Director Ava DuVernay has faced a storm ever since aides to President Lyndon B. Johnson attacked her portrayal of the Great Society architect in her film “Selma.”
At issue is the characterization of Johnson and his role in the civil rights movement — and whether he had to be pressured into backing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On Tuesday, after “Selma” was shut out of nominations for Producer’s Guild awards, allies rallied to support DuVernay in print and in person. The PGAs are considered the most reliable predictors of Oscar winners — for the past seven years, the PGA pick for Best Picture has won the Oscar as well.
Journalist Gay Talese was one of several who offered vehement defenses against charges that DuVernay misrepresented history. Talese not only spoke at a swanky luncheon at the Metropolitan Club in New York hosted by Paramount Pictures and attended by the likes of Tina Brown, Norah O’Donnell, Harry Belafonte, Phylicia Rashad and Lawrence O’Donnell — a former New York Times reporter, he also penned a letter to the editor of the New York Times.
“I have seen Ava DuVernay’s new film, ‘Selma,’ and I was also part of this newspaper’s team that covered the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965,” Talese wrote. “In my opinion, there is nothing in Ms. DuVernay’s film that significantly distorts this historic event or the leadership role played by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Talese went on to quote from his own memoir, referencing his source, J.L. Chestnut, who had been one of King’s legal advisers. He quoted from Chestnut’s book as well. Here’s the passage from “A Writer’s Life” that Talese quoted:
Before the march, Chestnut had admitted to having concerns that the promotion of black people’s rights were being politically exploited by the Democrats in the White House in order to allow President Johnson to singularly dominate the daily headlines, and Chestnut was then bothered by the possibility that ‘King was no longer the number-one civil rights leader in America; Lyndon Johnson was … and we’d been outfoxed and were in danger of being co-opted.’ … But the successful completion of the Selma to Montgomery march allayed all of Chestnut’s earlier anxieties.
Speaking at the Manhattan Club, Talese said: “I was on the Pettus Bridge and I watched the mayhem, the madness of Sheriff Clark. She got it. I was there. I saw it. She wasn’t there, but she got it. When I was seeing the film, I was seeing what I truly remembered.”
Historian Henry Louis Gates introduced DuVernay and offered his own defense of her work. He called the controversy over Johnson’s portrayal a “tempest in a teapot.”
“Every historical film has poetic licenses. I mean, this is not a documentary,” said Gates, via Vulture. “This is a feature film, and I think both the script and the direction are masterpieces, and any attempt to make this about the Great White Father is misdirected.
“I mean, nobody’s given Steven Spielberg s— about what he changed in the actual Schindler story, and no one should. Or ‘Lincoln.’ There are all kinds of things that happened in the film that didn’t actually happen in reality.”
The luncheon featured a Q&A hosted by Gayle King, who started by asking DuVernay about the flap. “Recently, as we all know, there’s been a bit of controversy where people are questioning some of the decisions you made — I don’t like to use the word ‘accused,’ but it’s been said that you were less than kind or less than accurate about President Johnson,” King said. “How do you respond to that, Ava?”
Echoing sentiments she communicated previously in a Rolling Stone interview, DuVernay answered: “I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”
DuVernay, a former Hollywood publicist who majored in African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Rolling Stone she wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie, which is why she chose to center the narrative around Selma and the people on the ground who participated in and organized the marches.
She elaborated on that point Tuesday. “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David [Oyelowo’s] voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity,” DuVernay said.
“And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing. If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy, it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”