History Professor Bemoans Selma Errors

Academics, authors and historians know that to make a compelling case, it all starts with context. Consider this passage from the top of Gary May’s piece today for The Daily Beast.

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Under the headline “Dr. King Goes to Hollywood: The Flawed History of ‘Selma’:”

Such errors are important because generations of young students now learn American history through film. After watching Mississippi Burning, my students tell me what a great film it is and praise the FBI for its support of the civil rights movement. They are incredulous when I tell them the real story: that J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, tried to destroy Martin Luther King’s movement and that the real heroes were the African Americans who risked everything – their jobs, their homes and often their lives – in their struggle for freedom.

Why believe me when they can learn and be entertained by Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln); Lee Daniels (The Butler); Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); and Tom Hanks, whose work as a producer of John Adams and The Pacific led Time magazine to call him “America’s Historian in Chief.”

Read May’s piece and decide for yourself. To the author’s credit, he starts off the itemized portion by listing praise-worthy aspects of the film. And although the name of screenwriter Paul Webb is noticeably absent, this essay is another damning addition to a chorus already being addressed by director Ava DuVernay.

P.S. May, currently a professor of history at the University of Delaware, wrote the 2013 book Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. Scheduled for paperback publication this month.

[Photo courtesy: Paramount Pictures]