Accurate history isn’t Hollywood’s strong suit

Jan 13, 2015

By Robert Dewitt
January 13, 2015
Originally published in Tuscaloosanews.com

Back during my freshman year at Alabama, my little four-door aquamarine Datsun B-210 needed some warranty work. For that, I had to go to Driggers Motor Co. in Selma. It was among a stretch of businesses fronting U.S. Highway 80 just across the Alabama River from downtown Selma.

When I got there, I found that it would be a while before the work would be done. I needed to do some studying and for some reason felt that I had to do that at the Selma Public Library. To get there, I had to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

I imagine I considered that I was walking, albeit in reverse, the path demonstrators had taken just before running into Alabama State Troopers and a mounted sheriff's posse back in 1965. But I was more concerned about the precarious narrow walkway and the cars whizzing by.

I would imagine the bridge plays a prominent role in “Selma,” the movie about the Selma to Montgomery march. I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard that it's causing a stir about its treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A friend and I speculated on why the movie would give Johnson short shrift. My guess is that his checkered record makes it difficult to paint him heroically. LBJ had a reputation as a political conniver and schemer, and he got the country mired up in the massive disaster that was the Vietnam War.

But civil rights is where Johnson got it right. It's the part of his legacy that shines. The problem is that we like our heroes riding unblemished white horses, and LBJ's steed is blotchy indeed.

I'm sure, as I walked across the bridge to the library, that I never guessed at the time that they'd make a movie about the events that transpired in 1965. That's largely because, in 1977, few of us really considered the civil rights movement history. At that point, it seemed like recently passed, almost current, events. Frankly, most of us considered them pretty unpleasant recent events, and just about everybody was glad for the moment that it was over.

After years of conflict, many whites were glad to see the tension and disruption end, even those who had opposed integration. And the movement might be a point of pride for black people today, but there was a gritty reality about the protests that most average people were just as glad to put behind them. Getting your skull thumped might be necessary for the greater good. But there's something to be said for being able to sit down at a lunch counter and order a hamburger without getting clubbed or arrested. By the late 1970s, black people seemed more concerned with consolidating their gains and putting their newly won freedoms to use than commemorating the past.

I probably wasn't too contemplative about the bridge's role in history for another reason. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. The infamous bridge is a civil rights icon to those who have only seen it on grainy black and white film footage of Bloody Sunday. But I rode over it just to cross the river dozens of times. It was infrastructure.

And Selma was a town — a kid from Demopolis saw it as a big town or maybe even a city — where my mother went to the doctor and had a lengthy stay in the hospital, not a movie. It had a store called The Toy Arcade where I blew my allowance and a McDonald's just like the ones on the commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. We bought our shotgun shell reloader and the supplies for reloading at Walter Craig, a gun store. My mother thought nobody could beat Hancock's Barbecue on the road to Orville.

I don't think I realized that the civil rights movement was becoming history and Selma was a historic site until March 1990, when I covered the 25th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, my first big assignment for The Tuscaloosa News. Plans for the commemoration had forged rare unity between the white and black communities.

And then it all blew up with an ugly ruckus involving the public schools. It ended, predictably, with the last of the city's white population fleeing to private schools, which many said was the ultimate goal of the conflict in the first place. The cease-fire I'd remembered from the 1970s had been only temporary.

One of my better stories was about a group of white young adults who partied on a balcony overlooking the Alabama River and flew a big Confederate battle flag in plain view of the bridge and commemoration activities. It was clear that they were bitter over the acrimonious struggle that had erupted in the preceding months. The big flag was their way of giving the world the finger.

Some of that bitterness was still boiling up from 1965. The man who owned the building where they partied talked about black demonstrators sticking their heads into the window of his family's car and screaming the vilest obscenities at his mother. After my article came out, former national guardsmen made a point of telling me about things they claimed they had witnessed — white prostitutes sent to consort with black demonstrators in order to antagonize the local whites, violence committed by demonstrators always referred to as nonviolent.

The man who owned the building and the guardsmen all asked why that was never reported. To them, I can only say that, if they are correct, it is likely for the same reason the movie has a hard time painting an accurate picture of LBJ. We don't like our heroes flawed, as humans inevitably are. They must be pure, with all of the blemishes airbrushed out.

In real history, flawed human beings accomplish great things. Saints have momentary failings. People do bad things and still wind up on the right side of history. Hollywood has a hard time with real history.

Another 25 years have passed since I covered my first big story for this newspaper. And I know for sure now that 1965 must be history because Hollywood is making movies of questionable accuracy about it.