Another Oscar season. Another controversy over accuracy. And all this happening conveniently as Academy Award nominating balloting starts today.
From Hurricane and A Beautiful Mind to Zero Dark Thirty and The Butler, and countless other movies based on actual events and people, these kinds of pics are often plagued with attacks on their credibility. But it should be remembered these movies are not documentaries. Dramatic license is often taken. Sometimes the controversies that rise up can be chalked up to suspicions of dirty campaign tricks by others — as in the case (which Universal overcame) of eventual Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. Sometimes though it can be at the hands of politicians as in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, when powerful senators took issue with aspects of the movie.
Now it’s Selma’s turn on the hot seat, a sure-fire Oscar contender set around the 1965 Martin Luther King Jr.-led march from Selma to Montgomery. The Paramount film, which opened a limited run Christmas Day to very decent boxoffice returns and goes wide on January 9, is being attacked for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson’s role in those events, suggesting the film asserts he was more of an obstructionist than anything else.
First, Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library, took issue last week with Selma’s account of those historical days 50 years ago. In a piece for Politico, he writes: “Why does the film’s mis-characterization matter? Because 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.” He noted that in April the LBJ library commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with a summit that brought out four of five living presidents including Barack Obama, who lavishly praised Johnson’s efforts to push the act through Congress and promote greater racial equality.
Now in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Joseph A Califano Jr., President Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969, has also come out swinging. “Contrary to the portrait painted by Selma, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the President urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration,” he wrote. “That’s three strikes for Selma. The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” Ouch. Califano has specifically infused himself and this issue into the Oscar race, so attention must be paid.
Califano accuses the film — already nominated for several Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards — of taking “dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, the 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.”
In the op-ed headlined “The Movie ‘Selma’ Has A Glaring Flaw,” Califano seeks to set the record — as he recalls it — straight. He even offers up taped phone conversations between LBJ and King to support his stance. He points to a media strategy LBJ devised by telling King to find the worst possible place, in terms of voting rights, and “get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can.” King found Selma, where just 335 of about 10,000 registered voters were black — despite a population that was 60% African-American according to Califano’s account. He says Johnson thought the public pressure generated by a march from Selma to Montgomery could help the cause, hoping there would be no violence.
Of course there was, but Califano says when the march resumed a third time (two days after Johnson’s joint congressional address proposing his Voting Rights Act), Johnson made sure the demonstrators would be protected.
Apparently, in the eyes of those protecting the LBJ legacy, the film does not go far enough in portraying what they see as Johnson’s enormous influence in securing voting rights equality. They may think they are right about that, but the movie, directed by Ava DuVernay, the first black woman to win a Best Director nomination from the Golden Globes, is of course much more intent on telling this from the point of view of Martin Luther King Jr. and those who marched — something we don’t see often in major studio movies. It is, in fact, the first time King has ever been the subject of a lead role in a theatrical film. It is not intended to be the LBJ story. I am actually surprised these critics aren’t also gobsmacked by the fact that DuVernay actually hired a British actor, Tom Wilkinson, to play the Texas-born President.
At any rate, not content to sit by and be attacked without responding (as was the case with Sony’s initial non-response to the assault on Zero Dark Thirty, costing it serious loss of momentum in the Oscar race), DuVernay is fighting back on Twitter. “The notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so,” she tweeted. She then offered links offering “more detail here (on) LBJ’s stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn’t fantasy made up for a film.” Another tweet:
When contacted for comment, a Paramount spokesperson referred to DuVernay’s tweets as well as several articles offering different opinions than those of Califano and Updegrove — including one from Bill Moyers, who served as LBJ’s press secretary in the mid-’60s. But hey, it just wouldn’t be the Oscars without a little controversy, would it?