With a Broadway hit-turned HBO film and a Woody Harrelson movie to come, LBJ is abruptly back at the forefront of Americas consciousness and how we view him says a lot about our own times
Most historical cinemas uncover more about the time the latter are stimulated than the epoch they illustrate, so when a single historical figure has a sudden culture renaissance, its got to mean something important. Consider the case of LBJ. In the last few years, Lyndon B Johnson has been ubiquitous in our culture: on the stage, the silver screen, and even on Tv. He popped up in The Butler and Selma, and received a small but important mention in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Look of Silence. Most famously, Bryan Cranston won a Tony award for playing LBJ in Robert Schenkkans All the Way . The Broadway play , now an HBO movie that premiered last month, holds the key to understanding why the 36 th chairperson has abruptly become relevant again. Its an effort to reclaim Johnsons legacy from that of a cold-hearted politician who escalated the Vietnam war to a master negotiator who, through Washington insider-ism and sheer ingenuity, willed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into existence.
And yet any time you try to pigeonhole Johnson, he slips out of your comprehend. All the Waycaptures him in all of his frustrating complexity, and his contradictory nature lets his meaning to ebb and flow with hour. Even in the last few years since he has enjoyed this newfound cultural relevancy he has become a political football. His legacy, so integral to our understanding of todays racial politics, has once again become a matter of debate, and several film-makers have sought to understand our era by exploring his.
Even our current president cannot resist this temptation. Merely after All the Way opened in the spring of 2014, Obama spoke at a three-day festivity of the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Recounting some of Johnsons most famous words, he asked that if a chairperson cant stand up for his values, What the hells the presidency for? Obama also explicitly compared the passage of the Civil Rights Act to his Affordable Care Act. The timing could not have been accidental not for a chairperson so attuned to pop culture. As All the Waywas reclaiming the legacy of LBJ, Obama chose to remind Americans, as his presidency neared the beginning of the end, of his own hard-fought victories. When one critic wrote that All the Way is a portrait of a man who constructed the most of our messy democratic process, comparisons to Obama, who has navigated perhaps an even more divisive political era, are inevitable.
The achievement depicted in All the Wayhas a natural through line to Obama. Without the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we would almost certainly never have elected a black chairperson. But the idea of a white chairman who passes meaningful reforms for black Americans is not so easy to swallow today. Its a depiction of a white savior, that lightning-rod of an archetype that has become a symbol not only for Hollywoods inability to create meaningful for roles for black performers but also our societys failures to allow the black community to be champs of their own liberation.
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