Film Reaction: L.B.J. (1968) by Santiago Alvarez
As one of the co-founders of the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), Santiago Alvarez was a part of a generation of filmmakers that were committed to the Cuban Revolution and in revolutionizing the nation’s cinema. Alvarez produced over 600 films during his career and what has been consistent in his work is, “the style of hatred for imperialism” (Chanan 228). One of the most masterful expressions of this aesthetic was displayed L.B.J. which critiques American imperialism by satirizing Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Alvarez takes the initials from former President Johnson to represent three political leaders. L is for Martin Luther King, Jr., B stands for Robert (Bobby) Kennedy and J is for John Kennedy. These three men are represented in the opening credits. A cartoon of a three window slot machine appears and after the lever is pulled, the initials LBJ appear. This slot machine becomes one of the film’s motifs. It appears three times to open the section on each historical figure. Michael Chanan also notes that the title L.B.J. “is a bold play on the strange coincidence that the corpses of these men littered Johnson’s ascent” (233). The deaths of each of these charismatic leaders contributed some kind of incredible boost to Johnson’s political career. Johnson became president of the United States after JFK was murdered; the assassination of Robert Kennedy meant that he was no longer an opponent for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1968, and Johnson used the turmoil over the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to galvanize political support for the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discriminatory practices in renting or selling homes (The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives Thematic Series: The 1960s).
Despite his accomplishments in passing civil rights legislation and numerous social welfare policies, Johnson left the White House with one of the lowest approval ratings in history. This was due mostly to the American public’s disproval of his escalation of the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, in Cuba his role in the Vietnam War was just one example to Cubans of a series of imperialist policies that he supported. He was part of the Kennedy administration which mounted several unsuccessful missions to assassinate Fidel Castro. Johnson also supported anti-communist governments in Latin America and the overthrow of democratically-elected left wing presidents in the Dominican Republic and Brazil.
Alvarez critiques imperialism by using cowboy images, which conveys qualities that many Americans want to be associated with: grit, gumption, individuality, and independence. Johnson was one of several presidents who cultivated this persona to convince the public of his capabilities as a leader. Alvarez demonstrates this by including numerous photographs of Johnson on horseback. However, he also includes a scene from a Western film to critique the cowboy myth. At the beginning of the clip it appears that a cowboy is having a friendly exchange with a group of Native Americans. As the scene continues, a cavalry appears on the horizon and next scenes depict a battle and the destruction of the Native American community’s village. This communicates Alvarez’s observation that by associating himself with the cowboy hero, Johnson is continuing a legacy of genocide, theft of indigenous resources, and destruction of sovereign nations.
Chanan, Michael. Cuban Cinema (Cultural Studies of the Americas, 14).
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
"Johnson, Lyndon Baines."The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives Thematic Series: The 1960s. Ed. William L. O'Neill and Kenneth T. Jackson. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2009. http://galenet.galegroup.com.library.esc.edu/servlet/BioRC