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Posted by on Dec 30, 2014 in Blog, Movie Reviews, Politics | 10 comments

Ava DuVernay Should Apologize (The Atrocious Lie of “Selma”)




When necessary, Hollywood must be permitted to apply dramatic license in order to tell a good story.  That usually makes for a better movie.

However, no filmmaker should be allowed to lie about the historical record.

That’s precisely what movie director Ava DuVernay has done with her grotesque portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the film, “Selma,” which has rightfully ignited lots of controversy among both historians and movie critics.

In the historical reenactment which purports to show what actually happened behind the scenes leading up to the signing of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s enormity as a charismatic leader and organizer is self-evident.  That year, three marches took place, along the highway from Selma to Montgomery (Alabama).  The route covers 54 miles, but along road many marchers faced intense hostility from racist segregationists, and even encountered resistance from local law enforcement.  These marches ultimately helped to garner worldwide attention to the epic struggle and continued to sway public opinion in favor of those who were most disenfranchised in American society.

In the movie “Selma,” which was released in theaters nationally this week, LBJ’s actions in relation to this period, the marches, and the civil rights movement aren’t just intentionally mischaracterized.  His tireless work on behalf of justice and equality gets utterly destroyed.  He’s defamed.  It’s a cruel (and entirely unnecessary) hatchet job.  Tom Wilkinson, the fine English actor, plays LBJ.  He’s falsely shown not only as a cautious bystander to the historical events of his day, but an instigator of FBI surveillance and wiretapping.  Sadly, LBJ’s character and actions are a ludicrous contortion of the actual facts.

Fortunately, there are still a few witnesses to actual history who are still alive who can set the record straight.  Joseph A. Califano, Jr., one of LBJ’s most loyal architects of what became known as “The Great Society,” is one very few people alive today who was working inside the White House at the time.  After seeing the DuVernay’s film and observing the fictional farce painted of the period that he witnessed firsthand, Califano, one of the top advisors on domestic policy during Johnson Administration, lashed out at the way Johnson was portrayed in “Selma.”  His editorial, which has since received plenty of national attention, appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post. 

Califano wrote:


What’s wrong with Hollywood?

The makers of the new movie “Selma” apparently just couldn’t resist 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 fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, 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.



One might expect that after Califano’s conclusive op-ed appeared, Ava DuVernay might back off a little and show a just a little reverence for the most important ally Dr. King had during the great struggle for equality, if not express some outright remorse for her twisted caricature.

But instead, she remains publically defiant, waging a war of words on Twitter.  DuVernay fired back with this tweet:



Here, DuVernay arrogantly pedestals herself as an authority alongside Califano.  In doing so, she dispels historians who have spent years studying transcripts, reading the record, and listening to hundreds of hours of taped telephone conversations which clearly reveal LBJ not just as a bold activist, but also someone who was well aware of the high political cost he and his party would ultimately pay for being on the right side of history.  The record shows LBJ openly acknowledging his support for civil rights would end up costing the Democrat Party most of the south in the next 50 years of elections.  And he was right.  And he still did the right thing.  That’s courage.  That’s leadership.

Couldn’t DuVernay have reached out to Robert A. Caro, unquestionably the ultimate authority on all matters related to LBJ, since he’s worked tirelessly the last 40 years penning his illustrious series of biographies, and asked for some clarity?  One presumes that Caro would have been eager to help.  Yet incredibly, DuVernay, who has no credentials as an authority whatsoever on the LBJ years and likely has never read anything at all on the 36th president, still somehow thinks her opinion matters.

Well, it does matter.  And that’s horribly unfortunate.

Now, millions of moviegoers who will go to see “Selma” will end up terribly confused, and even misled.  They’ll leave theaters convinced LBJ was really a bastard, nothing more than a historical footnote to greater men and women who did the real work on civil rights.  No doubt, the painful chapter of American history over a century long (and still continuing today) has many heroes, and most all of them were and are Black.  But let’s give LBJ his due, at least.

In response to her tweet and others like it — no, Ms. DuVernay does not deserve to have us “take (her) word for it.”  Not when she could have done just a little research.  Not when the historical record is all there so plainly in black and white, available for everyone to see, even a filmmaker with a multimillion dollar budget making what could be a bio epic that will stand the test of time.  Instead, she was either lazy.  Or, she intentionally lied.  It’s one or the other.  And for this, she should apologize.

What follows here could be dozens of links to actual documents and recorded telephone conversations between LBJ and blatantly racist southern senators blocking civil rights legislation, where the president resorted to some of the most creative political arm twisting ever on record.  What follows here could be miles of film footage, linking LBJ directly with the civil rights movement.  What follows here could be tens of thousands of pages of transcripts of speeches and internal White House memos on civil rights.  What follows here could be countless interviews with untold numbers of actual LBJ aids — from Joe Califano to Bill Moyers who were witnesses.  What follows here could be several passionate recollections of civil rights workers themselves who met LBJ in the Oval Office — from Andrew Young to Ralph Abernathy to John Lewis.  What follows here could be thousands of photographs with LBJ hosting civil rights activists in his office, since no president since made the issue more of a priority, not even this one.  What follows here could be the ultimate prize, LBJ and MLK celebrating together at the actual moment of passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (okay, so I did post that photo, which appears at the conclusion of this essay).

And still, LBJ gets treated like shit by a film director who not only tells use a lie, but continues to stand by it.

Ava DuVernay’s twisting of the facts is an affront to the historical record of events, which are easily accessible and readily in abundance.  Her fraudulent distortion tarnishes the memory of the president who did more for race equality than anyone in that office other than Abraham Lincoln.

For this reason, “Selma” is a absolute disgrace.  It is an affront to the art of cinema.  It deserves to be shunned, repudiated, and ignored by all of those who value the truth.


Postscript:  Proving that civil rights was indeed a top priority for President Johnson, consider the following telephone conversation between LBJ and MLK from November 25, 2963, which took place just days after the Kennedy Assassination.  In one of his first phone calls as president, in this actual recording LBJ hardly shows reluctance to joining MLK in the great struggle for civil rights.  To the contrary.  LINK HERE   





  1. I hate to say it, but this looks like a case of a black director unwilling to acknowledge good intentions and actions by a white president.

  2. minor point but lbj was the 36th president.

    • Nolan Replies: Noted and corrected. Thank you.

  3. During LBJs first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation a farce and a shame.

    • I should have made clear, I was quoting Barack Obama.

  4. I read where African Americans are complaining about the movie being snubbed for Oscars, but I think the movie is undeserving of any artistic accolades or respect of any kind. I’m disgusted that this movie has been nominated for a “Best Picture” award, and I even begrudge it the piddly nomination it got for it’s theme song.

    This movie is evil on so many levels that I find it literally shocking that the Academy actually gave it any respect, which it did by nominating it for Best Picture and Best Song. The academy should completely reject movies this evil and disgusting. Off the top of my head here are just some of this movie’s evil sins:

    1. It performs slanderous character assassination on a dead man – Lyndon Johnson.

    2. This movie falsely teaches a new generation of black kids that even the white people who are justifiably credited with defending the civil rights of African Americans were secretly opposed to African American’s civil rights. In short, this movie teaches a new generation of black kids that ALL white people are evil racists.

    3. This movie inspires black anger and fear of ALL whites. If I made a movie that inspired white anger and fear against ALL blacks then it would be said that my movie is racist. There’s just now way around it – Selma is a very racist movie.

    4. This movie further divides black people and white people by driving the point home to black people that all white people are evil racists who want to hurt black people. Black people and white people need to get closer, not further apart.

    5. This movie is intentionally dishonest. Of course a lot of movie makers alter history to create a better movie, and if that was the reason for the lie of “Selma” then I would be OK with that. But that is not the motivation behind the lie of “Selma.” There is no reason why telling the truth about LBJ would have necessitated making the movie worse. Indeed, telling the truth about LBJ might have made it a better movie. So the lie of “Selma” was not for the purpose of making the movie better. When Ava Duvernay was asked about the LBJ falsehoods she responded by saying, “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” She’s basically saying she didn’t tell the truth about LBJ because she didn’t want to. She slandered a dead man (who took a lot of risk to help black people) so she could make black people seem more heroic.

  5. I agree with you, but I think it’s probably a case of LBJ’s legacy being hurt by what J Edgar Hoover did to King with the FBI – Hoover was the bad guy and was totally against King and viewed him as an animal and try to blackmail him into killing himself. I’ve never really heard much about what Johnson knew about Hoover’s activities at the time, but I’m sure that he didn’t order them as is shown in the movie

  6. This film doesn’t deserve to win any award. Ava DuVernay stated in multiple interviews that “It isn’t her responsibility to be historically accurate.” How freaking arrogant and dismissive can she get ? Twisting the truth for dramatic effect is not only repulsive and wrong it is disrespectful of the memory of both LBJ and Dr. Martin Luther King. She wasted an incredible opportunity to reveal that the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history. This is a film about Martin Luther King not Sponge Bob Square Pants.

    • John Legend wrote a great song but the song didn’t deserve to win because Common wrote the most mediocre rap in existence. Forget the song, Common is the poster child of mediocrity and so freaking cheesy. Oprah would’ve incited a freaking riot if they’d lost the Best song Oscar to “Everything is awesome ” from the Lego Movie.
      Yes, I said it.
      I’m a person of color so that comment can’t possibly be racist.

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