"Selma" critics question accuracy of LBJ's role in civil rights

Foreground: David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films.

Photo credit: Atsushi Nishijima

Last Updated Jan 2, 2015 8:29 AM EST

The Golden Globe-nominated biopic "Selma," which recounts the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, is generating buzz - for its promise at the upcoming Oscars, but also for its questionable portrayal of a critical moment in U.S. civil rights history.

A December 1964 meeting in the Oval Office is reenacted on the big screen: Martin Luther King, Jr. entreats the help of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to ensure voting rights for black Americans. "Mr. President," King says in the film, "in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders... we need your help."

Johnson, according to the movie's account, responds with a condescending pat on the shoulder and a line that some historians and first-hand witnesses reject: "Dr. King, this thing's just going to have to wait."

The former president's aides have combated the depiction of Johnson as a barrier for progress, arguing that he had a diplomatic relationship with King and was always receptive to the civil rights leader's concerns. Even a former lieutenant to King, who attended the meeting in question, disputed the film's account.

"It was not very tense at all - we were very much welcomed by President Johnson," former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, told the Washington Post. "He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation."

Joseph Califano Jr., who was Johnson's domestic policy chief, went so far as to say that "Selma was LBJ's idea." In a December 26th Washington Post column, Califano cited a taped phone conversation between King and Johnson.

"Find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina," Johnson is heard advising King. "Take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television."

The film's director, Ava DuVernay, who is the first African American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director of a motion picture, defended her portrayal in a Twitter post: "Notion that Selma was LBJ's idea is jaw dropping and offensive to [civil rights groups] and black citizens who made it so."

"Selma," which debuted in select theaters on Christmas Day, stars David Oyelowo as King, Tom Wilkinson as Johnson, and also features Cuba Gooding, Jr., Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo, Looraine Toussaint and Oprah Winfrey.

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