There’s an interesting discussion in the thread downstairs about whether or not the movie “Selma” portrays LBJ fairly — and if bringing up historical inaccuracies in the film is even a valid point for discussion rather than an attempt to derail the film. One of LBJ’s domestic advisors, Joseph A. Califano Jr., took issue with the portrayal of his old boss in the film. In a WaPo op-ed, he said this, among other things:
In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.
The assertion that Selma was LBJ’s idea understandably pissed off a lot of people, who consider it a whitewashing of a historical event that properly belongs to MLK and the activists who put their lives on the line. Via valued commenter Lamh36, here’s how the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, responded to the criticism:
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.
This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t know what the truth of it is. “Selma” isn’t a documentary and doesn’t claim to be, so anyone who sees it should expect some artistic license, as DuVernay notes. But I’ve wondered sometimes how much fealty writers and directors owe to the truth (as best we can determine it) when portraying real events and historic figures.
The first film that made me wonder about this was Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which compellingly portrayed a crackpot theory about JFK’s assassination as the gospel truth and was controversial for convincing a lot of people that it went down that way. Whose fault was that — Stone’s, the movie goers who uncritically swallowed the plotline, a crappy education system that fails to provide historical context and research skills?
I honestly don’t know. But film is a powerful medium: People are more likely to credit events they’ve witnessed with their own eyes — albeit a fictionalized account they see on a screen while eating popcorn in the dark with strangers — than dry facts they’ve read in a history book. So does that mean artists have a responsibility to be, if not 100% accurate, at least fair to the historical figures they portray and not transform an ally into a villain when depicting an important event?
Again, I haven’t seen “Selma” yet, so for all I know, the critics are overreacting to how LBJ was portrayed. DuVernay’s comments indicate she doesn’t regard LBJ as a villain but rather a reluctant hero. But if LBJ is depicted in the film as siccing J. Edgar Hoover on MLK in an attempt to stop the march, that makes him out to be pretty damn villainous, doesn’t it? Does that matter?