Part 6—The way we “liberals” now “reason:” The fickle finger of liberal piddle has now moved on from our sad debates concerning the feature film Selma.
The crucifixion of Nicholas Kristof has bumped aside several weeks of debate. So has the crucifixion of the white male heretic Jonathan Chait, whose recent somewhat muddy piece was cuffed aside in this manner by J. Bryan Lowder at Slate:
LOWDER (1/28/15): Many progressive critics have written off the piece as the whining of an out-of-touch white guy, and that's certainly a fair response.Chait is white and he’s a guy! It’s certainly “fair” to “write off” a piece by citing such crucial facts!
This is the way we “liberals” now reason! This brings us back to several weeks of pseudo-discussion concerning the feature film Selma.
Those discussions are basically over. With that in mind, let’s present a few final thoughts about the pseudo-debates which once swirled around Selma.
Our point is not to debate the merits of the film; many people loved the film, though we ourselves did not. Instead, we want to discuss the caliber of pseudo-liberal debate, which we regard as quite poor.
Did Selma misrepresent President Johnson? Did the film get “snubbed” when it received only two Oscar nominations? If so, was it snubbed on some racial basis?
Google “Selma AND Johnson” or “Selma AND snubbed!” You can spend hours reading irate liberals discussing these points. As a general matter, the quality of discussion will be strikingly poor.
We’ll guess that this is a very bad sign for those who favor progressive interests. Let's consider a few final points about Selma.
The alleged Best Director snub:
Did Ava DuVernay get “snubbed” by the Academy when she wasn’t nominated for the Best Director Oscar? If so, did she get snubbed on some racial basis?
Everything is possible! Many people may believe that DuVernay’s performance as director was one of the year’s five best. And it’s always possible that some Academy members voted against her on some racial basis, or because she’s a woman.
That said, you can spend hours reading complaints without encountering the facts which follow, and without seeing any mention of the way Clint Eastwood got “snubbed.”
Can we talk? Eight films were nominated for Best Picture this year; Selma is numbered among them. But only four of those films’ directors received Best Director nods.
Four out of eight! That’s just half!
DuVernay didn’t get nominated, but neither did three other people who directed Best Picture nominees. One such person is Clint Eastwood, an old white male Hollywood icon.
If you Google “Selma AND snubbed,” you will read, again and again, that DuVernay got snubbed because the Academy is so heavily older, white and male. You will not be told that Eastwood, the iconic white old coot, also got “snubbed” for Best Director.
This the way we “liberals” now argue. Rather, this is the way we pseudo-liberals now refuse to do same.
The unmentioned Best Screenplay snub:
If you google “Selma AND snubbed,” you will read, again and again, that Selma got snubbed for Best Director and Best Actor. You won’t read that Selma got snubbed for the Best Screenplay award.
This omission in our screeds would seem to be odd. Only five actors and five directors get Oscar nominations. But there are ten Best Screenplay nominations—five for original screenplays and five for screenplays which are adapted from some other source.
On its face, this was a bigger snub than those for actor and director. Presumably, it isn’t mentioned because the screenwriter who nominally got snubbed was Paul Webb, a white British male fellow. This makes it hard for us to play our only card, in which we complain about snubs due to gender or race.
In fairness, the situation here is a bit more complex than we've said. As has been widely reported, DuVernay rewrote Webb’s original screenplay in a fairly thorough manner.
According to Professor Cooper, DuVernay wrote twenty-seven new characters into the script, thus emphasizing the wide range of players involved in the civil rights movement.
In our view, this helped create a rather jumbled script. Standard texts about the civil rights movement spill with the names of its many remarkable players. But it’s hard to craft a two-hour drama with such a profusion of players. These are the types of problems which may arise when a person decides to go for Hollywood’s fame and riches, as many people do.
According to DuVernay, she changed Webb’s screenplay in part to shift the focus off Johnson. Here’s what told Rolling Stone:
DUVERNAY: Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.DuVernay added a lot of women, along with a lot of men. That’s what the movement was actually like—but if you’re making a Hollywood movie, this may not create a great script.
Did the original script pose Johnson as a “white savior?” We don’t know, but that comment provides a road map to the problem which arose when DuVernay created a portrait of Johnson which almost everyone ended up describing as inaccurate.
We aren’t experts on screenplays here. That said, DuVernay’s screenplay didn’t strike us as being especially good. It’s possible that experienced Academy voters thought the screenplay stunk. Or they may have snubbed the film for those much-preferred racial reasons.
At any rate, the final screenplay seems to have come from DuVernay more than from Webb. But Webb refused to relinquish or share his screenwriter credit, as was his contractual right.
We liberals could have played the lack of a Best Screenplay nomination—ten films got named!—as a racially-motivated snub. For undisclosed reasons, we chose not to do so.
Was it some sort of a racial snub? As with the ballyhooed pair of “snubs,” neither we nor anyone else has any real way of knowing.
The portrait of Lyndon Johnson:
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate once said. As we slavishly played race cards in our pseudo-debates about Selma, we liberals created some genuine laughs concerning a similar question.
“What is fiction?” we sometimes semi-asked. For our money, the most foolish moment in the dispute came from Alyssa Rosenberg, one of the Washington Post’s bright young hires from Yale.
How should Selma be categorized? Only a recent Ivy League grad could have started a discussion of Selma in this sad and comical way:
ROSENBERG (1/5/15): Since its December 25 release “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson and the leadup to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been under attack for some of the ways DuVernay and her screenwriter Paul Webb present this immensely complicated period in American history. In the pages of The Post, Joseph Califano, who served as Johnson’s top domestic aide, suggested that because of some of these decisions, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”Say what? In that second paragraph, Rosenberg referred to Selma, three separate times, as a work of “fiction.”
I’m all for close reading of how film and other fiction approaches politics, and for deeper attention to the Civil Rights movement, particularly at a moment when judges and legislatures are dismantling some of the advances King and his colleagues won. But Califano’s approach, besides setting an odd standard for how fiction ought to work, doesn’t further those discussions. Instead, it suggests that we should check fiction for inaccuracies, and if diversions from science or historical record appear, end the conversation there, rather than talking about what a director was trying to get at.
This reference helped Rosenberg argue away inaccuracies in the script. But did anyone who went to this film think that’s what they were seeing?
Did people think they were seeing “fiction” full stop? Not even a work of “historical fiction,” a term which is slippery enough when applied to a film of this type?
We liberals followed several paths in defending Selma against claims of inaccuracy. Early on, we tended to argue that the film really wasn’t inaccurate in its portrait of Johnson.
By the end of the game, most people were agreeing that the portrait of Johnson actually was inaccurate. But we were offering various explanations as to why that was irrelevant or OK—or even a wonderful feature.
All the film-makers do it, we said, presenting a fairly accurate but pitifully strange defense. Some of us said the portrait of Johnson was inaccurate, but was understandably so.
(Joan Walsh said the inaccurate LBJ was really a composite character—a composite of Johnson and President Kennedy. Apparently, President Kennedy was snarling at Dr. King in early 1965, fifteen months after his death!)
We liberals refused to give ground. It would have been extremely easy to make some form the following statement:
I loved this film and thought it was great. But nothing is perfect, and it was inaccurate in its portrait of Johnson.
It would have been easy to say that! But we pseudo-liberals now pretend to argue in the same childish ways the pseudo-conservatives all adopted when Rush and Sean came on the scene.
By this Limbaughian logic, DuVernay’s lack of a nomination just has to be racial. It isn’t possible that five actors may have given better performances than Daniel Oyelowo did—and it we can’t simply say that one part of DuVernay’s screenplay gave a false impression in that one respect.
None of these stances can be allowed! We now live in the low-IQ world pioneered by the other tribe.
How bad was the portrait of Johnson? For ourselves, we shared Charlie Pierce’s basic reaction, without going quite so far.
Pierce loved the film and thought it was great; our own assessment was different. But this is part of what he wrote about the portrait of Johnson:
PIERCE (1/19/15): And speaking of bouncing history off the wall, DuVernay's portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is even worse than I heard it was. She turns him into such a melodramatic villain that you half-expect Johnson to tie Amelia Boynton to the railroad tracks. And the clear implication that LBJ was behind sending the salacious videotape to the Kings has to dial one just to get to "inexcusable." (God, will American liberals ever stop covering for the Kennedy brothers?) But I was expecting those. What I didn't expect was that DuVernay would turn two of Johnson's shining moments into equally cheap cartoons...For our money, Charlie is overstating here. But we had the same basic reaction.
We had read all about the controversy before we saw the film. But when we saw the film, we were actually quite surprised. Like Pierce, we thought the film’s “portrayal of Lyndon Johnson was even worse” than we had expected.
Other people’s reactions may differ. What is sad is the way we pseudo-liberals struggled to disappear this problem even after we started agreeing that the portrait of Johnson was “off.”
Everyone does it, we happily said. It’s a composite character, Walsh explained. And Pierce recovered from his judgment that the portrait of Johnson didn’t rise to the level of “inexcusable.”
(“But, having seen the movie now, this seems like less of a real problem than it seemed in the abstract,” he said.)
Some of us even said that it was good that the portrait of Johnson was wrong. At TPM, Professor Railton presented the logic of a ditto-head tribe:
PROFESSOR RAILTON (1/19/15): Having seen Selma, I have to agree that it does distort history, making Johnson into more of a villain than seems justified by the historical record as it exists. And I believe doing so was a correct and necessary choice.Wonderfully, the headline said this:
“Selma Did Distort History—And Was Right To Do So”
Alas! Some of us are so tribal now that we’ll say the professor makes sense!
Selma didn’t strike us as a great film. For our money, DuVernay got very little out of some of the most amazing events in human history.
That doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. It simply means that we didn’t think Selma was a great film.
At this point, such thoughts will rarely occur in our tribe, which is increasingly unintelligent and ruthlessly ditto-headed:
For us liberals, every loss must be a snub, and every snub must be racial. It simply can’t be that five other actors, or five other directors, may have done better jobs.
In our tribal ruminations, we won’t mention all the other black actors who were nominated in recent years. We won’t mention the snub of the old white male guy Eastwood.
In all that, though, our favorite moment came from the young Yale grad who kept saying that Selma was “fiction.”
She didn’t call it historical fiction, a term that’s slippery enough in itself. (For ourselves, we’d recommend describing a film like Selma as an “historical drama.”)
To this over-schooled young kid, the feature film Selma is “fiction!” So it goes as our big newspapers keeps hiring credentials from Yale, and as our tribal mumbo-jumbo just keeps gaining ground on Rush.
Will progressive interests be served this way? Everything is possible, but we find that quite hard to believe.