Cable news shows cover criticism of the awards-season contender in distinctly different ways
Following the controversy’s flareup in digital media, cable news shows are now dissecting the depiction of president Lyndon B. Johnson clashing with Martin Luther King Jr. over voting rights in critically acclaimed drama “Selma.”
MSNBC led the charge with hosts Steve Kornacki, Chris Matthews and Chris Hayes all dedicating segments on their respective programs to analyzing the controversy surrounding director Ava DuVernay‘s film. Despite the outcry among political insiders, the film has received universal praise from film critics on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, and is nominated for four Golden Globe awards.
The controversy began in December when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote an article in Politico saying that the film was trying to “bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement.”
According to Johnson domestic policy aide Joseph Califano, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”
DuVernay took to Twitter to call Califano’s statement “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
Andrew Young, a former King aid who was alongside the Civil Rights icon during the meeting with LBJ depicted in the film, appeared on “Up with Steve Kornacki” Sunday to say the movie “almost” got it right.
In the film, LBJ, played by Tom Wilkinson, says, “Dr. King, this thing’s just going to have to wait.”
According to Young’s recollection, however, “President Johnson did not say that [the protest] had to wait.”
“He said that ‘I have a great agenda and I just got through,”’ Young continued. “Remember, this was December, and the Civil Rights Act of ’64 had just passed in July, so we’re coming six months afterwards. And we did not expect him to commit. We were really kind of letting him know that we had to pursue voting rights.”
“For me, this was an unremarkable aspect of the film in my many ways, because the film is not about LBJ,” Young said. “In fact the filmmaker has said that she doesn’t want to make another ‘white savior film’ … so she is deliberately pivoting toward the collection of leaders. And I think that’s what’s most important, Chris. This is a film that’s not just about MLK.”
“That doesn’t sound like an academic view to me,” Matthews shot back, and later added: “What’s the reason to put down LBJ to supposedly help the legacy of Dr. King? I don’t get it.”
Hayes, on the other hand, chose to compare the controversy surrounding “Selma” to media stories of years past that focused on other major Oscar contenders, including “Lincoln,”
“The campaign for Oscars has become, quite possibly, one of the dirtiest political campaigns of our times,” Hayes said. “Hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, and as Bailey points out, it seems every time an historically based film has a shot at an Oscar, claims of inaccuracies surface — the go-to attack used to knock such a film off its pedestal.”
“Timing in Hollywood is never accidental,” Bailey said. “When you look at this particular story, the Politico piece runs Dec. 22, the Washington Post op-ed runs Dec. 26. As someone who writes commentary for the internet, I can tell you that is not the week you put out your hot texts. Now, maybe that’s timed to the limited release of the movie on Dec. 25, or you can note on the following Monday, the 29th, the nominating ballots go out from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.”
The actress, who also served as an executive producer, took heat from protestor organizers for making comments comparing the voting rights protests depicted in “Selma” to those actively taking place in Ferguson and New York City over police brutality in the deaths of two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
“When you see this film you understand how strategic and how rigorous the discipline was. And how there was an intentional goal set by the leadership to accomplish the right to vote,” Winfrey told Lemon at the premiere of the film. “They were relentless in their efforts to do that, but there was a strategy behind it. It wasn’t just we’re out marching, but we don’t know what we’re marching for.”
“I think she has a point. She has a right to say what she has to say. But she’s wrong,” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, said. “The reality is that all of the movements that brought us to where we are now are movements that were resisted by a lot of folks, and yet they were effective. Dr. King liked to get arrested, he believed in marching with individuals. We had to change the law completely. And I think that people in Ferguson and other places are trying to change the law, make the law work for people.”
CNN political commenter and New York Times columnist Charles Blow argued that activism is not executed in the same manner it was during King’s day.
“This is kind of a social media approach to social justice where this is not a particular point person,” Blow said. “Our generation had our moment, and this is a new generations moment. And I think we need to understand that and respect that in a way.”
Click here to watch the CNN segment, while the MSNBC clips can be found below:
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misidentified Jason Bailey as Chris Bailey. TheWrap regrets the error.