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.
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:
Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself. #Selma
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) December 28, 2014
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