If you haven’t yet seen “Selma”—stop reading and buy your tickets now. It powerfully and beautifully tells the story of a community that, with a team of civil rights leaders, made history. Like many historians of the era, though, I was taken aback by the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Having studied LBJ on-and-off since 2009, and having spent much of the past year studying LBJ and MLK’s leadership during the mid-1960s, I was distracted from the movie’s exceptional acting and direction by its historical inaccuracy. In the midst of a post-Ferguson revitalization of the long civil rights struggle, the details of how moral leaders and political leaders interacted matter because they offer hope and inspiration for contemporary struggles. We can learn from and, perhaps even repeat, the best moments of our history—but only if know the real history.
Much has already been made of LBJ’s depiction. His pugnacious former aide Joseph Califano Jr. wrote an angry op-ed in the Washington Post slamming the movie’s portrayal of the president; he urged that the film “should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” Califano boldly asserted that, contrary to director Ava DuVernay’s portrayal, “Selma was LBJ’s idea.” LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove made a milder—and more truthful—critique in Politico. Though he gave the movie much credit for historical accuracy, he said its “characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history” when it shows him as obstructionist, antagonistic, and reluctant on the issue of voting rights. Even Andrew Young, a King aide and prominent character in “Selma” who went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta, took issue with the LBJ portrayal. King and Johnson’s relationship, he said, “was the only thing I would question in the movie. Everything else, they got 100 percent right.”
DuVernay, in an interview with Rolling Stone, explained her characterization of Johnson. “Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view,” she says. “The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.” Understandably, an African-American director wanted to focus on black protagonists and their agency, rather than whites who helped the cause. Self-reliant black characters may have felt particularly necessary to her after recent historical films portrayed blacks as nearly helpless without white help: in “The Help” (2011), a white writer pulls back the curtain on daily struggles of black maids, and in “12 Years a Slave” (2013), a white abolitionist helps an enslaved black man win back his freedom. In a popular culture that still devalues African-Americans and often denies them agency in films, DuVernay was determined to avoid the tired white savior trope by de-emphasizing Johnson’s role.
But the movie crosses the line from the line from de-emphasis to inaccuracy. The scene that implies LBJ ordered the FBI to send a supposed sex tape of MLK to his wife is simply not accurate; the FBI did indeed send such a tape, along with an anonymous letter that implied King should commit suicide to avoid exposure, as Nick Kotz details in Judgment Days (he titles an entire chapter “Hoover Attacks,” referring to the vindictive FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who engineered a years-long smear campaign against King and other civil rights leaders). The FBI did pursue King ruthlessly, but it was not at Johnson’s behest.
Even more importantly, the overall portrayal of Johnson as reluctant to do something he could have easily done is simply not accurate. Voting rights was a long fight that Johnson believed in since his days as vice-president. Though King played a crucial role in putting the issue on the national agenda, Johnson never stood in the way; rather, he fought in Congress for the landmark civil rights laws whose half-century anniversaries we are now commemorating. The movie could have been much more historically accurate while still focusing on the black bravery and leadership.
Though I’m fascinated by the history, the question of “Selma’s” portrayal of LBJ is not just an trivial historical argument. The historical truth matters because LBJ demonstrates that people in authority can do more than just respond to pressure from civil society; like Johnson in his meeting with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace and in his March 15, 1965, “We Shall Overcome” speech to Congress, political leaders can become moral leaders who push society farther along the long arc of history that, King hoped, bends towards justice.
A more accurate story of the Selma movement shows a president, and many other senior government officials, working with civil rights leaders and adopting the cause as their own. In an era of renewed activism, we can learn from the real story of political leaders working with rather than against moral leaders in society. Like Johnson in his best moments, political leaders can also wield powerful moral leadership. Activists in the nascent “Black Lives Matter” movement and in the LGBT rights movement can learn from King how to enlist government officials as allies. And together, they can make history once again.