Women directors have much to live down before they can be taken seriously. Most of the heads of the five families in the film industry do not trust women to direct, partly because of the money thing. And partly because, deep down, they don’t think women can bring it. Angelina Jolie just proved that she can take a movie with very bad reviews and still open big at the box office. She might even prove a woman can take said film into the Best Picture race just like the men can (Daldry’s The Reader and Daldry’s Extremely Loud both squeezed in with equally bad, or worse, reviews). Not many are heading into the territory of “Unbroken doesn’t tell the whole story about Louis Zamperini,” which included alcoholism and verbal abuse of his wife before the war, then his Christian reform to become a better man through Billy Graham after the war. She can be, and will be, forgiven because she was paying tribute to him, not trying to tear him down.
But the real threat this year is from another film directed by a woman that’s better, and therefore more of a threat. It’s so good, in fact, that it is one of two other films that threaten the current Best Picture frontrunner. It’s so good that it’s being taken seriously enough by the guardians of the status quo, the powers that be, who are trying to shift the conversation from Martin Luther King, Jr. and voting rights to Lyndon B. Johnson. Preserve the white man’s reputation at all costs, is the message here. “Shame on Ava DuVernay for not making LBJ the hero of SELMA.”
The LBJ library director was angry because the portrait of LBJ wasn’t sympathetic enough, “When racial tension is so high, it does no good to suggest that the president of the U.S. himself stood in the way of progress a half-century ago. It flies in the face of history,” he told the AP. The LBJ library is to Lyndon B. Johnson as Unbroken is to Louis Zamperini – it exists mainly to pay tribute. The headlines were misleading in this regard – what they should be saying is that this person, the director of the LBJ library, has a problem with how LBJ is portrayed.
Though Johnson is credited with being the first US president to push for groundbreaking civil rights legislation, his legacy is not without its blemishes. Here’s Barack Obama speaking on LBJ at that very library:
“During his first 20 years in Congress he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation a farce and a shame.”
That was picked apart by the right (of course) but then
rated as “true” by Politifact, based on these snippets in Caro’s book:
–In 1947, after President Harry S Truman sent Congress proposals against lynching and segregation in interstate transportation, Johnson called the proposed civil rights program a “farce and a sham–an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.”
–In his 1948 speech in Austin kicking off his Senate campaign, Johnson declared he was against Truman’s attempt to end the poll tax because, Johnson said, “it is the province of the state to run its own elections.” Johnson also was against proposals against lynching “because the federal government,” Johnson said, “has no more business enacting a law against one form of murder than against another.”
Next, we asked an expert in the offices of the U.S. Senate to check on Johnson’s votes on civil rights measures as a lawmaker. By email, Betty Koed, an associate historian for the Senate, said that according to information compiled by the Senate Library, in “the rare cases when” such “bills came to a roll call vote, it appears that” Johnson “consistently voted against” them or voted to stop consideration.
LBJ biographer Robert Caro wrote about LBJ:
“For no less than 20 years in Congress, from 1937 to 1957, Johnson’s record was on the side of the South. He not only voted with the South on civil rights, but he was a southern strategist, but in 1957, he changes and pushes through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.”
In other words, Johnson had a major turnaround. One of the best things about Selma was, to me, how it humanized Johnson and beautifully illustrated that turnaround. That voting rights came to pass so late in American history, in my own childhood, is a mark against our collective character that no president, however passionately he changed his mind, can erase. That little girls had to be accompanied by law enforcement on their way to church and school in the 1960s, for godsakes, can’t be erased. That southern African American citizens were prevented from registering to vote, that the panicked white authorities still removed drinking fountains in the 1960s because a black person used one – that isn’t going to be erased so easily.
The point here is what AD reader Bob Burns said, “if the discussion becomes about LBJ and not voting rights, the bigots win.”
The moment those headlines started to appear my first thought was, “uh-oh, someone is really worried about Selma’s Oscar potential.” The same thing happened with Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. It almost happened with 12 Years a Slave last year but that script did not deviate significantly from Solomon Northup’s account.
Believe me, if Unbroken had actually been good enough to win Best Picture, if its reviews were off the charts great, if Angelina Jolie had lived up to the kind of hype they’re selling for this film? You can bet it would be taken apart for fact-checking the way Selma is. Jolie isn’t getting smacked down because she is confirming what most people secretly think about women directors: they can’t direct. But Selma shows that Ava DuVernay, this unlikely contender who turned her life around in her 40s — who is also an activist for civil rights and an advocate for black filmmakers — DID make a great film. Not just a film that people like, but a film with reviews so good it has become one of Boyhood’s challengers. That is why people are getting nervous. She’s rocking the boat, my friends. She’s definitely rocking the boat.
Here a few basic facts to consider.
1) Selma is not a documentary. As a fictionalized, impressionist take on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, it is not meant to be. Selma is a beautifully rendered battle cry for a movement that still needs mobilization in 2014.
2) The portrait of LBJ is sympathetic. There was resistance to King. History tells us so. But LBJ is not painted as a menace to change, just part of a cog in a giant machine. If someone wants to make a movie about LBJ they can go ahead and do that. That is not THIS movie.
3) The bigger picture here is that with Selma, DuVernay is doubly threatening. She’s a threat because she’s female and black, and Selma is a threat because it’s actually good. This is no condescending pat on the back with a “good job.” This is a potential game-changer.
Note: Why do I compare Selma and Unbroken? They are both films about American heroes that were given to women to direct. They both opened on Christmas Day. One has a giant studio and a superstar behind it and one has a wing and a prayer. One opened big in 3100 theaters nationwide with terrible reviews, one opened quietly in 19 showcase theaters with rave reviews. It isn’t about pitting them against one another – it’s about noticing how differently they are being treated by the public, the press and the fans.