The Art of Watching

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Book/film List

There has been a good deal of controversy over the past month about the movie Selma.  Some viewers have charged that the film smears President Lyndon Johnson by misrepresenting his role in the passage of the Voting Rights of 1965.  Others have defended the film. I think that the most valuable commentary on the issue published so far is one by Harry Graff on Above the Law because it points out the larger problem the controversy reflects— popular entertainments appear to portray reality accurately, but in fact they always shape it to their own purposes. .

This is a serious problem in a society like ours where we get most of our knowledge of how the world operates from television and movies. Graff points out that this problem arises not only in politically controversial movies like Selma but also  conventional entertainments like Law and Order.

I think that in order to understand the importance of the Selma controversy we have to develop a benign double vision in our viewing of popular entertainments.  Entertainments perform two different functions- pleasing us and teaching us. The primary goal of a popular entertainment is to please the viewer, even if the pleasure is experienced in terms of tears.  But popular entertainments also teach us by presenting a certain vision of reality.  This vision is always distorted in one way or another because art cannot give us unmediated access to “reality”; we always see it through the lens of the medium.  And this is just as true of documentaries as it is of melodramas.   A documentary always has its point of view.

When Selma  tells the history of the civil rights movement or Law and  Order describes the American justice system, the portrayal is always distorted, and often this distortion has a political slant.   That’s why there is so much controversy about Selma ; it gives a controversial slant to the events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

So how should we go about judging errors and omissions in a popular entertainment?   Graff puts a lot of emphasis on “plausibility”.  He recognizes there will be inaccuracies in any presentation, but argues that if they are too blatant they interfere with the viewer’s pleasure.  For instance, he feels that Law and Order gives such an over-simplified picture of the practice of law that he cannot enjoy it.

I think Graff’s metric of “plausibility” is an important contribution to the art of viewing popular entertainments.  But I don’t think that it explains the controversy over Selma. The movie’s story is plausible.  I think the controversy comes from its “teaching” function. The basic dramatic tension in the film is about the respective roles that two groups played in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  One group, symbolized by King, was the civil rights activists who had been fighting segregation for what to them  seemed  forever.  The second group was the politicians symbolized by Johnson who came to the issue late, but were essential to the final victory.

Which group played the more important role?  Selma chooses the activists.  “Politicians”  like LBJ aide Joseph Califano argue that in so doing the film disrespects the contribution of Johnson ( and his aides.)  Here we have left the world of art and entered the world of politics.  In one sense, it’s just a dispute about bragging rights between irascible partners in a historic victory.  But on another level, it’s about something more basic– how does change come about in a democracy?   Is it more a question of the citizens pushing from below or the politicians leading from above? And incidents like Ferguson show us that this is a question that is still relevant today.

And it’s not just about bragging rights.  If you believe  ( as I do) that the public demonstrations  played  the lead role in the  civil rights struggle, then you should be  alarmed about how the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts have pulled back on protecting such demonstrations.  One fact that Selma accurately portrays is the necessity of judicial protection for protests.   If the Selma protests took place today the protesters would more likely be penned up in a ironically termed “free speech zone”  than marching heroically  over the Edmund Pettis bridge.

I think this controversy is one we should welcome.  We shouldn’t blindly accept the film’s view on this issue; we should debate it.  In so doing we will be having a conversation about the future as well as the past.  And hopefully when it is done, we will follow the example of King and Johnson to take effective action to end an evil we all recognize.

Then we should have a debate about all the inaccuracies of Law and Order and its legions of imitators. These shows misinform the American people about the dysfunctional state of our criminal justice system.  They portray it as a model of fairness and efficiency.  Informed critics like federal judge Jed Rakoff tell us this is not true. ( ) It’s hard to reform a system that regularly gets so much support from ubiquitous popular fiction.

But before you debate the politics of Selma, don’t forget to enjoy the movie itself.  I think you will find it rates high on the “pleasure” scale. The creators have skillfully told the story of one of America’s greatest moments and we should all celebrate our nation’s capacity to right its wrongs.

addendum (2/15/15)  Peter Maass points out that most inaccuracies  in movies about history are made deliberately to appeal to audience prejudices. This would apply to American Sniper, but not Selma.


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