The stakes are pretty high for “Selma,” a historical biopic about the landmark 1965 civil rights march that focuses on the relationship between civil rights leader Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson. Even before it hit screens, the critically-acclaimed film was considered an Oscar-contender There is also “Selma’s” director, Ava DuVernay, who could become the first black female nominated for a Best Director Oscar (Oprah Winfrey is a producer).
In the wake of the Democrat/media-fabricated race hoaxes surrounding Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, not to mention the Year of the Woman hype being pushed by the media to lift Hillary Clinton into the Oval Office, the political and emotional investment pre-built into the Narrative around “Selma’s” road to Oscar is obvious.
A speed bump along this road, however, is a little thing called historical accuracy.
According to recordings of telephone calls between Johnson and King, and actual eyewitness testimony from men in both the King and Johnson camps, “Selma” unfairly trashes LBJ as King’s dirty-dealing antagonist as opposed to the partner to King he really was.
According to “Selma,” Johnson was not only hostile to King’s decision to march on Selma and dragged his feet over what would ultimately become the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Johnson also ordered FBI head J. Edgar Hoover to send audio of King having sex with a woman who was not King’s wife to King’s wife. While King’s extramarital affairs are now accepted as historical fact, the disputes about the way in which “Selma” depicts LBJ are numerous.
As summarized in the Washington Post:
“‘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,” Mark Updegrove, the director of Johnson’s presidential library, wrote in a Dec. 22 essay for Politico Magazine.
“At a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress,” Updegrove added.
Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s domestic policy chief, echoed that criticism in a Dec. 26 column in The Washington Post and argued that the movie’s depiction of the 36th president is so flawed that “Selma” should be “ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
Both Updegrove and Califano cited a taped telephone conversation between King and Johnson on Jan. 15, 1965, in which the president suggests a strategy similar to the one King ultimately pursued in Selma. Califano went so far as to declare that “Selma was LBJ’s idea.”
Johnson advised King: “Find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina. . . . Take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television.”
It is not just Johnson partisans pushing back. There is also a recorded phone call between King and LBJ that explodes the entire myth of “Selma.” The transcript of the January 1965 call reveals two men who seem perfectly comfortable with one another as they conspire to make Selma and the Voting Rights Act happen.
Andrew Young, a former lieutenant to King and eyewitness to this history, told the Washington Post, “It was not very tense at all. We were very much welcomed by President Johnson. He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” The “confrontation” in question is a December 1964 meeting depicted in “Selma” where Johnson stalls after King implores Johnson to ensure the rights of black voters.
It’s difficult to come up with a motive for Andrew Young to protect Johnson with a lie.
Defenders of “Selma” seem to have nothing on their side other than emotion. The film’s director responded to the controversy with a tweet complete with burning straw man:
I can argue, @HitFixGregory. Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) December 28, 2014
In another tweet, DuVernay links to a 2013 New Yorker article that somewhat backs her version of events, although it seems no better sourced than the film and says nothing about LBJ blackmailing King with audio of his extramarital sexual affair.
The Washington Post’s own film critic, Ann Hornaday, could only argue that…
The correct question isn’t what “Selma” “gets wrong” about Johnson or King or the civil rights movement, but whether we are sophisticated enough as viewers and thinkers to hold two ideas at once: that we’re not watching history, but a work of art that was inspired and animated by history. That we’re having an emotional and aesthetic experience, not a didactic one. That the literalistic critiques of historians and witnesses can co-exist — fractiously, but ultimately usefully — with the kind of inspiration, beauty and transformative power that the very best cinema such as “Selma” can provide.
The Gotcha Game isn’t going away anytime soon. The trick is making sure that it isn’t zero-sum.
Movies aren’t required to tell the truth, and as a standalone without the contextual weight of history, “Selma” might be superb (I’ll see it Thursday).
Although “Mississippi Burning” (1988) is almost pure fiction set around the Civil Rights struggle, it is still an outstanding movie. There was also a (justifiable) controversy surrounding the film. To this day, “Mississippi Burning” is still cited as one of those movies made by white Hollywood liberals to make white liberals the heroes of the Civil Rights movement. Director Alan Parker diminishes the contributions untold numbers of blacks made to the struggle by relegating his black characters to little more than noble victims.
“Selma” appears to go even further. LBJ isn’t portrayed as a bystander, he’s a villain. The Civil Rights movement was awash in villains. DuVarney couldn’t find a real one?
While everyone understands that true events don’t always fit nicely into the tight construction necessary to write a compelling film, the “spirit of the truth” is important.
Creative license and character assassination are not the same thing.
For dramatic purposes, omissions, time and character compression, and conflict are oftentimes exaggerated or even manufactured in motion pictures touching on real subjects. What Hornaday dismisses as a “Gotcha Game,” though, is something entirely different: dishonestly defaming one man to boost another.
And like the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown race hoaxes, “Selma” also seems cynically designed to use lies to keep us divided.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC