HBO is airing a truly important film. ‘All the Way’ is a play by Robert Schenkkan adapted for film. It tells the story of President Lyndon Johnson’s advocacy for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The film chronicles the effort expended by President Johnson to get the Act through Congress.
The two primary actors, Bryan Cranston as Johnson and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird both are admirable actors and they bring authenticity to the film. Anthony Mackie tackles the Martin Luther King, Jr. character with grace, force and empathy. According to a 1964 Time Magazine article by Dr. King, his relationship with President Johnson was complicated, but in the article, King touts President Johnson as having a “comprehensive grasp” of social issue. “He has seen that poverty and unemployment are grave and growing catastrophes, and he is aware that those caught most fiercely in the grip of this economic holocaust are Negroes. Therefore, he has set the twin goal of a battle against discrimination within the war against poverty.”
The film, clearly about L.B.J., gives fair measure to the brilliance of Dr. King as well. In one scene, Johnson says to King, “Get your ministers and union guys to get this bill out of committee!” It was HB736, the Civil Rights Act and it was stuck in a Congressional committee and could have died there. But Johnson sought the kind of pressure needed to get it unstuck and he called upon his colleague, Dr. King for help.
People who decry our political system would do well to see this film. Viewers can see the “inside” of a political system that can work given the right leadership. Viewers will also see a time when Republicans and Democrats could disagree strongly, perhaps even over a collegial dinner together.
Steven Spielberg has given us a sober look into behind-the-scenes politics and how it’s been done for decades. We also see how law enforcement conspired with the prevailing racism of that day. Three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were pulled over by a deputy sheriff. Their bodies were discovered days later, martyrs in the cause of justice.
When southern delegations threatened to walk out of the Democratic presidential nominating convention we see LBJ calling the governor of Georgia. “Make up your mind what kind of Christian you are,” LBJ says to the governor. “Are you a once-a-week fella or is it in your heart?” Perhaps we need to ask ourselves this same question.