Monday, January 19, 2015


I applaud Maureen Dowd’s recent editorial in the New York Times regarding some of SELMA’S allegedly flawed historical reconstructions. Admittedly, my complaining about historical inaccuracies in a biopic seems the height of hypocrisy, considering I have devoted a fair measure of my writing life to valorizing the biopic genre. Yet, she pinpoints cogently the many complaints about the depiction of LBJ’s relationship with Dr. King. I agree with her when she says, at the outset, “I loved the movie and find the Oscar snub of its dazzling actors repugnant.” Dowd follows that with a critical commentary that I find equally compelling: “But the director’s [Ava DuVernay] talent makes her distortion of LBJ more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.” DuVernay’s response is revealing: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” Thus, President Johnson comes across here as more of an obstacle than a valued complement to Dr. King’s agenda. Undeniably, there is some distortion here. In his provocative defense of the “alternate history” deployed in biopics, the eminent historian Niall Ferguson demands that a measure of “probability” be observed. Historical “alterations” must be grounded in careful historical research. According to Dowd, however, DuVernay has boasted, “I’m not a historian; I’m not a documentarian.” Dowd responds, “There was no need for Duvernay to diminish LBJ, given that the Civil Rights Movement would not have advanced without him. Vietnam is enough of a pox on his legacy.” Indeed. There are “white devils” aplenty in the film, without rearranging the historical record to provide a new one.

1 comment:

  1. Well, but...

    In Dowd's own column, she writes: "On the tape of a phone conversation between President Johnson and Dr. King the week before LBJ's 1965 inauguration, the president said that he indicated the time was not yet ripe to ask congress for it [the Voting Rights Act]."

    The movie has Johnson, directly rather than by phone, tell King essentially that same thing. The film makes it a tactical choice--the votes for votes not there yet; the president is more interested in pushing his Great Society poverty programs first, so that's his priority--and as tactical choice it also reflects the historians' consensus about LBJ's legislative tactical skills.

    Note that it also does something else: it makes Johnson an obstacle.

    But it this distortion? Not really.

    Compared to the distortions "Selma"'s critics have tossed out there--LBJ aide Joseph Califano's silly assertion that "Selma was Johnson's idea" or LBJ library head Mark Updegrove's misreading of the movie as saying that the film represents LBJ as "devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights"--the filmmakers' exaggerations seem, frankly, pretty minor. Tom Prasch