Since its December 25 release “Selma,” Ava DuVernay’s movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson and the leadup to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been under attack for some of the ways DuVernay and her screenwriter Paul Webb present this immensely complicated period in American history. In the pages of The Post, Joseph Califano, who served as Johnson’s top domestic aide, suggested that because of some of these decisions, “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.”
I’m all for close reading of how film and other fiction approaches politics, and for deeper attention to the Civil Rights movement, particularly at a moment when judges and legislatures are dismantling some of the advances King and his colleagues won. But Califano’s approach, besides setting a odd standard for how fiction ought to work, doesn’t further those discussions. Instead, it suggests that we should check fiction for inaccuracies, and if diversions from science or historical record appear, end the conversation there, rather than talking about what a director was trying to get at.
There are two significant historical critiques of “Selma,” both having to do with DuVernay’s portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). One charge is that the movie portrays Johnson as opposed to voting rights legislation and the march in Selma specifically, when he in fact had drafted and then tabled a voting rights law and talked strategy with King (David Oyelowo). The second is that the film portrays Johnson as giving Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover (played by the reigning King of Creepy, Dylan Baker) orders to send a sex tape featuring King to his wife Corretta (Carmen Ejogo) when, in fact, Johnson’s approach to Hoover and King was far more complicated.
Much of the discussion of these choices seems to have been animated by concern for President Johnson’s reputation and legacy, which would remain complicated no matter how DuVernay portrayed him. But these are artistic choices, and it’s worth considering them that way, rather than as some sneaky attempt to cast aspersion on Johnson and his aides.
“Selma” is a chronicle of how a man under enormous pressure makes decisions, sometimes on behalf of an entire movement, which DuVernay conjures up in all is fractious scale. In presenting Johnson as recalcitrant and frustrated at the failure of his famous powers of manipulation, DuVernay lets us consider the courage it might take for King to defy the president of the United States at a critical juncture, and particularly to risk access to the Oval Office.
But making Johnson this way flattens both him and King, blunting their shared canniness, sense of strategy and ability to cut strategic deals. King is a man in “Selma,” but including suggestions that Johnson was his obstacle-turned-convert suggests just how hard it is to free King from hagiography, even in a film that makes plot points of his clashes with colleagues and his extramarital affairs.
The case of the triangular relationship between Johnson, King and Hoover is more complicated. My colleague, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, in a long piece on the tendency to fact-check films, writes: “I especially regret that an edit in the film erroneously suggests that Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send incriminating tapes of King’s alleged infidelities to the activist’s wife, Coretta. If I had a wish for ‘Selma,’ it would be that DuVernay could have found another way to solve a structural problem — getting from the White House to the King residence and the tapes — without inviting that inference.”
But if Johnson did not order the tapes be sent to Coretta King, Nick Kotz argues in “Judgement Days,” his sharp and illuminating book about the Johnson-King relationship, that Johnson was not ordering Hoover to stand down his long-term campaign against King, either. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, “One of Johnson’s first calls after returning from Dallas was to J. Edgar Hoover [his long-time neighbor]. ‘You’re more than the head of the bureau,’ Johnson told Hoover. ‘You’re my brother and personal friend.'” Kotz explains. “Hoover answered Johnson’s flattery with a flurry of activity” focused at furthering his surveillance of King and keeping Johnson apprised of the results.
Johnson brokered a sit-down between King and Hoover after Hoover, incensed by King’s Nobel Peace Prize, started attacking King in the press, and King privately accused Hoover of indifference to crime against Southern African Americans and publicly issued a press release suggesting that Hoover ” apparently has faltered under the awesome burden, complexities and responsibilities of his office,” Kotz explains. But the Hoover-King meeting seemed more aimed at healing a public breach than providing Hoover with real accountability and new orders. And rather than confirming that Johnson would not tolerate attacks on King, King perceived the meeting as proof that President Johnson “had not come to his defense,” Kotz writes.
In fact, Kotz suggests, Deke DeLoach, Hoover’s liaison to the White House, repeatedly interpreted his meetings with Johnson aides and Johnson himself to conclude that Hoover could exercise discretion in planting reports about King. Some of Johnson’s calculation was due to what Kotz describes as a “cautious, tacit accomodation with Hoover: the FBI director would carry out extraordinary assignments for Johnson, including the covert spying campaign at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and in return Johnson would not interfere with Hoover’s pursuit of his own special interests.” And some of it was due to the fact that “Johnson was also irritated by King’s constant maneuvering to seize the public spotlight and force his hand.”
By having Johnson give the order to send Coretta King audio recordings of her husband with another woman, DuVernay is simplifying an extraordinarily complex dynamic, and assigning him moral responsibility for the harassment campaign against King. Johnson deserves some measure of that responsibility. He and King may have had a partnership, but Johnson gave Hoover latitude to harass his partner with the aim of driving him to suicide, as long as Hoover did so without embarrassing himself publicly. And the pain Hoover’s campaign caused King is clear: “I know,” Coretta tells King when she plays the tape for him. “I know what you sound like.”
But I would have been curious to see the relationships between Hoover, Johnson and King explored at greater length. It would make an extraordinary subject for a television miniseries. It would be worthwhile for audiences to see the grand scope of Johnson’s negotiating style, in which his triangulation, duplicity and personal charm serve to make the great anti-heroes of contemporary television look a little shabby. A story that traced both the full extent King’s fear of Hoover and Hoover’s arrogance would have added additional menace to the FBI surveillance reports on the march that spool across the bottom of the screen in “Selma.” And it might have allowed us to feel distaste for Johnson and his preference for keeping his options open, without needing to juice his positions for effect.
“Selma” is already an intensely crowded movie, with little time to spare for King’s colleagues, including Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Ralph Abernathy (a welcome Colman Domingo). But such is the cast and DuVernay’s command of the camera that I would have stayed with “Selma” for far longer than its 127-minute running time, and for a much longer walk than the fifty-four miles from Selma to Montgomery.