The role of art in our society is not to reenact history but to offer an interpretation of human experience as seen through the eyes of the artist. The philosopher Aristotle says it best: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance.”
The movie “Selma” is a work of art. It conveys the inner significance of the ongoing struggle for human dignity in America, a cornerstone of our identity as a nation. It breaks through our too-often bored and uninformed perception of our history, and it confronts us with the real human drama our nation struggled to face 50 years ago.
And “Selma” does more than bring history to life, it enlightens our understanding of our lives today. It proves the efficacy of nonviolent action and civic engagement, especially when government seems unresponsive. With poignant grace, it demonstrates that Occupy, inconvenient protests and die-ins that disturb our daily routine reflect a legacy of resistance that led many to struggle and die for justice, not centuries ago, but in our lifetimes. It reminds us that the day could be approaching when that price will be required again.
But now this movie is being weighed down with a responsibility it cannot possibly bear. It’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Selma marches has been called into question. And yet one two-hour movie cannot tell all the stories encompassed in three years of history — the true scope of the Selma campaign. It does not portray every element of my story, Bloody Sunday, or even the life of Martin Luther King Jr. We do not demand completeness of other historical dramas, so why is it required of this film?
“Lincoln,” for example, was a masterpiece, a fine representation of what it takes to pass a bill. It did not, however, even mention Frederick Douglass or the central role of the abolitionists, who were all pivotal to the passage of the 13th Amendment. For some historians that may be a glaring error, but we accept these omissions as a matter of perspective and the historical editing needed to tell a coherent story. “Selma” must be afforded the same artistic license.
Were any of the Selma marches the brainchild of President Johnson? Absolutely not. If a man is chained to a chair, does anyone need to tell him he should struggle to be free? The truth is the marches occurred mainly due to the extraordinary vision of the ordinary people of Selma, who were determined to win the right to vote, and it is their will that made a way.
As for Johnson’s taped phone conversation about Selma with King, the president knew he was recording himself, so maybe he was tempted to verbally stack the deck about his role in Selma in his favor. The facts, however, do not bear out the assertion that Selma was his idea. I know. I was there. Don’t get me wrong, in my view, Johnson is one of this country’s great presidents, but he did not direct the civil rights movement.
This film is a spark that has ignited interest in an era we must not forget if we are to move forward as a nation. It is already serving as a bridge to a long-overdue conversation on race, inequality and injustice in this country today. It may well become a touchstone, a turning point for another generation of activists who will undertake the next evolutionary push for justice in America.
It would be a tragic error if Hollywood muted its praise for a film because it is too much a story and not enough an academic exercise.
Whenever I have a tough vote in Congress, I ask myself what would leaders of courage do? What would King and Robert Kennedy do? What is the right thing to do? What is the fair and honest thing to do?
The people have already spoken. They are marching to the theaters, arrested by the drama of this film, moved by ideas too long left to languish, driven to their feet and erupting in enthusiastic applause.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the leaders of two of the Selma marches, is portrayed in “Selma.” He has been a member of Congress since 1987.