A timeline of the 'Selma' controversy
As Ava DuVernay's "Selma" moves out into wide release Friday, just 10 days shy of the Martin Luther King holiday on Jan. 19, the film finds itself in a tug-of-war over accuracy and dramatic license. If you've only skimmed the headlines or caught wind peripherally, here's a quick timeline of some of the debate's highlights.
December 22: Things begin just before the holiday, when Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, blasts the film's depiction of the King/Johnson dynamic at Politico. "'Selma' misses mightily in faithfully capturing the pivotal relationship — contentious, the film would have you believe," he writes. He then details how Johnson's feet-dragging on the issue of voting rights was less about simple trepidation than politicking and finding the best way to time out the series of events so that Congress wouldn't stop it cold:
"Yes, Johnson advocated stripping a potent voting rights component out of the historic Civil Rights Act he signed into law in the summer of 1964. A master of the legislative process — and a pragmatist — he knew that adding voting rights to the Civil Rights Act would make it top heavy, jeopardizing its passage. Break the back of Jim Crow, Johnson believed, and then we'll tackle voting rights.
"And yes, King kept the pressure on Johnson to propose voting rights legislation. But Johnson, the political mastermind, knew instinctively that Congress would reject it. As King's former lieutenant, Andrew Young, recalled earlier this year at the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit: 'Right after [Dr. King won] the Nobel Prize, President Johnson talked for an hour about why he didn't have the power to introduce voting rights legislation in 1965, and gave very good reasons. [H]e kept saying, 'I just don't have the power. I wish I did.' When we left, I asked Dr. King, 'Well, what did you think?' He said, 'I think we've got to figure out a way to get this president some power.'"
December 26: Joseph A Califano Jr. — Johnson's top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969 — is compelled to write an op-ed in The Washington Post denigrating the film's depiction of the nation's 36th President. After asking "what's wrong with Hollywood," he writes that "the film 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." Furthermore:
"In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea, 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. On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: 'There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.'"
He lays out his rebuttal with links to history throughout, but closed with the curious demand, "The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season."
December 28: DuVernay fires back. "[The] notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so," she Tweets. Her assertions go to the "now, not later" importance of the movement. "LBJ's stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn't fantasy made up for a film," she writes, pointing to a 2013 New Yorker story that covered the issue in detail. The "bottom line," she concludes, "is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it or [an] LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself."
December 31: Writing for The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler gets a few historians on the record, including Diane McWhorter, author of "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama - The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution," who says, "Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nit-pickers like me to suspend nit-picking. But with the portrayal of L.B.J., I kept thinking, 'Not only is this not true, it's the opposite of the truth." Others, like Julian E. Zelizer and Gary May, join the chorus by noting the delicacy of the debate over how credit for the movement has been disseminated. Offering context, Schuessler writes:
"Julian E. Zelizer, the author of the new book 'The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society,' said it recalled the moment in the 2008 primary when Mrs. Clinton declared that Dr. King's dream of equality only 'began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act' of 1964, prompting accusations that she was playing down Dr. King's role as part of her own effort to best an African-American political rival…Johnson has been the focus of a rehabilitation campaign among historians and others eager to burnish a legacy shadowed by the Vietnam War and by a lingering popular view of him as 'a Southern racist in liberal clothing,' as Professor Zelizer put it.
More heatedly, the notion that Johnson "had anything to do with the [FBI surveillance] tape" is "truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.," author David J. Garrow adds, before settling on this statement with which most interviewed seem to concur: "The real story wasn't about a president who didn't want voting rights. It was about a president who couldn't get them through. And it was the civil rights movement that made that possible."
December 31: The grist mill keeps turning at The Washington Post, where writer Karen Tumulty interviews former Atlanta mayor, U.N. ambassador and one of King's young lieutenants, Andrew Young. "It was not very tense at all," Young says of the King/Johnson relationship. "He and Martin never had a confrontation."
January 2: The hits keep coming in the new year as May gets his own op-ed space at The Daily Beast to promote his book on the events depicted in the film and take umbrage with factual points. Despite the film expressly being about the people on the ground in Selma, he curiously bemoans that "except for a few scenes, we see little of the bravery Selma’s citizens displayed." He nit-picks things like showing Americans watching the Selma events unfold on television live when in fact they did not see that footage for a number of hours.
January 5: Things stay heated at The Washington Post as opinion writer Richard Cohen chimes in. Again leaning on a "what's wrong with Hollywood" tone, the paper forwards further dissatisfaction. Calling DuVernay's response a "so's-your-mother" one that "ought to be beneath" her, then casually disrespects with "maybe it's not." To wit:
"She not only impugned Califano as an LBJ mouthpiece but she also ignored her other critics…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.
January 5: Different fuel is tossed onto the fire when Leida Snow, writing for The Jewish Daily Forward, charges that the film "airbrush[es] Jewish contributions to civil rights." Expanding on that:
"In the new film, Dr. King makes a dramatic appeal to people of all races and religions to come and join him in Selma. Hundreds do, as though for the first time, and Dr. King is shown embracing a Greek Orthodox priest*. Also visible among many whites is a Catholic priest and a minister. This is a deeply moving and dramatically effective scene. But I looked in vain for the embrace of a man with a yarmulke, a scene that would reflect the historical moment when Dr. King marched with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Jewish theologian and philosopher widely respected beyond the Jewish community. He may be present in the grainy documentary footage at the end of the film, but he is not visible in the body of the film, nor are any other Jews openly recognized."
*This is in fact Archbishop Iakovos, at the time the highest ranking orthodox clergyman in the Americas and notably included in this scene for being featured on the Life Magazine cover with King after the Selma march.