Rheta Grimsley Johnson: History on the big screen

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

 

The second record album I ever owned was "In the Wind" by Peter, Paul and Mary. The first, a compilation of rock hits by various artists, including the inimitable Aretha Franklin singing "Sweet Bitter Love," one of the best songs ever sung. 

 

I still have Albums One and Two, their surfaces scratched and covers worn.  

 

I played "In the Wind" so many times on my portable record player that I knew by heart the lyrics to every song. Which is not to say I understood their meaning.  

 

I was 12 years old, a resident of an old, pleasant Montgomery suburb named Dalraida, when marchers from Selma began the historic walk to my hometown. We knew they were coming. 

 

On the cusp of understanding, I had not yet shaken white conventional wisdom delivered dramatically on the Sunday-morning talk shows by Head Poobah George Wallace. He said to stay at home. We did. And, as also directed, I was a little afraid. 

 

The governor was more than a wily politician. He proclaimed himself the last man standing between utter chaos and life as we knew it. He postured as our champion, matching wits with federal judges, activists, even the president. 

 

Sorry to say, most of us white citizens bought it. 

 

Those marching from Selma were "outside agitators," Wallace said, unruly law-breakers who wanted ultimately an "amalgamation of the races." George Wallace talked like that. 

 

And yet one of the celebrity marchers reportedly coming our way was Mary Travers, my vocal heroine from that precious album. She sang like an angel and must be on the side of them. I finally began to hear the "folk" in folk music. I began, despite my elders, to understand. 

 

Even as a 12-year-old on the sidelines, you couldn't live in such proximity to that march and not be changed. 

 

I don't agree with the nitpicking that has greeted the movie "Selma." Like every other history-based drama ever adapted by Hollywood, there are inaccuracies. Yet the piling-on of critics seems somehow condescending, as if they believe a nuanced character could never be understood by the inevitable simpletons in the audience. 

 

Lyndon Johnson was a civil-rights hero and a flawed man. Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil-rights hero and a flawed man.  

 

Johnson's political pandering, King's philandering -- both were represented in the movie. They were humans, not saints. Both men worked, occasionally together, toward the same end. 

 

Perhaps Hollywood's controversial depiction of LBJ will cause young people to read history. Or, the movie itself will. If a far-fetched comedy set in a mythical state ("Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?") caused a revival of bluegrass, maybe "Selma" can stir a renewal of conscience. One can hope. 

 

For my money, the biggest miss in "Selma" -- if you're looking -- was the rather benign portrayal of George Wallace. Actor Tim Roth nailed the accent, but did not capture the anger that was the Fightin' Judge's signature. Roth missed the boat on bitterness. 

 

No movie is perfect. No history book is, either. What matters most is that history is remembered. And if that takes British actors adopting drawls in a loose interpretation, so be it. 

 

 

 

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