Should you see the movie "Selma," or should you avoid it because people claim LBJ gets a bad rap? I admit I was skeptical first, being an LBJ fan, but chose to watch the movie to see for myself.
I was raised in Texas. Naturally, Texans like other Texans. I remember getting a postcard of President Lyndon B. Johnson from my grandfather, as well as several "LBJ for the USA" buttons, and others with his image.
While in high school, my folks took me to Austin, Texas to see the LBJ Library, the first Presidential Library I've ever seen. I built a button collection from their catalogs.
I recognize he had some negatives, including the Vietnam War and budget deficits. But his stand on civil rights was pivotal for this country, signing into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, among other reforms. Reading Robert Caro's book didn't deter me. I was actually more impressed with Theodore White's "The Making of the President, 1964."
So I really didn't want to see "Selma," especially with the media chatter that the movie portrayed LBJ as the bad guy, opposed to civil rights. But a friend who had seen it convinced me to at least give it a try before adding my name to the list of people opposed to the film.
On "CBS This Morning," Selma Director Ava DuVernay claimed
"What I try to do is show the full arc of their relationship. Neither man was a saint. Neither man was all sinner. There were gray areas to their relationship... They had one of the most productive relationships in history, but it was sometimes a rocky road to get there. It happened. It was a triumphant time for our country but we tried to show the complexity and the humanity within their relationship."
That's certainly in evidence. President Johnson is quick to tout his Civil Rights support, but wants voting rights strategically delayed, the way President Obama wasn't opposed to gay rights or the environment, but wanted to get his stimulus package and health care bill first. He became a reluctant supporter, after some pressure, but is still lauded for his courage on such issues. And yes, "he" can be LBJ and Obama.
By the end of the film, Johnson sets himself apart from Alabama Governor George Wallace. DuVarney claimed "Literally, people cheer in the theater for LBJ at the end," according to the Daily Show, as quoted by Yahoo Celebrity. That was in evidence at the film, where we had many in the audience doing the same, especially African Americans (including a local politician who is a leader in the African American community here in my West Georgia town), as LBJ triumphantly speaks on behalf of the Voting Rights Act. It shows why African Americans liked LBJ as one of their favorites, according to the Washington Post.
Moreover, Dan Solomon with Texas Monthly points out that LBJ did delay the VRA until he was sure it could pass, and outrage at Selma cinched it.
Selma's a good film to see, and I hope to take my students to it. The portrayal of LBJ was not as negative as I thought, and overall, he's still generally a good guy in the film. At a minimum, you should see the movie, research LBJ, and decide for yourself.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org