While I would hate to give The Butler credit for pretty much anything, it did a decent job portraying Lyndon B. Johnson as one of our country’s most obscene – if strangely progressive – presidents. LBJ was a weird guy with an impressive record and a foul mouth and a wife named Lady Bird. Now, Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, has come under attack for inaccurately portraying the infinitely controversial LBJ in her film about King’s historic march.
DuVernay, critics claim, didn’t give LBJ enough credit for his role in the march to Selma. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Joseph Califano, Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs (1965-1969), wrote:
“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 . . .That’s three strikes for Selma. The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
While Califano’s argument isn’t without merit, it seems a little unfair to excoriate a movie that is marketed, clearly, as fiction. It’s not like biopics – take Get on Up or The Theory of Everything – don’t take enormous creative license (and p.s. they’re mostly awful). Sure, it’s disappointing to hear that Selma may have minimized LBJ’s role in the process. But fictional films aren’t transparent facsimiles: it’s the underlying dramatic tension that matters, not the exact facts.
DuVernay responded to critics with tweets and hyperlinks:
For viewers looking to learn more about LBJ, I highly suggest Robert Caro’s four-volume biography. I have not read it (it’s thousands of pages long) but let me tell you I have skimmed that book jacket and it is excellent.