Before I came to dislike the movie “Selma,” I was deeply moved by it. Twice it brought me to tears. A crane shot of Martin Luther King Jr. leading thousands of demonstrators over the Edmund Pettus Bridge was one such moment, and so was the vicious attack on John Lewis — bravely, steadfastly walking into the beating he knew was coming. Today, Lewis is a member of Congress. Forever, he’ll be an American hero.
Too bad, though, that the movie had to go Hollywood on Lyndon Baines Johnson, who, as if from the grave, has bellowed his protest. In its need for some dramatic tension, “Selma” asserts that King had to persuade and pressure a recalcitrant Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The movie also depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and — as King himself suspected — try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.
But a bevy of historians say it never happened. It was Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general, who authorized the FBI’s bugging of King’s hotel rooms. Yet, for understandable reasons, Kennedy appears nowhere in the film. By 1965, he was no longer the AG and, anyway, he remains a liberal icon. But LBJ — Southern, obscene and, especially when compared to the lithe Kennedy, gross of speech and physique — was made the heavy. He should get a posthumous SAG card.
One of those who has protested this characterization of Johnson is Joseph A. Califano Jr. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, he said this about Johnson: “He considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” Califano was one of Johnson’s most important White House aides and later an esteemed Washington lawyer.
To Califano and other critics — including several historians — the movie’s director, Ava DuVernay, responded not with a detailed rebuttal but with a brushoff of a tweet: “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”
This so’s-your-mother response ought to be beneath DuVernay, but maybe it’s not. She not only impugned Califano as an LBJ mouthpiece but she also ignored her other critics. They include the historian Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library; Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home”; David J. Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; and, when it comes to the atmospherics of the Johnson-King relationship, Andrew Young, once King’s deputy. He told The Post that the contentious meeting between King and LBJ depicted in the film was, in fact, cordial. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Young was there.
As for Garrow, he told the New York Times that “if the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with” Hoover’s attempt to destroy King, “that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” The movie depicts exactly that.
An earlier tweet from DuVernay was even worse. “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.” Arguably, the idea that a march should be held in Selma — as opposed to some other place — was primarily King’s. But to turn a disagreement over who came up with the idea, King or Johnson, into something “offensive” to virtually the entire civil rights leadership is itself “jaw dropping.” Both the civil rights movement and Lyndon Johnson wanted the same thing — to kill Jim Crow dead.
At the New York premiere of “Selma,” I repeatedly heard how the movie would introduce a new generation to the greatness of King and the horrors of American racism. I hope so, although I doubt many young people will go to a movie with no sex whose hero is a practitioner of Gandhian nonviolence. King always turned the other cheek.
Yet, the lesson a new generation will learn is, in important ways, a lie, and not one, as Picasso said, that “makes us realize truth.” It is, instead, a lie that tarnishes Johnson’s legacy to exalt King’s. This story needed no embellishment — and in my movie, King himself would’ve protested the treatment of Johnson. The greatness of King never depended on the diminishment of others. I take the word of countless critics that “Selma” will be nominated for an Academy Award. If it wins, truth loses.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.