A Lyndon B. Johnson biographer with a new book about the president told HuffPost Live on Wednesday that the depiction of LBJ in Ava DuVernay's "Selma" is "not correct."
When Julian E. Zelizer spoke with host Marc Lamont Hill about his book, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society, the conversation quickly turned to "Selma." The film's portrayal of Johnson has largely dominated the conversation in the midst of the Oscar race, and possibly contributed to the Oscar snubs of DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo during Thursday's nominations. ("Selma" itself scored a Best Picture nomination, one of two the film received overall.)
Zelizer told HuffPost Live on Wednesday that the "Selma" version of Johnson is "off." Johnson was "truly committed" to voting rights by January 1965, he said, two months before the violent events of Bloody Sunday, which are depicted in "Selma."
"I do think [the film's] message is politics comes from the bottom-up rather than top-down, so I think in some ways they went overboard in not wiping away, but downplaying how committed the top official, meaning the president of the United States, was to this," Zelizer said. "King and Johnson had a partnership by this time, not an adversarial relationship."
Both LBJ Presidential Library director Mark Updegrove and Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson's former top assistant for domestic affairs, have publicly spoken out against the film. Califano wrote that "the film falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr.," when "in fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea."
DuVernay has defended her film, writing that the "notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive." She later said the controversy put "Selma" in danger of being "reduced ... to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing."
Zelizer said he found "Selma" to be "quite powerful" because it captures how the "really brave, courageous action" of civil rights leaders forced politicians to address voting rights sooner than they otherwise would have.
"The real debate between Martin Luther King and LBJ was about when to put the bill forward. ... LBJ looks indifferent to voting rights [in the film], and I don't think it was necessary because it's a great movie, and it's now created a debate over his depiction rather than on the real message of the film," Zelizer said.
"Selma" does present Johnson as a supporter of voting rights, but he also asserts the War on Poverty is a more pressing matter. Zelizer told HuffPost Live that while there were "tensions" between LBJ and MLK, it was "a pretty good relationship."
"At least in 1965, they're on the same page in terms of principle. Later there would be a lot of tensions over Vietnam, over the War on Poverty, where the two men would really separate in terms of their views," he said.
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