Truth takes a back seat in another historical movie

As the uproar died down over the Hollywood comedy that depicted the fictitious assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, another movie came under fire for taking liberties with the truth. The film in question, "Selma," seemed to some critics to characterize the late President Lyndon B. Johnson as a reluctant dragon against civil rights.

Prominent defenders of LBJ, led by his close White House aide Joe Califano, expressed outrage that the movie portrayed Johnson, a critical figure in the history of civil rights in the United States, as somewhat less than a chief architect of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


The events depicted in the film -- the civil rights marches from heavily segregated Selma, Ala., to the state capital, Montgomery, and the savage beating marchers received crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma -- triggered broad indignation and furor across the country. Among the brutally injured was the young civil rights leader John Lewis, now a distinguished member of Congress from Georgia.

The movie portrays LBJ as introducing the legislation in question under duress from the civil rights movement. It also incorrectly suggests that Johnson directed then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to bug King's hotel room in a quest for information with which to smear him.


Mr. Califano rushed to the defense of his old boss, arguing that Johnson "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."

Civil rights leaders, including King, certainly did pressure LBJ for speedier and tougher government action. But even they did not question Johnson's basic commitment to the cause of equal rights for the nation's blacks.

The movie's director, Ava duVernay, has strongly defended her depiction of events, saying: "I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie. I was interested in making a movie more centered on the people of Selma."

She went on to observe that "Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we were talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protector of a legacy -- he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart."

But she conceded that "absolutely" other presidents would not have done so "even if they could." Mr. Califano's statement that the Selma protest "was LBJ's idea," she wrote, "is jaw dropping and offensive to" the organizers of the march at the bridge.

Also, in a tweet dated Dec. 28, she wrote: "Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don't take my word for it, or LBJ rep's word for it. Let it come alive for yourself." In other words, let her vision of history be the last word. That seems like a variation on the old joke: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

The controversy is the latest example of the liberties taken with facts in the making of films about historical events. Some who have defended "Selma" as a stirring re-enactment of a pivotal episode in the civil rights movement, including Rep. Lewis, have also hastened to confirm that Johnson was a partner of King in the long campaign for equal rights for African-Americans.

Earlier films about recent historical figures, such as those Oliver Stone has made about former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, have been widely criticized for their shaky fidelity to the facts. It has been argued with considerable grounds that these films mislead viewers who have not lived through the episodes and times depicted.


In a time when journalism, history and entertainment are intertwined so readily and easily, it's difficult enough for readers and viewers to recognize and separate the sheep from the goats, whether presented in print, on videotape or on the silver screen. Why must there ever be a compromise -- or worse -- between serving up the truth and entertaining?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is