The impact and influence that law has had on the lives of people of the African Diaspora since the 17th century cannot be understated. In the United States, laws limiting the rights of dark-skinned people began not immediately after the first Africans reached its shores, but gradually increased as the business model created around slavery matured. The laws began to create a different reality for people of African descent around 1640, when the association of “servitude for natural life” with people of African descent became common, as evidenced in the case Re Negro John Punch. It was one of the early cases that made a racial distinction among indentured servants. So it went for another 300-plus years with various state laws limiting the enfranchisement of Blacks, with the effect of stymying their social and economic mobility and the enactment of a few civil rights laws most of which, in practice, fell far short of their goals.
The 1960s brought a push for a change and for civil rights laws with teeth. Rob Reiner’s new film “LBJ,” starring Woody Harrelson, is about one of America’s most critical presidential tenures, that of Lyndon Johnson. The film’s screenwriter, Joey Hartstone, who also writes for CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight,” spoke to the New York Amsterdam News for this article. Though at first glance it seems like a traditional biopic, the film is more of a character study. There is a tight focus on Johnson’s years in the White House, although he had accomplished much prior, including becoming Senate majority leader in 1955. Johnson’s presidency was also marked by overwhelming social upheaval over the Vietnam War, but it is barely mentioned in the film. Hartstone explained, “We wanted to focus on the assassination of John Kennedy and the time Johnson served as vice-president and kind of lost his power and then got it all back in one instance, and then really had to take the lead on doing important pieces of legislation in order to secure his presidency.”
There had been civil rights laws dating back to Reconstruction, mainly in reaction to the violence against newly freed Blacks by the Ku Klux Klan. The laws mitigated some of the efforts of the Klan but were not sweeping enough to give Blacks full enfranchisement. In 1960s America, perhaps because of the impression of American social instability given to the world by the Civil Rights Movement, which went into overdrive in the ’50s and ’60s, as well as the realization that Black votes could be leveraged for power by those such as the Irish Catholic Kennedy family, true pressure began to bear on the U.S. government to change things.
As Johnson was famous for his unvarnished political prowess, not surprisingly, “LBJ” takes place mostly in the Oval Office. There are numerous scenes of meetings and heated in-person and telephone exchanges between Johnson and the good ‘ol boys to convince them to get on board with civil rights legislation. Hartstone said, “We wanted to focus on those private conversations in the Oval Office and the argument politically that was happening.” Harrelson, famous for taking on the roles of other controversial historical figures such as Larry Flynt, is almost unrecognizable. The shots are such as to make him, appropriately, seem outsize to the other characters in the film. Johnson’s notorious lack of propriety and vulgarity is also on display. Interestingly, although known to be adulterous throughout his marriage, there is no evidence of it in the film.
Where “LBJ” falters in being a film that purports to document the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is the absence of any African-Americans save for Johnson’s maid, known as Mrs. Wright. There is a scene that shows Johnson’s cook wordlessly moving across the screen, serving Johnson and his pal dinner. Hartstone says that this image was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. “There were many reasons why we chose to tell the story the way we did,” he said. “Even though this was about passing an important piece of civil rights legislation, we knew the movie was never going to be about the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.” Viewers are to believe that Johnson’s annoyance at the fact that his maid was unable to transport his dog across multiple states because of discrimination in accommodations was more influential in his backing civil rights legislation than anything else. The film does do a terrific job of detailing Johnson’s keen ability to negotiate and his doggedly persistent personality. However, that is only part of Johnson’s story. Civil rights organizations had worked very hard to convince the government to push this legislation through. Clarence Mitchell, the chief lobbyist for the NAACP, had tirelessly fought for passage of the civil rights bill throughout the ’50s and ’60s. There is no mention of or reference to him
or his cohorts.
Hartstone said there was discussion of having the Mrs. Wright character speak, but they ultimately decided against it. He said, “We had discussions about should she talk to him, but it would have felt disingenuous because we didn’t want to have a scene where all of a sudden you see Lyndon Johnson really understand the plight of the African-American man because he didn’t really understand it. He was sympathetic only to a point and I think that he was motivated above anything else by politics, and so it would have felt untrue to the character.” Even so, the fact of the bill and the formulation of the bill were influenced by much more than Kennedy’s or Johnson’s experiences with their household employees. Johnson’s African-American Deputy Special Assistant Clifford Alexander was once described by Johnson aide Harry McPherson Jr. to have been respected by Johnson because, “He had just been damn good, performed, had a lot of sense about government policy concerning Blacks.” This opinion is buttressed by the fact that Johnson eventually made Alexander chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Alexander and Mitchell were but two of the many African-Americans who could have at some point had the ear of Johnson. What feels disingenuous is that they were not even mentioned. Even if they were not the ultimate decision makers the film wanted to focus on, they were part of the reason a decision was being made in the first place, and it is an egregious omission that critically weakens what would have otherwise been a worthy film.
“LBJ” hits theaters Nov. 3.