the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr. have been misappropriated to denounce protests against police brutality and shut down conversations about institutional racism at the state level.
Over the weekend, Entertainment Weekly published a piece titled, Fact-Checking the Film: ‘Selma’, which featured a historical breakdown of the film, scene-by-scene. The article garnered a lot of reactions, including the hashtag #FactCheckThat, which poked fun at, and pointed out the many ways in which Hollywood’s inaccuracies are steeped in white supremacy. As many have already pointed out, where was the fact-checking for Exodus?
"Crash" gave redemption a white cop who sexually assaulted a black woman but made black males seem permanently flawed. #FactCheckThat
— Terrell J. Starr (@Russian_Starr) January 4, 2015
Why black women nominated for awards get swapped out at round tables and press for white women who aren't #FactCheckThat
— Sydette (@Blackamazon) January 4, 2015
White guys picking up mastery in martial arts that require a lifetime of dedication and meditation in training montages. #FactCheckThat
— W.E.B.B.I.E DuBois (@fivefifths) January 4, 2015
How I'm loving this #FactCheckThat hashtag. Onward.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) January 4, 2015
The irony in all of this fact-checking is that it’s motivated by a need to push an ahistorical narrative that puts whites as central figures in the Civil Rights movement and allows the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr. to be consistently misused to support supremacist arguments. Essentially, MLK can either be an empty figurehead or a list of facts, but he can’t be a real man, otherwise that would make his legacy impossible to control.
There is also an element of sexism in this need to fact-check. Ava DuVernay is part of the 0.4% club — a figure that represents the percentage of directors in Hollywood that are black women. Her male counterparts haven’t had to endure critiques of this nature. The fact is, Hollywood is a hostile place for people of color.