TOPICS > Arts

Director Ava DuVernay on sharing the story of ‘Selma’ and deconstructing American heroes

January 8, 2015 at 6:25 PM EST
The story of the seminal 1965 Alabama civil rights protests is being retold in the historical drama “Selma,” bringing to life the heroism of the activists and the brutality of the resistance. Gwen Ifill talks to director Ava DuVernay about contention over historical discrepancies and why no one has ever attempted to make a feature film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

[nh_lin ks align=”right”]

GWEN IFILL: An emotional and controversial period of American history has led to an emotional and controversial reception for an acclaimed new movie.

We go behind the scenes.

DAVID OYELOWO, Actor: Give us the vote!  We’re not asking.  We’re demanding.  Give us the vote!

ACTORS: Give us the vote!

GWEN IFILL: Two years after “Lincoln,” and one year after “12 Years a Slave,” Hollywood is tackling history again, this time in “Selma,” the story of the seminal Alabama civil rights protests that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It is the first feature film ever to focus on Martin Luther King Jr. and the less well-known activists who forced the nation’s hand 50 years ago.  In limited release, it has won four Golden Globe nominations, standing ovations and rave reviews.

In New York and in Selma itself, community leaders have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to allow middle school students to see the film for free.

DAVID OYELOWO: If you believe all are created equal, come to Selma.  Join us.  Join our march against injustice and inhumanity.

GWEN IFILL: But Selma has also sparked controversy, particularly for its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson’s sometimes prickly relationship with King, who is treated here as more tactician than theologian.

DAVID OYELOWO: We need your help.

TOM WILKINSON, Actor: Dr. King, this thing is just going to have to wait.

DAVID OYELOWO: It cannot wait.

GWEN IFILL: Former Johnson aide Joseph Califano said no one should see the film.  And the head of the LBJ residential Library said the portrayal flies in the face of history.

Mark Updegrove appeared on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”

MARK UPDEGROVE, Director, LBJ Presidential Library:  You don’t quite see how productive that partnership was and how it came to bear on our getting voting rights in this country.

GWEN IFILL: The bulk of the film, however, brings to life the force and the brutality of the resistance to the movement, as well as the heroism of activists like now-Congressman John Lewis, who was severely injured on Bloody Sunday, the first of the three marches across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.  The film opens nationwide tomorrow, in advance of this weekend’s Golden Globe Awards.

I sat down with Ava DuVernay yesterday in New York.

Ava DuVernay, thank you for joining us.

AVA DUVERNAY, Director, “Selma”: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: When I first saw this movie — I have seen it twice — my first time, my heart was in my throat.  The second time, I was looking at it with a little bit of historical scrutiny, because there have been so many questions now raised about the choices that you made.

What has been your response to all of that?

AVA DUVERNAY: My response is that this is art.  This is a movie.  This is a film.  I’m not a historian.  I’m not a documentarian.  I am an artist who explored history.  And what I found, the questions that I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into this project that I have made.

I understand people wanting to see history through their own gaze, through their own lens, and this is the way that I see it.  This is the way that I interpret it.  And so, you know, I can get into a debate about the minutia of history and interpretation, but I’m not a custodian of anyone’s legacy.

I’m not a librarian.  I’m not selling a book.  I’m not trying to maintain an image of anyone, not of King, not of Johnson, not of any of the people that we chronicle in the film.  I’m trying to imbue the film and invite people into the spirit of the movement.  And that was my intention.  That’s what I believe we have done.  And I invite people to come and check it out for themselves.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things I found most surprising about this film is that there had never been a feature film done about Martin Luther King, in which he was the central figure.

Why is that?  And do you think that any of the backlash that you have experienced in the last week or two is related to that?

AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, I mean, I think part of the reason why you have had companies and artists hesitant to dive in, a bunch of reasons, intellectual property issues with the speeches and issues with the estate, ideas about films with black protagonists not being at the top of the list of the studios to make.

But, certainly, all the different camps and constituencies, constituents — all the different camps and constituencies around this issue have made it challenging for filmmakers to feel like they could be free in telling the story as they saw it.

And that’s strangled the story for longer than it should have.  I mean, 50 years since the events that we have chronicled, and never a major motion picture with King at the center.

GWEN IFILL: You make the point about the stories that were told and were not told.

One of the most surprising things I have heard is that people who saw that the title was “Selma” and that Oprah was affiliated with the project thought this was a movie about a woman named Selma played by Oprah.  I am surprised at that.

AVA DUVERNAY: That is the time that we’re in.

I mean, that — some of the questions that I have heard, some of the statements that I have heard as we have taken the film across the country, jaw-dropping at what people don’t know, you know?  Selma doesn’t resonate with people in the way that it should, as being just such a cornerstone for democracy, in terms of what it’s done for voting rights and equality.

People don’t even know what that is.  We open the film with the scene of four little girls and the Birmingham bombing.  And this is just a quintessential, pivotal point of departure for everything that happened after in the movement.  And yet I have people walking up to me saying, is that real?  Did that — did that really happen?

I mean, someone said to me, Dr. King wasn’t really 39 when he died, was he?

GWEN IFILL: You have been nominated for a Golden Globe for best director, first African-American woman ever.  David Oyelowo has been nominated for best actor.  Why didn’t you call this movie “King”?  He is such a central figure in it.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, he’s a central figure in it, but “Selma” is not King’s only story.

I felt very, very adamant about the fact that this film be broadened to include the community of people who came together to make this so.  Truly, they were not a monolith.  There were all kinds of different ideas about how to achieve the goal.  That’s something that we really talk about in the film quite a bit.

There were a bunch of different organizations, personalities, people, ideas about how to get there, how to keep their eyes on the prize.  But they did.  And they were able to come together around this one voice that amplified the message.  And so that is the beauty of King to me.  He was a leader of people, so you have to show the people to understand the greatness of his leadership.

And to not do that, I think, is missing a big opportunity.  So it was important to kind of deconstruct our heroes, whether it be King, whether it be LBJ, and really kind of distill their relationship down to some key scenes.

It wasn’t always smooth.  These were two great minds who often were in a chess match.  To say that this was a skip in the park and they were holding hands the whole way is to really just be really disingenuous about what was happening at that point.

You know, we’re in a — at a time in history where everything was on fire and everything was being questioned.  And that’s what’s we’re doing on film.

GWEN IFILL: Did you leave the impression that Johnson was more complicit in things like the FBI tracking of King than he was?

AVA DUVERNAY: Complicit?  I have questions about it.  I have questions about it.  And those questions, I have put into the film.

There’s never a scene where we say very clearly that Johnson ordered the tape or commanded that something be done.  But it does leave room for the gray areas, as I see them.

And so all of my questions, all of my ideas, all of my thoughts about this time in history are in this interpretation of Selma.  It is one vision of it.  It’s not the only, it’s not the absolute correct one.  It’s one. And it’s valid.

I mean, one of the op-eds that was written had the words, this film should be ruled out for the Christmas season and awards season.  That was the last line of Joseph Califano’s op-ed.

I just think that is disturbing.  It’s against the very ideals of what Johnson’s legacy that we’re talking about stood for.  If we’re talking about equality, if we’re talking about voice, then let this voice be heard.

Let me just say that Johnson — the Johnson character gets applause in most screenings at the end of the film, when he gives the “We shall overcome” speech.  I mean, audiences are going on an emotional journey with him.  They’re seeing a beginning, middle, and end, an arc to that character that starts at one place and ends in another that is very triumphant and positive.  And so that’s what I would invite people to — to just see the movie and check out.

GWEN IFILL: Ava DuVernay, thank you so much.

AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: One of the challenges Ava DuVernay faced was that she wasn’t given rights to let her actors use the actual speeches of Dr. King, but she channeled the words anyway.

You can watch more of my conversation with her about that on our Web site.

SHARE VIA TEXT