Before the release of Selma, I wonder how many people ever reflected on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s attitude toward the 1965 marches in Selma. I wonder if anybody thought that conventional wisdom afforded him either too much or too little credit for the Voting Rights Act. I imagine that Johnson’s legacy was not on the average American’s radar until Selma ripped it into the public consciousness.
The movie compelled many Americans to reconsider their perceptions of Johnson. The curators of his legacy lambasted the film for portraying the 35th president as a prickly antagonist to Martin Luther King Jr., asserting that the film unfairly reduces Johnson to an irascible politician who was forced by King into advancing the Voting Rights Act. Joseph A. Califano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965 to 1969, wrote in the Washington Post that Selma distorts these facts so considerably that the movie "should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards seasons." Selma director Ava DuVernay fired back, tweeting that the "notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping."
How can subjects such as this remain dormant for long periods of time, only to be awakened by a critically acclaimed film? Califano is not the first, nor will he be the last, to mount a defense of a historical figure who is shortchanged by a movie. After the 2012 release of Lincoln, U.S. Representative Joe Courtney, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote to Steven Spielberg to complain that the film erroneously showed two of his state’s legislators voting against the amendment that abolished slavery. The 2012 release of the Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady prompted Rob Wilson, a member of parliament, to call for a debate in the British House of Commons, claiming that its director, Phyllida Lloyd, painted an "intrusive and unfair" picture of the former prime minister.