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Can Hollywood handle the truth?

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

Lyndon Johnson with Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in 1964. [Click on image for larger view.]


A friend emailed from Ireland recently to say: “I was looking forward to seeing Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of LBJ. I don’t think I’ll bother now.”

He directed me to a blog at the New York Review of Books penned by Elizabeth Drew. “By distorting an essential truth about the relationship between Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King over the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” she wrote, “‘Selma’ has opened a very large and overdue debate over whether and how much truth the movie industry owes to the public.”

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My friend, being passionate about both history and politics as well as intellectually serious, believes it owes it a lot.

Drew continued: “The clear implication is that Johnson was opposed to a voting rights bill, period, and that he had to be persuaded by King. This story has now been propagated to millions of viewers, to the point where young people in movie houses boo Johnson’s name.

“But there was no struggle. This is pure fiction,” she said.

Drew wrote what some consider the best book ever on Watergate – “Washington Journal,” first published in 1974 when she was 39, and reissued by Overlook Press last summer. As a meticulous political commentator with a long memory, her criticism of historical inaccuracy carries some weight. She had this to say in the same blog post about a work telling the story of a series of encounters that took place in 1977. “Both the play and the movie ‘Frost/Nixon’ base the plot on a historical falsehood: Nixon agonizingly utters a confession he didn’t make; in fact it turns what he actually said on its head by leaving out some crucial works."

Two decades ago, Anthony Summers, the County Waterford-based author of a much admired book about the Kennedy assassination, “Conspiracy,” took exception to Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” He said that the director could have made just as fine a movie by sticking to the facts.

Stone, though, has a peculiar relationship with facts. Interviewed on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” at the time of the 50th anniversary, he made two ridiculously contradictory statements about the Zapruder film, which Goodman failed to call him on.

I’ll admit that I can be a bore sometimes about such things. Recently, when I raised my issues about Stone’s version with someone who writes about cinema, he said: “Yeah, but ‘JFK’ is a bloody great film.” And many believe the same thing about Alan Parker’s “Mississippi Burning,” which at the time of its release in 1988, a Time magazine columnist labeled a "cinematic lynching of the truth."

Movie people, when defending their treatment of historical material, say that they are not documentarians, which is the position of “Selma” director Ava DuVernay. When you’re telling a real story, you’ve got to be creative, they say.

Then, there are those who feel that when telling a fictional story, you have to get real. James Joyce, for example, would often contact his connections back home to ask about some detail or other when writing “Ulysses.” You could see he’d have made a hard-core American Civil War reenactor, obsessing about buttons and threads and ensuring that the correct regional foods be consumed before a “battle.”

One could imagine, too, Joyce enjoying the atmospheric “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, at least until being tripped up by some inaccuracy or other. It might be the moment when the president is introduced to two wounded soldiers, one of whom is called Kevin.

“Kevin?” he’d shriek.

There are 2,731 male Kevins listed in the 1940 U.S. Census, a small fraction of the number around today. But, the 1860 U.S. Census lists precisely four. Three of them, to be sure, were Irish immigrants of military age, and the fourth a baby, but it’s not a name any self-regarding reenactor would choose.

So, everyone has his or her own ideas about authenticity. DuVernay’s film is about history from below. She is not interested in another white-man-as-savior story. And so LBJ is a composite stand-in for all the well-meaning liberal politicians, including JFK, who dragged their heels on voting rights.

Amy Davidson of the New Yorker is among those who has defended DuVernay. “Her film is fair to Johnson; the portrayal is multifaceted and respectful,” Davidson wrote in a blog, “and fully cognizant of his essential commitment to civil rights. What ‘Selma’ is not, though, is cartoonish or deferential. Is that, again, the problem?”

Indeed, is it even possible to be “fair” to a complex, large-than-life figure like LBJ? Robert Caro has written four volumes so far of his “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” (he has yet to reach the events of Selma) and you might think he’s the last word on the 36th president. But not everybody finds his psychoanalytical take on him so compelling. Caro might respond – in the manner of DuVernay and most authors and filmmakers in the same position – “There’s just no pleasing some people.”