MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: History Is Written By…


Five of the ten top picks for Best Picture nominations by the Gurus o’ Gold are biopics of a sort.

All five of these biopics (of a sort) have controversy around them.

In alphabetical order:
Foxcatcher is said to have some issues in the timing of events in the story.
The Imitation Game has raised the ire of some by not more aggressively portraying the hero’s active sexuality.
Selma has some of LBJ’s advisers feeling that the then-president’s position on voting rights is misleading in the film.
The Theory of Everything is more about the love story and less about the genius.
Unbroken covers the string of harsh incidents and heroism in its central figure’s story, but not the troubles he later has reconciling it.

Now… if you ask 9 out of 10 people who have seen the five films, whether professionals in the industry, journalists, or civilians, you will find that the significance of these “issues” can be directly correlated to how said people feel about each specific film in general.

What seems to be unique to this season is how tightly people are coiled when it comes to the films they support or don’t much like.

If you like The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, you are apparently a moron with no taste and are undemanding about film. If you don’t think that Alan Turing needs to have a tryst with a random man in order for the storytelling to be legitimate, you might be called a homophobe in some corners.

If you don’t connect with Foxcatcher, there is clearly something wrong with your taste level… you are just too lazy to work for something special. If you love Foxcatcher, someone thinks you are a poser.

If Unbroken seems repetitive and underwhelming as the suffering of Louis Zamperini piles up, but the human response to that agony doesn’t seem to pile as high, you are unfeeling. Or, conversely, if you find the beautifully shot, well-acted film to be inspiring, you may be called a rube.

And if you don’t connect with Selma as an important moment in the history of black culture in America, you can be called anything from a simpleton to a excuse-making, self-indulgent white person (almost inevitably a male) to an outright racist. And if you love the film, you may well be accused of being racially biased in reverse of the traditional anti-black bias of our nation (aka pro-black or anti-white or self-loathing white).

The most overt argument over an Oscar contender this season really occurred just this week, care of Joseph Califano. Mr. Califano, 83, served in the Navy for three years, went to a private practice for two-and-a-half years, became counsel to the US military for three years, was Deputy Secretary of Defense for a year, was Lyndon Johnson’s top domestic aide for the last three-and-a-half years of the Johnson administration, went back to the private world, became Jimmy Carter’s Secretary for the H.E.W. for 2.5 years where he helped start government programs for paid hospice care and eliminated the ability of immigration to deport people for being homosexual. He left government 34 years ago. But the guy is a serious leftie with credentials and deserves some respect for that.

He wrote a piece, basically accusing the film Selma, and by direct association, its director Ava DuVernay, who also rewrote the screenplay credited to Paul Webb, of undercutting Lyndon Johnson’s role in the move to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making him falsely seem to be a hindrance to Dr. Martin Luther King, and misleading with the suggestion that LBJ was ultimately forced to move forward by King’s actions and not at a time of his own choice.

Califano also includes a link to a January 1965 phone conversation between Johnson and King that the President dominates, and in which he repeatedly sounds like a much more willing partner than he seems in the film… though anyone seeing the film must admit that it is not a negative portrayal of Johnson, just one in which Johnson prioritizes his overall political agenda over the voting issue and asks King to wait beyond 1965.

Now, Ava DuVernay has tweeted back at the issue: More detail here. LBJ’s stall on voting in favor of War on Poverty isn’t fantasy made up for a film. “@donnabrazile:

The New Yorker piece Ms. DuVernay links to is by Louis Menand and in it, Menand reports that Johnson, “explained to King that he was worried that Southern opposition to more civil-rights legislation would drain support from the War on Poverty and hold up bills on Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education. He asked King to wait.

“King thought that if you waited for the right time for direct action (as nonviolent protests were called) you would never act. So on January 2, 1965, he went to Selma.”

This is what Ms. DuVernay cites as the basis for this part of the film, Selma. Legit reporter, outlet, historical reference. Still, it is a reported piece that relies on witnesses to the events.

Mr. Califano cites the aforementioned taped and transcribed call between Johnson and King, which took place 13 days after Menand reports that King headed to Selma. And in that transcription (which you should read in full for yourself), there are these two chunks..

President Johnson: There’s not going to be anything though, Dr., as effective as all of them voting.

King: That’s right. Nothing–

President Johnson: That’ll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won’t bring, because the fellow will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.

King: And it’s very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn’t carry in the South, the five Southern states,have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote. It’s very interesting to notice. And I think a professor at the University of Texas, in a recent article, brought this out very clearly. So it demonstrates that it’s so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. And it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.

President Johnson: That’s exactly right.


President Johnson: And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

King: Yes. You’re exactly right about that.

President Johnson: And if we do that, we’ll break through as–it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this [19]64 [Civil Rights] Act. I think the greatest achievement of my administration, I think the great achievement in foreign policy, I said to a group yesterday, was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I think this will be bigger because it’ll do things that even that ’64 Act couldn’t do.

King: That’s right.

Now… this doesn’t directly contradict what happens months later in Ms. DuVernay’s script. But it does seem like a portrait of LBJ wanting voting rights for blacks, not only for moral reasons but for practical political reasons, just months before the Selma marches.

But here is my personal bottom line…


I completely understand what Califano is suggesting, even if he is overly aggressive in positing LBJ’s position (claiming the Selma march was LBJ’s idea) and certainly in offering advice to awards voters about not honoring this film. But is he a wild man, hurling damaging crap at a film for no good reason except for his own ego? I don’t think that’s true either. I believe that his view of history is different than DuVernay’s, Menand’s, and many other scholars.

And again… I DON’T CARE.

The film, Selma, is a work of art based on historic reality. Its ambitions are both about history and about drama… just as is every single historic non-documentary you have ever seen. And to add to that, the same as every single documentary you have ever seen. No film can be complete enough, engage every perspective, tell every story, embrace every idea. I can’t speak for the filmmaker, but I would guess that if you gave Ms. Duvernay a couple of years (or less) and a reasonable budget, she could make a great film solely about the relationship between Coretta Scott King and Dr. King. She could make a film about the SCLC or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, etc, etc. I am not asking her to do this, but no doubt, she is deeply conscious of all the stories that came together to live the history she and her team bring to life in Selma.

There are surely examples in the world in which filmmakers have taken huge liberties with reality to make drama and it is morally reprehensible and legally actionable. One can’t even begin to level this accusation against Selma or any of the biographical movies in the Oscar race this year. It is an offensive position to take.

Likewise, I find it offensive that many people now feel the need to piss all over Mr. Califano for publicly stating his position. He lived it. He has as much right as anyone who was a participant to offer their perspective. Offering that perspective doesn’t damage the art work. In fact, for people who care about work, the more perspective the better.

But people will (mostly) perceive this based on what they already believe. If you aren’t interested in Selma or think it unworthy in some way (often sight unseen by many detractors, as with many films), you can use Mr. Califano’s pronouncement as an excuse to not see the film or to attack it. If you are a fan of the film or, in some cases, of a female director or a black director or a film focused primarily on black themes, you may see Califano’s commentary as an attack by an old white man or an apologist for America’s slow movement on civil rights or just the work of some asshole who is trying to keep the movie from rising to its deserved heights.

Personally, I don’t think your feelings about Selma should change one iota because another party to the story wrote an opinion piece about how he recalls history. If I thought the film was about making LBJ look bad, I might feel differently… but I don’t.

And I haven’t spent time worrying about accusations of mishandled fact brought against Dallas Buyer’s Club, American Hustle, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street, Lincoln, Argo, The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech and dozens of other Oscar nominated movies. Nor do I give a rat’s buttocks about acknowledge variations from the historical documents that spawned the films Captain Phillips, Moneyball, 127 Hours, The Blind Side, Frost/Nixon and again, scores of other terrific, popular, awarded films. And we haven’t even gotten to the JFKs and Zero Dark Thirtys of the world.

A couple of years ago, there was a lawsuit pending from the husband in the documentary The Queen of Versailles at the very same time that the wife in the film was running around the country promoting the film. And the couple was still together. It wasn’t he said/she said. it was he was angry about how he was represented in a pretty contemporaneous doc and she was thrilled.

I don’t care whether Selma is a work of precise historical accuracy. I do care how it makes me and other audiences feel, how it makes us think, what it has to say. This is just as true of The Interview and American Sniper and Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything and Unbroken and Big Eyes and The Penguins of Madagascar.

Furthermore, I don’t care who directed or wrote a film in the context of how I experience the film, whether it be a man or a woman, a person of color or a Caucasian or an Asian, a straight person or a gay person, etc etc etc. A white man can make a great movie about a black woman. A black man can make a terrible movie about another black man. A black woman could direct a great movie about a Chinese man who travels to Antarctica to swim in near-ice and then have a sex change. I think there should be more female directors and directors of color in the studio system, but the details of the personal life of the person directing a specific film are irrelevant to me, aside from whether that person can bring forth the best work at the level of ambition the film intends.

Was Waiting To Exhale better for having a man direct or a black man or was what worked about that film that Forest Whitaker, who happened to be both those things, directed? Would it have been better as directed by a woman? I say it would have just been different, just as it would have been different if a different black man directed it or if a White person directed. But “different” and “better” are completely subjective. Maybe a woman would have brought some specific insight to the work… or maybe a gay white man would… or maybe an indie filmmaker who was to young to be waiting to exhale would have… or not.

Politically, I think there are different issues. And they have their place. But making a good movie is a unique challenge for anyone of any race, creed, color, or sex. And some great directors have some profound blind spots.

I asked someone why they did a story about Califano’s op-ed if they didn’t think it had value. And the person responded that they though it was definitely News.

I think it is an interesting footnote. I think a conversation between Califano and Andrew Young and John Lewis would make a great DVD extra. But the movie is the movie. And the history is the history. And if you expect history to be precise and neat, you are willfully ignorant. And if you expect art to sort it out, you are a fool.

Last Note: Someone will be angry with me about this piece. Someone will think I am a hero. Someone will say I am 100% right. Someone will say I am dead wrong. Someone will be pissed that I gave any space to Califano and someone will be pissed that I discounted the importance of his position. That is to be expected. But again, the severity of the positions and the posturing on whatever side is what I find so disturbing these days. If we are going to indulge the idea that people have a right to their opinions, I say, let’s give them all the facts and let them sort it all out for themselves. I love myself, but I must respect the right of others to feel differently, so long as the sides of the discussion are reasoned. How I feel is not the end of a conversation. It is only one side of a conversation, whether the other side agrees with me or not.

Be Sociable, Share!

7 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar: History Is Written By…”

  1. Daniella Isaacs says:

    You’re quite right that the volume of these debates has gotten out of control. Not that this is completely new. I worked for a film programmer who hated Peter Jackson’s KING KONG so much–for reasons he seemed to think were absolutely obvious–that I didn’t dare ask him for some clarification on his opinion. He was so angry about the film that I thought he would fire me on the spot if I said I liked the film–and that was FICTION. For me, though, I think the film shouldn’t be the final word. Films are are just a link in a chain of discourse. Why shouldn’t everyone weigh in with their takes afterwards? Still as you rightly say, the issue isn’t the discussion. It’s the volume.

  2. Jerry says:

    The controversy with The Imitation Game should be the implausible nonsense that occurs after the decoding of the first messages. The in the war suspense additions were pretty stupid though not Argo level of laughably bad suspense additions.

  3. Pj says:

    This is Zero Dark Thirty all over again. It’s already a super late release with screener trouble. This controversy can’t help matters, especially with ballots out.

  4. palmtree says:

    The issue of Imitation Game’s sexuality is even more stark when you remember the only other scene with any sexy flirtation was hetero and was embarrassingly unnecessary and unconvincing. But it doesn’t sink the movie, just makes it less of a contender in my eyes.

  5. Sam E. says:

    If Califano was questioning the integrity of the film that would be one think but it seems to me he’s more someone who had a first person account of the events in the film and wanted to offer his prospective. This is interesting I’m not sure why it’s an entertainment story.

  6. Sean Sweeney says:

    I’ve read about everything I can get my hands on about the Civil Rights Movement over the years (including Taylor Branch’s brilliant series of histories), it’s always been described that LBJ had to have his arm-twisted to act on these matters, he was following the arch of history (and MLK) not creating it.
    Selma was fantastic, but I would of thought the controversy would be on King’s actual role in Selma, many from the era felt after the hard ground work was done he swooped in (with the cameras) and got more credit then he deserved.
    This whole think sounds like the usual pre-Oscar muckruckery by competing studios.

  7. alya says:

    All the controversy with Imitation Game is ridiculous. It’s not a documentary, and for a 2 hour film it gets the name of Alan Turing and his accomplishments out there. You can’t delve into his life as a homosexual fully AND convey his relationships fully (i can’t stop laughing with the ‘no sex scene’ comments. I think about the larger controversy if there actually was one). Truly ridiculous, what people expect in a film. It was still well crafted movie with spectacular performances, score, and editing.

    The issue with Theory of Everything I can understand at some level, but people calling the movie immediate trash gets to me. Again, Hawking’s name is out there, but for a love story it is done alright. I just wished it focused more on his accomplishments rather than his story with his ex wife – in the end I found to sympathize with no character when you were supposed to. Redmayne’s performance was always brilliant though, and he deserves all attention he gets. My main issue with this is the script. I will say that the score is great and tells me how I should be feeling in a particular scene, as at times I do not know whether I should be emoting to certain scenes (everything about the choir teacher and Jane. No.)

    I haven’t seen the other films so I cannot comment on it much.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon