Oscar nominations haven’t been announced yet, but there’s already a campaign to dethrone an Oscar hopeful. Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, is a solid choice for film critics (100% on Rotten Tomatoes), but in the weeks following its release, the film has come up against criticism for its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During a time when the holiday season detracts from awards season, historians and former members of the Johnson administration voiced their concerns with the film.
Three days before the film’s release, Mark K. Updegrove, the director of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, wrote a piece in Politico, titled, “What Selma Gets Wrong.”
In the film, President Johnson resists King’s pressure to sign a voting rights bill, which—according to the movie’s take—is getting in the way of dozens of other Great Society legislative priorities. Indeed, “Selma’s” obstructionist LBJ is devoid of any palpable conviction on voting rights. Vainglorious and power hungry, he unleashes his zealous pit bull, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, on King, who is determined to march in protest from Selma to Montgomery despite LBJ’s warning that it will be “open season” on the protesters. This characterization of the 36th president flies in the face of history. In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history.
These smear campaigns against films helmed by women are yet another sign of the disparity of the treatment of men and women in the film industry. So are these smear campaigns a gender issue or simply a coincidence?
As someone who knows enough about the industry to know that the Academy Awards are certainly not based on merit or artistry, but rather on money and publicity, it was still hard to believe smear campaigns were a reality until the 2013 Oscar race when Zero Dark Thirty‘s awards season chances quickly diminish.
So what can women do about these smear campaigns directed at films by women? Go see films directed by women, support these filmmakers any way you can, whether it’s by filling theaters or participating in social media campaigns. We may not be able to change Academy voters minds, but we can continue drawing attention to gender disparities and focus on the positive changes. Michelle MacLaren directing Wonder Woman, for instance.
While it’s unclear what effect the controversy will have on Selma and DuVernay’s Oscar chances, let’s hope that in the future, audiences and Academy voters learn how to think for themselves rather than be carried away by the most recent awards season smear campaign. Man or Woman.