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President is stinted and even maligned by film, scholars say

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Was Lyndon B. Johnson a civil rights mastermind, or a reluctant follower pulled along by activists led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

The question has long been a matter of contention, even flaring up in the 2008 presidential primary battle between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.

And now, it has also come to another hard-fought political campaign, the Oscar race, once again raising the fraught question of who makes history — and who gets to write it.

The new film "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay, has won rave reviews and awards buzz for its depiction of the tense maneuvering surrounding the protests in that small town in March 1965, as King (played by David Oyelowo) contended with racist authorities in Alabama as well as factions inside the civil rights movement.

But it has also drawn some sharp criticism for its depiction of Johnson as a laggard on black voting rights who opposed the marches and even unleashed the FBI in an effort to stop King’s campaign.

The charge began Dec. 22, three days before the movie’s release, when Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, wrote an article in Politico saying that the film was trying to "bastardize one of the most hallowed chapters in the civil rights movement." A few days later, Joseph A. Califano Jr., a former top domestic aide to Johnson, issued another salvo, in The Washington Post, accusing the filmmakers of deliberately ignoring the historical record.

The criticism of the film’s depiction of the president has come not just from Johnson loyalists, but from some historians who said they admired other aspects of the film.

"Everybody has to take license in movies like this, and it can be hard for nitpickers like me to suspend nitpicking," said Diane McWhorter, the author of "Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution."

"But with the portrayal of LBJ," she continued, "I kept thinking, ‘Not only is this not true, it’s the opposite of the truth.’"

Debates over the historical accuracy of movies, amplified by the heat of awards season, are nothing new. In 2013, Kathryn Bigelow’s "Zero Dark Thirty" was denounced as endorsing torture. Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln," another best picture nominee that year, drew criticism from historians who said it promoted an outmoded "great man" view of history and ignored the crucial role of African-Americans in emancipating themselves.

The dispute over "Selma," the first major feature film squarely about King and the rare studio offering directed by a black woman, may have particularly charged present-day resonances.

Julian E. Zelizer, the author of the new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress and the Battle for the Great Society," said it recalled the moment in the 2008 primary when Clinton declared that King’s dream of equality only "began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act" of 1964, prompting accusations that she was diminishing King as part of her own effort to best an African-American political rival.

"The debate isn’t just about LBJ, but about how American politics works," said Zelizer, who teaches history at Princeton. "Is it a matter of powerful elected leaders, or average people who put their bodies on the line?"

The sparring over "Selma," which is set for wide release Jan. 9, has certainly taken on a populists-versus-establishmentarians tinge. In his op-ed article, Califano wrote that the Selma marches were "LBJ’s idea," citing a transcript of a phone call two months before the marches in which Johnson urged King to generate white political support for a voting rights bill by seeking out "the worst condition that you run into" in the South and getting images of racist brutality widely circulated in the news media.

In a Twitter post Sunday, DuVernay called the notion that Selma was Johnson’s idea "jaw dropping and offensive" to the "black citizens who made it so." People, DuVernay added, should "interrogate history" for themselves. (A spokeswoman for Paramount Pictures, the distributor of "Selma," said that DuVernay was not available for comment for this article.)

Gary May, a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware and the author of "Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy," said the heightened rhetoric on both sides was unsurprising.

"Here you have the first film about King, and some people are coming in and saying, ‘The story is really about the white people,’" he said. "In historical truth, the story was really about everybody."

Johnson has been the focus of a rehabilitation campaign among historians and others eager to burnish a legacy shadowed by the Vietnam War and by a lingering popular view of him as "a Southern racist in liberal clothing," as Zelizer put it.

May, who said he had communicated informally with DuVernay over the past year after sending her a copy of his book, said that at a preview screening for invited guests in November, some audience members hissed when Johnson appeared.

"On balance, the film is a positive force," he said. But in the Johnson scenes, he said, "there is a problem with the tone."

Some civil rights historians, while questioning Califano’s wording, agreed with his broader point that Johnson and King were partners, not adversaries.

"Selma was not Johnson’s idea, but he was happy that King was out there mounting a voting rights campaign," said David J. Garrow, the author of "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," who has not yet seen the movie.

The movie’s depiction of Johnson’s attitude toward FBI surveillance of King’s personal life, which began during the Kennedy administration, is particularly problematic, several historians said.

In an early scene, Johnson seems disgusted by J. Edgar Hoover’s suggestion that King — "a political and moral degenerate," Hoover says — be taken down. But later the president, angered by King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of King moaning with a lover.

In fact, the tape, which Coretta King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of her husband’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson, Garrow said.

"If the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ," he said.

It is true, historians say, that Johnson was hesitant to introduce a voting rights bill so soon after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But May noted that on Dec. 14, 1964, Johnson directed his attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, to begin drafting such a bill — a fact the film does not mention, he said.

Also omitted, Zelizer said, is the fact that when the Selma marches began, Katzenbach was already negotiating secretly with members of Congress over the eventual bill.

"They obviously wanted to create a villain, and really miss who Lyndon Johnson was," he said.

The movie, Zelizer said, does a powerful job of depicting the courage of the activists, and the tactical genius of King. And it gets one thing absolutely right: the crucial role of the movement in pushing Johnson to act more quickly than he thought was possible.

"The real story wasn’t about a president who didn’t want voting rights," he said. "It was about a president who couldn’t get them through. And it was the civil rights movement that made that possible."

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