Comparative Essay Sample: Selma vs. King (Miniseries)

Published: 2022-03-09
Comparative Essay Sample: Selma vs. King (Miniseries)
Type of paper:  Research paper
Categories:  Discrimination Movie Civil rights
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1925 words
17 min read

The films "Selma" and the documentary "King (miniseries)" are two scripts that tell the same story but in different ways. On one hand, the documentary tells a story of a champion of civil rights in America during the 1960s as it happened. On the other hand, the film tries to recreate the scenes of the events that transpired during the fight for civil rights that were led by Martin Luther Junior. However, Selma has attracted a lot of criticism for the wrongful portrayal of some characters and their role in the fight for civil rights. In particular, the film is criticised for distorting the truth behind the relationship between President Lyndon Johnson and Martin King Junior. This wrongful presentation of facts opens a debate over how much the movie industry owes the public. Given that movies often get a better and quicker reception than documentaries, the story in Selma has been propagated to many viewers to the extent that they view Johnson as a villain rather than a hero. In this regard, this comparative analysis entails a comparison of a documentary and a movie to show how the movie industry shapes opinions of the audience by distorting the facts.

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The plot of the movie revolves around the dramatic confrontation between protestors in Selma, Alabama, and the police. The peaceful protest that turned violent attracted nationwide attention and led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act by the Congress. The bill that was heavily supported by President Johnson gave the black people the right to vote. While some audiences might be surprised that the cause of criticism is a misrepresentation of the facts surrounding the relationship between Johnson and King junior, others perceive that the representation of President Johnson as a man against the civil rights is enough not to watch the movie (Updegrove). In particular, the film maker created a dramatic conflict by exaggerating President Johnson's opposition to the protests and the period taken to enact voting laws. However, Johnson did not oppose the voting laws but requested King to postpone his call for change. President Johnson spent 25 years in Congress hence was experienced in the importance of timing. In this case, he wanted the Congress to pass his tight budget and the tax cuts (Garrow, 55-73). It was only after the Congress had approved these laws that Johnson introduced civil rights after he was sure the negative reception the civil rights bill would not affect other important matters. Even during the Selma protests, King and Johnson engaged in a long phone conversation in which the president encouraged King to continue with his fight for freedom (Garrow, 74). However, during this period, the movie shows Johnson adamant not to meet King's demands. It also shows Johnson giving a directive to the FBI director (Hoover) to use Martin Luther's extramarital affairs against him, which the FBI used to spread propaganda against him. However, the documentary shows that FBI director had already done that months earlier and Johnson was angered by the director's actions. In fact, the narrator of the documentary says that Johnson was worried that Hoover's actions would be a serious setback for the civil rights movement. Even though King was haunted by his mistakes, Johnson never instructed the FBI to use them against him. Importantly, King wrote that in the midst of those events and even though his methods and Johnson's strategies to achieve equality were uniquely different, he had absolute hope and belief that Johnson was trying to solve the equality rights problem "with sincerity, realism and, thus far, with wisdom" (King, 220).

Some of the filmmakers and the majority of civil rights movement argue that the misrepresentation of the facts is not big injustice and should not be a cause for harsh treatment toward the film. These groups argue that movie-makers and producers have a responsibility of preserving the history (Geary). While achieving this, the representation of all facts accurately is not as important as portraying the bigger picture (story) correctly. Although Selma has mistakes, they are minor and emanate from the shortening of the major occurrences that characterized the civil rights movement to focus the plot on the events in Selma. From a cinematic perspective, the decision is considered excellent and does not distort the history (Geary). More so, President Johnson had already pronounced his support for the civil rights by the time events in Selma took place by pushing the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (Garrow, 154). Despite his efforts, his portrayal in the movie as a person who joined the movement late is true. In the documentary, very little was known of Johnson as a supporter of civil rights until he became president in 1963. While the documentary hails and commends Johnson, King's autobiography also describes him in a similar way as many white Americans, living in a country built on slavery, as a late supporter of equality (King and Carson, 298).

While King (miniseries) was filmed to celebrate his life and his achievements, the creators of Selma had a political motive. Their determination to achieve this objective is demonstrated by their willingness to bend the facts. In fact, the director of the movie (DuVernay) argued that even though the film diverted from the facts, the role played by President Johnson should not blanket the key role played by African Americans in the fight for their freedom (Geary). Prior to the events in Selma, the black people had demanded equal civil rights for a long time. For this reason, the director refused to make Selma a "white-savior movie" whereby the blacks were only granted civil rights because of the willingness of powerful white people like Johnson. According to Professor Daniel Geary who teaches US history at Trinity College, the only mistake in Selma was the focus on King's activities (Geary). Even though Geary might be right, the documentary shows that activists in Selma had already organized the protests before his arrival. However, the viewers are introduced to the movie as Martin Luther gives his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize and Selma's story is told from King's perspective. Rather than as part of the movement as depicted in the documentary, King is portrayed as the product of the movement and as the movement itself.

The distortion of facts by movie makers is sometimes a necessary and an effective tool in showing and fighting against contemporary injustices. This is true in Selma that depicts the events of the past but speaks about the present issues. To some extent, the documentary achieves the same goal but is overshadowed by its attribution of the success of King's activities to outside players such as the powerful whites. Even though Johnson and white liberals were significantly crucial in the enactment of the civil rights laws, they did not support the civil rights movement that actively promoted programs that saw the realization of economic and social equality. Through the modern inequalities affecting the African Americans, Selma speaks about the present. These inequalities are exhibited by the earnings of African Americans that are usually 75% of what white Americans earn in the same line of work. The rampant police killings of black men show the extremity of the criminal justice system that targets African Americans unfairly (Lieberman and Fredrick, 220-240). In addition, the high incarceration rate of African Americans (13% of black men have been imprisoned at least once in their lifetime) and the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act are all manifestations of the inequalities fought against in Selma. Despite its inaccuracies, the movie perfectly illustrates the gaping truth. The truth that similar to oppressed people anywhere, African Americans get justice only when they demand and fight for it (Geary,).

Contrary to the events in the movie, the phone conversation between King and Johnson was not tense. In fact, Johnson had asked the Justice Department to start drafting an effective voting right bill. In a recent interview, Young who served as King's deputy and was present during the conversation noted that the two leaders had no argument or contention (Updegrove). However, the phone conversation in the movie shows that Johnson was not ready for voting rights, (LBJ: "You've got one thing and I've got 101 things"). In addition, both leaders agreed on the need for no violence. On one hand, King was angered to have his people beaten and on the other hand, Johnson reprimanded such scenes blighting his nation. King requested for federal troops but Johnson said he would only send troopers only after provocation. At this instance, King agreed more with the President than with the leaders of his movement. The leaders advocated for the "Alabama Plan" through which they would create violence through protests in areas where the police were stupid enough to respond with excessive force and brutality (King and Clayborne, 355). In the end, the radical leaders prevailed and the Selma demonstrations started on March 7, which is popularly known as the "Bloody Sunday". After the bloody protests, Johnson seized the opportunity and delivered an overwhelmingly moving speech to Congress to pass the voting rights bill. Here, the movie fails by intentionally downplaying down the significance of the occasion. The speech was arguably Johnson's best speech and passionate yet its force is drained. Johnson made the speech in the House Chamber (many States of the Union speeches are made here) that had an aura of excitement and statesmanship (King, 235). In the movie, this is downplayed and the president appears to give the speech in the Senate with a handful of politicians in dull moods. Furthermore, President Johnson was a dramatic person in real life. Typically, dramatists do not settle for what was portrayed by the film. If the director of the movie wanted to depict the president as an obstacle to King's civil rights movement, she could have chosen Kennedy because of his reluctance to support legislation on civil rights culminated to the monumental march in Washington 1963.

Congress's response to Johnson's speech was a clear indication that equal voting rights for Americans were supported by the overwhelming majority. The bill abolished literacy tests and led to the posting of federal registrars to southern counties that had low numbers of black registered voters. Although it was delayed by the Senate, it was passed after 24 days. In addition, Medicare and huge education bill passed that significantly changed the course of the United States. Even though the white southerners attempted to delay subsequent bills, the support for King and his marchers was too strong for them to oppose. However, the distortion of facts on the role of President Johnson is a critical issue because it shows a popular yet wrong view of how the United States can achieve progress. Based on facts, the civil rights movement was triumphant in the 1950s and the 1960s because it worked through the system, fought in the streets, formed allies with white institutions (churches, schools, and labor unions), and appealed to the fundamental values of America.

In the early 1960s, a different view started emerging, that the white person is intrinsically buried in racism and that African Americans could and should only rely on themselves. Selma promotes this view by leaving out the core of the story and how the laws on voting rights were passed. Importantly, the movie fails to show how further progress can be achieved in the future. While it is true that there are many serious racial problems in the United States, they can only be solved by working together through shared values. Martin Luther King Junior and President Lyndon Baines Johnson understood this and for that reas...

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