Usually movies about historical injustice aren’t controversial. They depict the dark past and make a lot of us viewers feel good just by virtue of the fact that we weren’t around then. “Hey, at least we know we’re doing better than that,” a viewer thinks. It’s a low bar and we meet it.
But Selma, which tells the story of the marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, that took place in 1965, before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, is stirring up quite the controversy in advance of its national release on Friday. Some historians argue that it offers an unfair depiction of one white person: President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Writing in Politico Magazine, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum and author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency (and, full disclosure, husband of Texas Monthly publisher Amy Updegrove), argues that the film offers an inaccurate depiction of the relationship between Johnson and King:
“Selma” misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship—contentious, the film would have you believe—between King and President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is getting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, “Selma’s” obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters.
This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.
After Updegrove’s column, others have joined the call against Selma because of its depiction of LBJ. Writing in the Washington Post, Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, Joseph A. Califano Jr., takes Updegrove’s argument even further, arguing that “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea,” and that:
[T]he film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.
Califano concludes his argument by insisting that Selma should be ineligible for awards consideration because of the depiction of his former boss. That’s, er, not exactly how movie awards work (nothing in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is true, and that movie won Best Picture!), but it’s an argument that may be gathering some momentum nonetheless, as pop culture blog Flavorwire notes:
[O]n Monday, the first batch of Oscar ballots went out. Right on time, that very day, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, and Entertainment Weekly covered the new “controversy.” And voila, like magic, people aren’t talking about how great Selma is — they’re talking about how it’s controversial, and maybe factually inaccurate, and gee, should the Academy honor a movie like that?
This is a town that runs on franchises and reboots, and this is nothing we haven’t seen before. The “accuracy” whisper campaign is one of the oldest tricks in the award season playbook, experimented with in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with controversial historical dramas like Mississippi Burning (a kind of reverse Selma, charged with unduly lionizing Hoover’s FBI in the Civil Rights era), JFK, and even Schindler’s List.
Flavorwire goes on to argue that this isn’t so much about LBJ and history as it is about Oscars, alleging a Hollywood conspiracy against certain types of films. That may exist—Hollywood is a weird place—but it’s unlikely that Califano and Updegrove are particularly interested in that sort of thing. Califano brings up awards, presumably, out of a desire to see Selma punished for what he views as an insult to his old boss. Updegrove never mentions the awards—because why would he?
Selma hasn’t opened in Texas yet, so I haven’t seen it, but by most accounts from people whose resumes don’t have the letters LBJ all over them, the point of the story isn’t about the President. Indeed, when the film’s director, Ava Duvernay (the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Director award at the Golden Globes) took over the project, she re-wrote the script to remove much of the film’s overall focus from Johnson and onto the demonstrators on the ground who were involved in organizing in Selma. As she told Rolling Stone just before the controversy broke:
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.
Focusing more on the people of Selma than on the President who signed the Voting Rights Act into law is a valid creative choice, of course—the stories that Duvernay describes are no less notable simply because the people who lived them aren’t famous. But it’s understandable why people who are invested in the legacy of LBJ watch the film with a very close eye on the accuracy of his depiction, even if it’s ultimately not his story being told.
Duvernay told CBS This Morning that, from her point of view, “LBJ is a hero in the film,” and that “people actually applaud LBJ at the end of the film.” Updegrove cites the transcript of conversations between Johnson and King as evidence that what was in the President’s heart isn’t depicted on the screen, and there is no reason to doubt his expertise on that matter—but, as the historian notes, Johnson did delay pursuing the Voting Rights Act until he was certain it could pass. In a movie about Johnson, the nuance as to why he did what he did might be vital; in a movie that centers the experience of the demonstrators in Selma, however, it’s significantly less so.
The fact that Selma, like every other narrative, prioritizes some viewpoints over others, isn’t noteworthy. That one of Johnson’s top aides is interested in shifting the course of the narrative so sharply that Selma becomes “in fact, LBJ’s idea,” however, is. Johnson was a smart man who cared enough about the issue to pay the political price for signing the Voting Rights Act, and, as Updegrove notes, he recognized that bringing attention to the worst abuses would make passing the law easier.
One would have probably had to have been in his office during the time the events took place, though, to come to the conclusion that his recognition of that fact made Selma “LBJ’s idea.”
In fact, voting rights activism in Selma started well before LBJ took office, or even before Martin Luther King showed up. The Dallas County Voters League (Selma is in Dallas County, Alabama) was founded in the 1930’s, fighting the battles that Johnson needed televised in order to get the bill passed, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee began organizing residents in Selma while Kennedy was president. The notion that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” threatens to erase the people who began and led the movement that Johnson recognized America needed to see in order for the bill to pass.
In other words, there are a lot of heroes in Selma, and the fact that the film deliberately centers on the experiences of the ones who marched, rather than the ones who fought the battle from Washington, isn’t a slap in the face to Johnson or to history. It’s simply a perspective on history that we rarely see, by the sort of filmmaker who is rarely in charge of these projects. It’s understandable why that might disappoint people who are invested in the legacy of LBJ, but it doesn’t make it bad.