Selma and LBJ: Do filmmakers owe anything to historical figures?

There’s been an interesting discussion among historians and movie critics about the movie Selma, which plays up the antagonism between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s LBJ historian Mark Updegrove’s critique of the way Selma treats the president:

Why does the film’s mischaracterization matter? Because at a time when racial tension is once again high, from Ferguson to Brooklyn, it does no good to bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that the President himself stood in the way of progress.

The political courage President Johnson exhibited in adeptly pushing through passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago is worth celebrating in the same manner as the “Lincoln” filmmakers championed President Lincoln’s passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting a legal end to slavery.…

LBJ’s bold position on voting rights stands as an example of what is possible when America’s leadership is at its best.

And it has the added benefit of being true.

Selma doesn’t just portray LBJ as dragging his feet on civil rights.  It makes him complicit in the FBI’s attempt to silence King by blackmailing him with evidence of his extramarital affairs.

Others claim that LBJ’s defenders have overstated their case by attributing the march to Johnson himself, as if he came up with the whole idea.

This certainly isn’t the first time filmmakers have taken historical liberties—far from it—but it’s a particularly interesting case.  It portrays a prominent individual as standing further to the wrong side of history than he did, and deprives him of credit for contributing to equality and moral progress.

So leaving aside for the moment the well-worn question of whether filmmakers have a moral obligation to be as historically accurate as possible, do they have a more specific moral obligation to avoid portraying historical figures as acting less nobly or honorably than they actually did?  And does the fact that Selma deals with very recent history make this obligation greater?

I haven’t seen the film yet (although I plan to), and twentieth-century history isn’t really my thing, so I’m hesitant to weigh in.  What do you folks think?

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1 Comment

Filed under History and Memory

One response to “Selma and LBJ: Do filmmakers owe anything to historical figures?

  1. Most moviegoers today, for various reasons, don’t have a detailed knowledge of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement. They are most apt to accept as fact what movies like “Selma” portray. Movie producers should be held accountable for accuracy as much as historical novelists are by its readers.

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