‘Selma’ director defends Johnson portrayal

Emily Yahr (c) 2014, The Washington Post. “Selma” is expected to be at the front of the Oscars race when nominations are announced next month. Right now, it’s the subject of some controversy. Over the last several days, some have criticized the film — which chronicles the historic march led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., for voting rights — for the way it portrays a troubled relationship between MLK and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Now, director Ava DuVernay is speaking out against her critics, who include Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Califano said: “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,” Califano wrote, adding that “Contrary to the portrait painted by ‘Selma,’ Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort.”

Califano elaborated: “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,” he wrote, and said that “Selma” should not be considered for award season.

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Last week, LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove wrote a piece for Politico outlining the same arguments about the “historic” partnership between saying that the civil rights leader and president. But the final straw for DuVernay seemed to be when Hitfix.com co-founder Gregory Ellwood tweeted: “On LBJ’s assist comments on


Selma. Can’t argue, but EVERY biopic — Imitation, Theory, Foxcatcher has MAJOR historical flaws this season.” First, DuVernay responded that the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive.”

She also tweeted the link to a New Yorker story that further detailed Johnson’s role, and added that people should investigate major historical moments themselves.

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In The Post’s review of “Selma,” film critic Ann Hornaday said the relationship between King and Johnson was one of the most riveting elements:

“Rather, the most pulse-quickening material can be found in the meetings between King (David Oyelowo) and President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as they argued the issue of voting rights. Early in ‘Selma,’ King travels to the White House to implore the president to pass a voting rights bill, while a weary LBJ — who had signed the Civil Rights Act just a year before — asks King to be patient, and support his War on Poverty in the meantime. Watching these redoubtable figures spar, cajole, strong-arm and size each other up winds up being enormously entertaining.”