In the wake of criticisms of Selma’s characterization of President Lyndon B. Johnson, director Ava DuVernay argued that people should “interrogate history.”
In a Dec. 26 opinion piece for The Washington Post, Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, wrote that Selma “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 argued that “Selma was LBJ’s idea” and concluded that “the movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
On Sunday, Selma director DuVernay took to Twitter to combat Califano’s claims. She wrote that the “notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” She added:
As The Huffington Post notes, Mark Updegrove, the director of the LBJ Presidential Library, also took issue with how Johnson appeared in the film, telling the AP that the president became something of a composite character. “When racial tension is so high, it does no good to suggest that the president of the U.S. himself stood in the way of progress a half-century ago. It flies in the face of history,” he told the AP.
A new clip from Selma (via Vulture) showcases this controversial depiction of the dynamic between King and Johnson. King approaches Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to talk about federal legislation ensuring voting rights for black citizens. Though the clip begins with Johnson telling King that he wants to help, Johnson resists. “This voting thing is just going to have to wait,” he says.
Selma focuses on King’s leadership during the Alabama marches originating in Selma, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “DuVernay brilliantly uses a micro event as a way into a larger, more compelling macro story,” Chris Nashawaty wrote in his review for EW. “She makes the backroom drudgery of compromise, gamesmanship, and veiled threats burn with intimacy and intensity.”