Part 5—The lives of our saints and our prophets: One scene in Selma made us think that some Muslims may have it right.
In the scene in question, Coretta Scott King confronts Dr. King about marital infidelity. Working from memory, the scene goes something like this:
Mrs. King has received an audiotape from the FBI. It includes recordings of Dr. King having sex with other women.
Emotionally, Mrs. King asks Dr. King if he loves her. Portrayed like a bit of a cornered rat, Dr. King says yes, he does.
Mrs. King then asks Dr. King if he loves any of the others. Her question is followed by the world’s most gigantic pause.
“Say something, Dr. King!” the troubled analysts cried, right there in the theater. And at last! After the world’s most gigantic pause, Dr. King finally says no.
No, he doesn’t love the others. Mrs. King strides from the room.
As we watched this scene, it occurred to us that some Muslims may pretty much have it right. Perhaps we really shouldn’t allow representations of prophets.
If we allow such representations, it will inevitably happen! Some lesser figure will come along and offer a hackneyed, embarrassing portrait of our prophets. Or so we thought as we watched Dr. King portrayed a bit like a cornered rat.
That was the way the scene struck us; it may seem different to others. (We’ve only seen Selma once.) And alas! We also thought this:
It seemed to us, as we watched the scene, that Ava DuVernay may have some Big Ideas About Infidelity, ideas she was sharing through this portrayal of one of our greatest prophets.
This thought also crossed our minds:
It seemed to us that we might be better off if lesser figures like DuVernay were required to stage their morality plays without the use of the prophets. If they were required to share their Great Though Possibly Hackneyed Ideas in fully fictional form.
What do we mean when we call DuVernay a lesser figure? In part, we mean this:
This marital scene seemed a bit hackneyed to us; it was also invented. As far as we know, DuVernay has no way of knowing if any such scene ever really occurred.
The dialogue came out of her head. It provoked a highly negative reaction from Barbara Reynolds.
Reynolds is a former editor and columnist for USA Today. In a recent column for the Washington Post, she described her 30-year relationship with Mrs. King—and she said this marital scene simply couldn’t have happened.
“I met Coretta Scott King in the 1970s,” Reynolds writes. “Beginning in 2000, I sat with her periodically to record her accounts of her experiences, producing 1,000 pages of transcripts that I have turned into a biography that I plan to publish later this year.”
Reynolds says she knew Mrs. King quite well. In her column, she states her objections to that imagined scene in that movie:
REYNOLDS (1/19/15): [O]ne of Coretta’s most painful struggles was seeing her marriage maligned by persistent charges that her husband was unfaithful. The reports of infidelity were addressed in a major scene in “Selma,” when the Coretta Scott King played by Carmen Ejogo weepily asks Martin, “Did you love the others?” This is not something Coretta would have said. Though Martin’s alleged affairs have become part of his story, Coretta never accepted it. When Ralph Abernathy wrote about Martin’s alleged adultery in his 1989 autobiography, Coretta insisted it was simply an effort to boost book sales. Not only did she vehemently insist that there were no “others,” she certainly never addressed the issue with the weepy resignation portrayed in Selma. She argued that the image of Martin as an unfaithful husband was part of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s ongoing campaign to nullify his influence by destroying his marriage—and his life.Is that scene an “historic distortion,” built on a “misrepresentation?” Ultimately, we have no real idea.
Coretta said she did receive a tape recording at her home in January 1965, a package she later learned was sent by the FBI. As portrayed in the movie, it is widely reported that the tape contained sexual sounds that were meant to incriminate Martin. But Coretta disputes that history. “When I listened to the tape, it had nothing to do with my husband having sex. It was a loud social function with people telling dirty jokes, nothing like what I have seen reported in the press,” she told me.
Despite these and other historic distortions, “Selma” has won a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song). Its misrepresentations might not bother those who buy the premise that moviemakers are not historians; that their mission is to entertain rather than educate, to dramatically pursue a riveting story regardless of its truth. But it is wrong for storytellers to engage in open miseducation, to fictionalize our heroes. Doing so robs real people of their historic truth, particularly when those people can no longer defend themselves.
We have no way to evaluate Reynolds’ various assessments. We can’t evaluate her assessment of what Mrs. King believed about these matters. We can’t evaluate her belief that Mrs. King “certainly never addressed the issue with the weepy resignation portrayed in Selma.”
What did Mrs. King really believe about her husband’s marital conduct? We have no idea—and alas! In standard journalistic fashion, Reynolds provides no reason for accepting Mrs. King’s claims that she thought her husband was always faithful.
Mrs. King said it, and Reynold believes it! In standard fashion, Reynolds seems to think that’s close enough for journalistic work!
In her column, Reynolds says the film’s overall portrait of Mrs. King “is pure Hollywood fiction”—“a particularly troubling mischaracterization of one of the [civil rights] movement’s most critical players.”
We don’t have a real opinion on that. Our reaction to that particular scene was somewhat different:
Reynolds thought the scene involved a mischaracterization. As we watched the scene, it occurred to us that some Muslims may have it right.
Creating an historical drama about major figures is a very difficult task. If a person honors basic accuracy, it’s very hard, and very challenging, to fashion a drama about the lives of such important figures as Dr. King and Mrs. King and even the cracker Johnson.
It seems to us that this undertaking imposes large burdens on a film-maker. Others may be a bit more cavalier.
In our view, it takes a special kind of Lesser Figure to invent highly personal scenes involving the lives of our nation's greatest prophets. It takes a somewhat clueless person—a person with a pair of (foot)balls which have been inflated to roughly the size of kumquats.
It seemed to us, as we watched that scene, that DuVernay might have some Big Ideas About Infidelity she wanted to share with us rubes. People share such ideas all the time, of course, in fully fictional novels and fully fictional films.
People like DuVernay have footballs so large that they decide to share their Big Ideas through representations of major historical prophets. That may not be a great idea, though it might appeal to a lesser figure with a high sense of self-regard.
As we watched that rather hackneyed scene, the analysts shouted at Dr. King, begging him to say something to his wife. It occurred to us that some Muslims may pretty much have it right:
Lesser figures like DuVernay probably shouldn’t traffic in representations of our prophets and saints.
We were relieved when Dr. King finally said no, bringing an end to that imagined scene. At the same time, we thought DuVernay’s impulses were perhaps poor.
What came next was even worse! We the liberals began to muse upon the nature of fiction!
Still available for discussion: What the heck is “fiction?” And why was Clint Eastwood snubbed?
Reynolds describes Mrs. King: In her column, Reynolds paints a fascinating portrait of Mrs. King. In part:
REYNOLDS: During [our] interviews, she insisted that she had felt a calling from an early age. Growing up in the Klan-controlled South, she was no stranger to terror. She saw her family home and her father’s sawmill burned to the ground. But she also saw her father refusing to live in fear and bitterness, a value system reinforced by her Methodist upbringing. Her resilient attitude easily fused with Martin’s, who learned from his father that nothing should make anyone stoop low enough to hate.Perhaps some Muslims have it right! Perhaps we should decide that people like these—our nation’s greatest prophets and saints—should be spared from representation by Hollywood “talent” with their inevitable Big Slightly Hackneyed Ideas.
It was the bombing of her home in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1955 bus boycott, that assured Coretta that she could withstand any dangers that were placed in her path. She was home with a neighbor and her baby, Yolanda, when the bomb blew off their front porch. She said her father wanted her to move back home with him and her mother, but she stood her ground, fearing that moving the family would disrupt the movement. While committed to her roles as a wife and a mother, Coretta knew that there was an even larger purpose for her life.