January 12, 2015

Film and facts

Sam Smith - The debate over the portrayal of LBJ in the movie Selma, (which I have yet to see) is a good example of what can happen when film makers confront history. Being married to a historian, I know the problem. I recently had one of my decades old stories about a Maine ship captain destroyed by her research. I couldn't argue with her but I was sorry because I still liked my version of the tale better.

As one historian once put it, you must also wear the clothes of those you are writing about. When major change occurs some people are way ahead of their time, others way behind and many others  are trying to figure out how to move from one place to the other. Looking back it looks simple, but at the time it wasn't.

In the case of Selma the problem would seem to be a familiar modern media clash between conflict and complexity, and - in today's culture - the former typically gets the contract.

But you can't tell the Lyndon Johnson tale without complexity. As I've put it before, LBJ and Adam Clayton Powell got more good legislation through Congress in less time than anyone in American history, yet you wouldn't want either of them near your daughter.

For example, here's how, in a recorded conversation, they got along on the good days. But in at least one other tape I've heard, LBJ rips into Powell for not coming through with what Johnson thought was an agreement between the two.

And then there's the complexity that comes with change over time, as Robert Caro noted:
For no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson’s record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequaled certainly since Lincoln.
In terms of important domestic legislation, LBJ makes all his successors - with the ironic exception of Richard Nixon (another complex story) - look like a bunch of wimps. 

As for the 1957 civil rights act, it was the first such legislation in 82 years. Far from perfect, it opened the door for things that would follow and helped define the battlefield. I was a 19 year old college student with a summer reporter's job at a Washington radio station and I  covered Strom Thurmond's record setting 24 hour and 18 minute filibuster against the bill - , with the old Senate chamber filled with cots for those who wanted to nap.  By today's standards it wasn't much to brag about, but at it own moment it was a major change.

In the years that followed there was nothing neat. In the mid 1960s, for example, I was in the basement of the SNCC Washington office when Stokely Carmichael announced that  whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Yet, at the same time, Washington was having one of its most effective uprisings - against freeways - led by a biracial coalition. And a few years after that some of us started the biracial DC Statehood Party. To this day, I can't really figure out how all this happened, but I know it would be too complex for a popular movie.

The film industry, like so much of American popular culture, thrives on conflict rather than complexity and prefers obvious saints and sinners rather than the human reality that constantly mixes the two. And the Selma controversy reminds us that movies can be a poor place to learn the facts.

Dan Moldea - After watching this very moving but clearly defective motion picture, I completely agree with David Kaiser's critical analysis in Time. . . . With such a sensational and dramatic real-life story, there was simply no reason to sensationalize the plot or to fabricate the well-documented events portrayed in this movie. The drama was already inherent with the unfolding history. . . . What particularly disturbs me in the ongoing defense of this fatally flawed film is the argument that artistic freedom should be allowed to trump historical accuracy without any notifications, disclaimers, clarifications, or apologies-and that such bad behavior should be protected by the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, friends and colleagues should see the film for its accurate portrayal of "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which includes the shameless and even criminal reaction to a peaceful protest, as well as the heroism of John Lewis-for whom I was honored to have written a handful of speeches back in 1980 before he was elected to Congress.

David Kaiser, Time - The film is a well-produced and well-acted drama that will draw a lot of Oscar attention. In many respects—but not all—it was well-researched. Some have argued that the inaccuracies are not important to the purpose of the film, or that accuracy is beside the point when it comes to movies that aren’t documentaries. But Califano was right: its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson and his role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act could hardly be more wrong. And this is important not merely for the sake of fidelity to the past, but because of continuing implications for how we see our racial problems and how they could be solved.

With only one exception—federal judge Frank Johnson—the white characters in Selma are either villains (including LBJ, J. Edgar Hoover, George Wallace and Sheriff Clark of Selma), timid wimps, or victims (Unitarian minister James Reeb, who is misidentified at one point as a priest and talks like an Evangelical, and Detroit mother Viola Liuzzo, both of whom were killed by Alabama whites). Crucially, until its last few minutes, the film presents LBJ as the main obstacle to what King is trying to do. There was no shortage of real white villains in the Selma controversy, but LBJ was not one of them. This portrayal depends upon a complete misrepresentation not only of the facts, but also of specific conversations that King and Johnson had during this period....

For example: Selma shows King meeting LBJ in mid-December of 1964 and asking for voting rights legislation. The President is completely negative and highly perturbed, stating that the time has not come to push the issue. But, in reality, though Johnson did say that legislation would have to wait, that wasn’t not the gist of the meeting: Johnson fully recognized the problem and promised to use the legal tools provided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to fight it. In fact, two days earlier he had told a New York Times reporter about the possibility of a new law that would allow southern black voters to register at post offices. Then, on Jan. 4, in his State of the Union address, Johnson promised to remove all remaining obstacles to the right to vote....

Selma shows LBJ in this period not only refusing to meet any of King’s demands, but also enlisting J. Edgar Hoover to try to discredit and destroy King. Hoover had in fact taken these steps months before, and LBJ had been appalled by them. Like John and Robert Kennedy before him, he was terrified that Hoover would successfully discredit King and set back civil rights for years. Fortunately, because no media outlet would print the salacious material Hoover provided, the FBI Director failed. King himself wrote, in the midst of these events, that while he and Johnson’s approaches to civil rights were far from identical, he had no doubt at all that Johnson was trying to solve the problem of civil rights “with sincerity, realism and, thus far, with wisdom.”

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