Maureen Dowd, Selma, and the Depiction of President Lyndon Johnson!

Dear Commons Community,

Maureen Dowd comments about the movie, Selma, in her column today.  I saw the film last week.  The major controversy is how director Ava Du Vernay depicts President Lyndon Johnson as an obstacle to the Voting Rights Bill proposed by Martin Luther King. The film concludes with Johnson putting forth the bill only after the bloodshed of  the Selma marches in 1965. Dowd comments:

“The horrific scene of the four schoolgirls killed in the white supremacist bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church stunned the audience…

DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. King. L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.”

Many of the teenagers by me [in the movie with Dowd] bristled at the power dynamic between the men. It was clear that a generation of young moviegoers would now see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.

And that’s a shame. I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant. But the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

Duvernay has dismissed the criticism of her depiction of Johnson as:

“In an interview with Gwen Ifill on P.B.S., DuVernay dismissed the criticism by Joseph Califano Jr. and other L.B.J. loyalists, who said that the president did not resist the Selma march or let J. Edgar Hoover send a sex tape of her husband to Mrs. King. (Bobby Kennedy, as J.F.K’s attorney general, is the one who allowed Hoover to tap Dr. King.)

“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” DuVernay said. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”

The “Hey, it’s just a movie” excuse doesn’t wash. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season.

There was no need for DuVernay to diminish L.B.J., given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.

… the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough. Why twist it? On matters of race — America’s original sin — there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.

DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street. There was no need to create a faux one.”

I was a teenager in 1965 in high school and while I remember the Selma marches, I did not follow Washington politics closely enough. I have read Robert Caro’s biography of Johnson as well as Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice about Brown v. Board of Education where Johnson is depicted as a major ally in the Civil Rights Movement. However, it appears that DuVernay’s comments confirm that she took artistic license with the depiction of Johnson. As Dowd concludes, this is problematic because millions of people will see the film and it will establish Johnson as one of the obstacles in advancing civil rights in this country when he probably did more for the  cause than any other U.S. president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.