Selma, director Ava DuVernay’s dramatic depiction of the events surrounding to the famous civil rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery to protest restrictions preventing black people from exercising their right to vote, was released last winter to much critical acclaim. And rightfully so: the film is a beautiful, moving depiction of the struggle to obtain basic rights that never should have been denied in the first place. Yet there were some who took issue with Selma's depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) and his role in the events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. DuVernay’s film showed Johnson as a reluctant participant in the movement, someone who understood why Dr. King was so passionate about these issues, but would have preferred to focus on the War on Poverty. LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove argued that LBJ was much more supportive of the movement than the film showed, adding, "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.”
JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness is a documentary from PBS that seems specifically designed to support Updegrove’s point of view.
It chronicles LBJ’s ascent to the presidency following JFK’s assassination, and how he devoted the first two years in office to passing important civil rights legislation that had been a priority of his much-beloved predecessor. Despite Kennedy having been given equal weight in the title, he barely figures in the film apart from as a ghost. Rather, the film is all about LBJ, portraying him as a stubborn and unlikely civil rights hero from Texas who was willing to risk losing the loyalty of his fellow Southerners “for a generation” in order to end segregation and ensure that black people had the right to vote. An inspiring story, to be sure, though a rather one-sided one; in this film, Dr. King barely even features. (Fortunately, Congressman John Lewis does show up to give his say; “The march from Selma to Montgomery is as fresh as the morning dew in my mind,” he muses in one particularly moving moment.) Instead, the film focuses on storylines starring LBJ at his most heroic, such as when he butted heads with his former mentor and unabashed white supremacist, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, over the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Russell led a seemingly never-ending filibuster to keep the bill from becoming law.
Director Alastair Layzell pieces his film together with audio footage from secret White House tapes; reenactments of pivotal moments between LBJ and his personal secretary Gerri Whittington, who was the first black secretary to be employed by the White House; and interviews with experts like renowned historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her husband, Richard Goodwin, who was a speechwriter for LBJ. All of these various components are tied together by narration from Morgan Freeman. Overall, the film is well-made; it just gives the viewer an overwhelming sensation of having been told only one side of the story. While LBJ does deserve to have more of a presidential legacy than Vietnam, JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness seems intent on making him into the stereotypical white savior. If one could find the happy medium between this film’s version of him and Selma’s, then perhaps one would have the most accurate depiction of his role in these events. Until then, I imagine that LBJ will continue to be one of the more divisive leaders in the history of the United States.
DVD Bonus Features
There are no DVD special features.
"JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness" is on sale September 1, 2015 and is not rated. Documentary. Directed by Alastair Layzell. Starring Morgan Freeman.