One year after Twelve Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Academy is being criticized for a lack of racial diversity in its latest slate of nominees. For the first time in several years, none of the twenty people nominated for acting is a person of color. For some observers, the worst snub is the lack of nominations received by Ana DuVernay's film Selma, a historical drama about the 1965 civil rights marches. Perversely, Selma is one of eight films (including American Sniper) nominated for Best Picture, but it received only one other nomination, for an Original Song. It seems strange that the film itself has been shortlisted, yet none of the creative talent behind or in front of the camera made the shortlists in their respective categories. What goes on here?
Before the Oscar nominations were announced last week, the big controversy surrounding Selma was over its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Critics feel that the movie unfairly and inaccurately portrayed the President as an obstacle to Martin Luther King's activist agenda who discourages King's Selma campaign. Defenders of LBJ argue that White House recordings show that he actually encouraged King to do something provocative, hoping that whatever action King took would galvanize the nation and help advance their common civil-rights agenda in Congress. By contrast, the film reportedly (I haven't seen it yet) shows Johnson worrying that provocative action by King will compromise his broader "War on Poverty" agenda. Director DuVernay defends the veracity of her version of events -- she rewrote another person's screenplay without receiving credit -- and argues that she did not want LBJ to come across as a "white savior" of helpless Negroes. Her supporters have defended her version of the story on both historical and artistic grounds.
While the Academy's apparent hostility toward Selma may be explained by LBJ crony Jack Valenti having been a longtime president of that body, the overall dispute over the picture looks like the latest round of a larger debate going on among liberals since the 2008 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson is a 20th century avatar for those who espouse what I've called "Neo-Lincolnism." The Neo-Lincolnians -- the historian Sean Wilentz is their most articulate spokesman and Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln is a virtually coincidental representation of their viewpoint -- seek to correct what they see as a naive belief in the power of rhetoric to effect change. They are less interested in the mighty speeches Lincoln made than in the actual methods he used to get his agenda enacted by Congress. They call attention to the horse-trading and hardball tactics he employed, arguing that these are as necessary if not more necessary than the eloquence associated with Lincoln and other liberal icons, even if liberals today find such tactics distasteful. Neo-Lincolnians tend to give LBJ a lion's share of credit for the passage of the great civil-rights bills of the Sixties, hoping to correct a notion (arguably held only by strawmen) that Dr. King somehow made these things happen with his famous speeches and marches. In this context, the Neo-Lincolnian argument is that activism, at either the rhetorical or the street level, can only take you so far, beyond which the skills particular to politicians are necessary. In 2008, King and Johnson were rhetorical surrogates for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Clinton herself invited the comparison, arguing that LBJ was necessary for the realization of King's dream and presenting herself as the experienced politician and legislator while Obama, with not much less time in the U.S. Senate, was a mere speechmaker. The impression that Obama would rather govern by making speeches has persisted ever since.
Based on my second-hand knowledge of Selma, I'd guess that neo-Lincolnians see it as a vindication of activism and rhetoric -- even though DeVernay was denied the use of King's speeches by his heirs -- as the sufficient causes of the enactment of civil-rights laws. They most likely feel that the film perpetuates a myth if it downplays the absolute necessity of the President's particular skills for the realization of the great reforms. Understandably, on the other hand, DuVernay and her film's fans don't want the essential importance of activism downplayed, and don't want black activists portrayed as ultimately dependent on LBJ. Just as activists today insist that it isn't enough to say "all lives matter" but demand affirmation that "black lives matter," so Selma seems to be an obvious demand for recognition that "black agency matters," even if King has to hand the baton to Johnson at some point. As for whether King actually hurried Johnson's agenda ahead of the President's own schedule, or against his will, I leave that question to the experts for whom the requirements of drama or contemporary politics are irrelevant.