The movie Selma will be released next weekend and is already receiving great acclaim and Oscar buzz for its portrayal of Martin Luther King’s crusade for Civil Rights, centering in the demonstration he organized in Selma, Alabama.
But narratives, even apparently factual movies, like to have a villain, so Selma turns President Lyndon Baines Johnson into King’s nemesis. But historians are disputing that characterization, pointing out that LBJ was the president who proposed, pushed through, and implemented the Civil Rights laws. In fact, he even proposed the tactics to sway public opinion that King used in Selma!
Liberals love to demonize LBJ, even though he was arguably the most effective liberal president since FDR, but they can’t forgive him for the Vietnam War. And while it’s true that movies often have to tinker with their source material, a film that purports to be historical–depicting historical figures and events–needs to be, you know, historical. And it’s just outrageously unjust to present LBJ as opposing what he actually made happen.
Days away from the wide release of “Selma,” a controversy around the film is gaining steam as historians take issue with its depiction of president Lyndon B. Johnson clashing with Martin Luther King, Jr. over voting rights.
In a lengthy New York Times story about historians taking issue with the movie, Diane McWhorter, the author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution,”argued Thursday that the movie is not truthful in depicting LBJ (played by Tom Wilkinson) fighting King on staging protests in Selma.“Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking,” she told The Times. “But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’ ” . . .
Writing in The Washington Post, former Johnson domestic policy aide Joseph Califano criticized filmmaker DuVernay for ignoring history, and particularly for suggesting that Johnson set the FBI to investigate King.
“Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano wrote. “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.”
Califano cited a transcript of a phone call two months before the marches in which Johnson urged King to generate white political support for a voting rights bill by seeking out “the worst condition that you run into” in the South. He said that Johnson wanted images of racist brutality widely circulated in the news media, which the film depicts as King’s strategy. . . .
Julian Bond, a civil rights leader who worked with King, praised “Selma” but took issue with Johnson’s depiction as an obstacle to progress.
“He did support King’s fight for voting rights. He probably is the best civil rights president America has ever had. The best. Absolute best,” Bond said, CBS News reported. “I think the movie people wanted Dr. King to have an antagonist. Why not have it be LBJ?”
So in a work of historical fiction, what can be changed and what needs to be kept? Can you draw some lines?
And, speaking of Selma, I’ve heard that the Lutheran Missouri Synod college in that city, Concordia Selma, played a role in those historic protests. Does anyone know anything about that?