Next week marks the sesquicentennial of Francis P. Blair, Sr.,’s trip to Richmond in hopes of reaching an agreement with Jefferson Davis that would lead to a negotiated settlement of the American Civil War. That mission was a key part of the movie Lincoln (2012), which covered the sixteenth president’s role in the congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Everyone recalls the kerfuffle that accompanied the release of that movie concerning its historical accuracy, including the movie’s tendency to privilege Lincoln’s role over that of African Americans in seeking black freedom.
Now we are once more engaged in a dispute over the same dynamic. The movie is Selma (2015), and the kerfuffle involves the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in the movie as an ambivalent, uneasy, and sometimes untrustworthy ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the struggle to secure voting rights for African Americans. Former LBJ aide Joseph Califano immediately jumped to his chief’s defense, claiming that “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 movie’s director, Ava DuVernay, responded to such criticisms on Twitter, declaring that the claim “that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” After all, it was King who devised the march aware that the resistance that white southerners would offer would force the federal government to act. As DuVernay asserted, “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”
Other historians entered the fray, which had taken on the appearance of defending LBJ against the movie’s portrayal of him. Some of the criticism became heated, as did DuVernay’s more considered response.
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.
[We note here for the record that the best that the website “History News Network” could do was to link to other stories appearing elsewhere without commentary, despite its claim that it is the place one should go to get answers to historical questions from experts. Yeah, right.]
And so here we go again. I find the idea that Selma was LBJ’s idea ridiculous. King had used these tactics of non-violent confrontation before, and at best Johnson understood the dynamic of protest-response-reaction to response. Moreover, I think DuVernay’s spot on with how she chose to tell the story from the perspective of the people who did the actual marching … and dying. Indeed, one could read her reference to “a white-savior movie” as directed at Lincoln.
Yet, in the end, the problem remains the same. DuVernay could have played LBJ straight instead of twisting the story to make it appear as if King dragged him, kicking and screaming, into proposing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the references to LBJ’s use of Hoover to spy on King are another needless distortion (the truth of how Hoover used the FBI against King is sordid enough). She could have done so without going to the extremes suggested by Califano, and she could have done so without doing violence to the historical record while keeping true to her commitment to avoid making “a white-savior movie.”
Instead, DuVernay risks embracing the fate of Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner, who repeatedly stumbled in response to historians’ criticisms of what took place on the silver screen. In saying that she is “a student of this time in history,” DuVernay opens the door to questions as to whether she’s a good student and made good interpretative choices. Ask Kushner. After all, his flailing efforts to defend his movie’s historical accuracy hardly helped his chances of securing an Oscar, and the controversy opened the way for another historically flawed movie, Argo, to take home the big prize that night. Better, it seems, to ponder the sensible advice offered by in this piece by Ann Hornaday on fact-checking and film.
If DuVernay’s a student of history, she might heed the lessons offered by Kushner’s collapse. This is all the more important because the controversy over LBJ’s portrayal threatens to obscure the real story she wants to tell: how the courageous actions of people in 1965 brought about major change in the interests of justice despite the efforts of others to prevent that change. When you sweat the small stuff, it doesn’t remain small, and the result may detract from one’s real achievement.