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Watch: New Clip From ‘Selma’ As Controversy Brews Over Accuracy

Watch: New Clip From 'Selma' As Controversy Brews Over Accuracy

Let the mud-slinging begin. Even though Oscar season is supposed to be a time when Hollywood celebrates its finest achievements, it seems every year one controversy or another rises to the surface, to show that the industry isn’t afraid of using low blows to derail a campaign train. This year, it looks like Ava DuVernay‘s acclaimed “Selma” will come under some serious scrutiny as Oscar voting begins. As Deadline points out, two recent opinion pieces have questioned the historical accuracy of the movie, particularly as it portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson).

Over at PoliticoMark K. Updegrove—author of “Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency,” and the director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum (so surely, he has no vested interest in this topic)—asserts that that the President was not opposed to signing a voting rights bill, as “Selma” depicts. He offers up a transcript of January 1965 conversation (the law was signed eight months later in August) in which Johnson advises Martin Luther King, Jr. on how to get the greater public to take notice of the issue. Here’s some of what Updegrove wrote:

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.’”
That’s exactly what the President wanted—and that’s what the Nobel Laureate did. And it’s not a matter of opinion; it’s a matter of archival record.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington PostJoseph A. Califano, Jr.—Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969—also counters the former President’s portrayal in “Selma.” In fact, he says the very idea of Selma was actually the President’s, and references the same single phone call that Updegrove does. Here’s some of what he had to say:

The makers of the new movie “Selma” apparently just couldn’t resist taking dramatic, trumped-up license with a true story that didn’t need any embellishment to work as a big-screen historical drama. As a result, 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.
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…..
….Contrary to the portrait painted by “Selma,” Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. were partners in this effort. Johnson was enthusiastic about voting rights and the president urged King to find a place like Selma and lead a major demonstration. That’s three strikes for “Selma.” The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.

But DuVernay isn’t taking the criticisms sitting down. She hit Twitter to defend her film, strike back at the notion that the march was Johnson’s idea, and provided some historical references of her own that showed Johnson wasn’t the saint that these op-eds purport. Mostly, she encourages everyone to do digging for themselves to get answers. And that’s really the best advice, as history is never clear cut, and what’s on public record can often differ than what’s unofficially stated behind closed doors.

“Selma” is now playing in limited release. Below you can see a new clip from the film, and see DuVernay’s response to the op-eds.

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