'Selma' Director on Lyndon B. Johnson Portrayal: "I'm Not Gonna Argue History"

Gay Talese, who covered the events chronicled in the film a half-century ago, said of Ava DuVernay, "I was there. I saw it. She wasn't there, but she got it."
Scott Feinberg

Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, refused to be drawn into the growing debate over the film's portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, as she spoke in front of a group of New York tastemakers Tuesday, telling them, "I'm not gonna argue history." Since the historical drama opened Dec. 25, it has drawn enthusiastic reviews but also pointed criticism from Johnson loyalists who have claimed it inaccurately portrays the president attempting to obstruct the Selma march and using the FBI to discredit Martin Luther King.

Some have attributed the film's denial of a PGA Award nomination on Monday to the controversy; others pointed to the fact that Paramount, which is distributing the film, was also late in sending out screeners, potentially hurting its awards chances. Today, the studio hosted a luncheon for dozens of Academy members and other notables in New York at which DuVernay directedly confronted the criticism. 

Gayle King, co-anchor of CBS This Morning and also best friend to Oprah Winfrey, who both acts in and served as one of the producers of Selma, moderated a Q&A that took place during the luncheon. Joining DuVernay in the discussion were the movie's star David Oyelowo and journalist Gay Talese. King confronted the controversy head on by asking DuVernay, "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. How do you respond to that, Ava?"

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The 42-year-old, who could become the first black woman ever to earn a best director Oscar nomination, and who had previously responded to the criticisms via Twitter, offered an impassioned response. "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 continued, "I'm just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David'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. 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," DuVernay added, "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."

The gathering at the swanky Metropolitan Club on the Upper East Side was packed with boldfaced names, among them fellow filmmakers (Harry Belafonte, who was introduced to a standing ovation, Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher, Oscar nominee Laura Poitras) and media elite (Tina Brown, Bob Simon, Jeff Fager, Lawrence O'Donnell, Norah O'Donnell).

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, a leading expert in African-American Studies, kicked off the proceedings, calling DuVernay's achievement "momentous" and "something to behold" in 2015, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches and 150th anniversary of the Civil War. After citing several scenes that he found particularly powerful, he submitted that DuVernay "has to receive multiple award nominations and awards — anything less will be a travesty," and noted that Oyelowo's "transcendent performance as Martin Luther King will be the living image of Martin Luther King that many of this generation will carry with them."

Gates then introduced DuVernay to a standing ovation, whereupon she thanked him and introduced several of her collaborators from the film: Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo (who plays Coretta Scott King), Alessandro Nivola (John Doar), Andre Holland (Andrew Young), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Bayard Rustin) — as well as Common, the rapper-actor who plays James Bevel in the film, and John Legend, the hip-hop artist. Common and Legend then performed — for only the third time ever in front of others — their song "Glory," which they wrote at DuVernay's request to play over the closing credits. Their performance also received a standing ovation.

During the Q&A, Talese, who covered the events in Selma in 1965 for The New York Times, offered a ringing endorsement of the film: "I approached it with a lot of skepticism. I'm a reporter — back then I was a New York Times reporter — and we care a lot about factual accuracy. We do not appreciate the imagination. It has to be right — it has to be as right as it can be — and my feeling was, at the time, 'Hollywood is not going to do well by this story,' in terms of the verifiable truth. And so I sat through the first five minutes and I thought, 'Well, this is terrific so far, but it's not going to go on. She's gonna screw it up sooner or later.' And then I came to the end of that fabulous film and I thought, 'God, she got it! How did she do it?' " He continued, "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 remembered, truly remembered."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg