"Selma" Director Defends Film's Portrayal of LBJ-MLK Dispute on Voting Rights Legislation

January 27, 2015
Image Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto - Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

As we continue our interview with "Selma" director Ava DuVernay, she responds to the controversy around her film’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film depicts him as a reluctant, and even obstructionist, politician who had the FBI monitor and harass King. "I’m not here to rehabilitate anyone’s image or be a custodian of anyone’s legacy," DuVernay says. She expresses dismay that the debate has shifted attention from the film’s focus on protest and resistance that continues today over police brutality. DuVernay also describes how she screened "Selma" at the White House for President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama 100 years after D.W. Griffith was there to screen the notoriously racist film "Birth of a Nation" for President Woodrow Wilson.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival, from Park City TV, as we return to my interview with Selma director Ava DuVernay.

AMY GOODMAN: So, King is in battle here in Selma, but now let’s talk about, well, that controversial backdrop around the film, which is his relationship with President Johnson. Talk about his relationship with President Johnson, the meetings he would have with him, the phone conversations he would have with him.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, you know, the relationship between MLK and LBJ wasn’t a skip in the park. You know, I don’t care how many people try to ram that down my throat or make us believe that. You know, I’m not here to rehabilitate anyone’s image or be a custodian of anyone’s legacy. From what I read and from what I have learned and listened to and know and talked to many of the people who were there, it was a relationship that was one of respect on the part of the SCLC, but they were constantly pushing and pushing and pushing. And at the time that we come into our film, they’re asking the president to fully support, you know, a push, a protest around voting rights, to—not even a protest. They just asked him straight out, will he—will he make this so? And the timing wasn’t right. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in it. It wasn’t that he didn’t think it should happen. But it was the wrong time. He had had—just signed the ’64 act. He was—

AMY GOODMAN: The Civil Rights Act.

AVA DUVERNAY: The Civil Rights Act. And so, King comes along just months later saying, "Wait, wait, one more thing." And at that point, you know, the president is like, "We’ll get to it, but not now." And that’s all we said in the film, and that’s public record.

AMY GOODMAN: The critics of the film say he had already had his attorney general working on writing the legislation. Does that undercut, do you think, what you have said? I mean, you can have legislation written for years and never actually introduce it.

AVA DUVERNAY: Absolutely. I mean, the fact that it was being written and thought about is a completely separate issue to the fact that people are dying in the streets unprotected for it and were being told to wait. So these are two different issues that have been kind of—a lot of rhetoric around it that’s unfortunate, because I think, in our film, you know, we don’t talk about Vietnam. We don’t talk about the president’s 20 years of voting against desegregation legislation before he got into the Oval. We don’t talk about any of that. We talk about a man who believed that that equality should be, but the timing was not right at the time we pick him up in our movie. And by the end of it, he’s had a reversal, and he makes the very triumphant "We Shall Overcome" speech, which is real and which we show in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you able to quote that?

AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, because he’s the president of the United States, and that’s public domain. But so, you know, I’ve been—it’s been challenging to have all of the noise around Johnson and our portrayal of him. You know, if he wanted to make him a bad guy, we certainly could have. That was not our intention. Our intention was to show a leader who was under pressure from a bunch of sides and who had a relationship with King which was very much a push and pull, which is what it was.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. I was just talking to Stanley Nelson, the great documentarian—


AMY GOODMAN: —asking him about the controversy around Selma. Did you overly villainize LBJ, is the overall question, if that is even a word. And he went back to the summer of 1964 in Atlantic City, the whole issue of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the effort to integrate the Mississippi Democratic Party, and the role that President Johnson played in undercutting the whole movement—


AMY GOODMAN: —even to what, Fannie Lou Hamer giving a speech.

AVA DUVERNAY: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And he calls for the press to come to him—

AVA DUVERNAY: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —just to pull the cameras away from her.

AVA DUVERNAY: Many instances of this kind of behavior. But also many instances of, you know, outward proclamations and signing of legislation that’s landmark. It’s fascinating. He was a fascinating man, but in a lot of ways he was a reluctant hero. And I don’t think that that is a bad thing. But if you are the custodian of a legacy, and your world and your income and your employment is all around the uplift of a certain legacy, then I can see how if this isn’t exactly what you’re pushing, you push against it. And that’s what’s happened here. You know, it’s unfortunate. But if we really want to talk about the legacy of Johnson, we should be talking about how the Voting Rights Act has been dismantled, if you really care about the legacy, and not what it looks like and what it feels like, but what it actually did. And no one’s talking about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk for a minute about J. Edgar Hoover—


AMY GOODMAN: —and what he was doing at this time—

AVA DUVERNAY: If we have to, OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —which you certainly dealt with in Selma


AMY GOODMAN: —what he was doing to King.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, Stanley Nelson, in his documentary, Black Panthers, gives a beautiful overview of the COINTELPRO, the Counter-Intelligence Program, the fact that, you know, people who were fighting for freedom at that time were considered, you know, public enemies and were being surveilled and were being manipulated and were being dismantled by the FBI. You say it, and it sounds very conspiracy theorist, until you really just check public record and know that J. Edgar Hoover did run a program called COINTELPRO, the Counter-Intelligence Program, that was authorized and re-authorized during the Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon administrations. And it’s a real thing, and it really is the reason why, you know, you have the black power movement and the civil rights movement that was really snuffed out in a lot of ways.

AMY GOODMAN: And the recording of King, using it, sending it to Coretta, his wife?

AVA DUVERNAY: Sure, yeah, yeah. Mrs. King speaks about that in her autobiography. This was—this was real stuff, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The meeting of Malcolm X and Coretta Scott King while King is in jail?

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, real. Real, yeah. Malcolm X, I just—I really fought to have that in the piece. It’s so moving to me that Malcolm X, just weeks before his assassination, actually sought out King and actually went to Selma with an offering, with an offering of himself, of his reputation, to say, "They will be afraid of me so much that they may do what you want as an alternative, so let me be here to represent what can happen if they do not work with you, the SCLC." And there’s just something really sad, emotional to me about that, because I love Malcolm and I love King, to think that they were so close to maybe having some alignment. But it wasn’t to be.

AMY GOODMAN: He would be killed soon after that.

AVA DUVERNAY: He would be killed soon after, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Dr. King, as well, a few years later.

AVA DUVERNAY: King just two years after, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, this 50 years after these Selma marches. President Obama has announced he will be going to Selma.


AMY GOODMAN: What your thoughts about that, on the 50th anniversary?

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, I mean, I celebrate him going, you know, anything that can bring more attention to this. A real tragedy, American tragedy, is what this is. So many people at risk of losing their right to let their voices be heard, it’s a shame. I thought that was going to be the primary conversation around Selma, as I was making it—naïvely. You know, I thought that was—hoped that that is what people would talk about. And then you have the murders of Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, and non-indictments, and it turns to be talk about something else, which was wonderful and troubling, and then you have protests. And our film speaks about protest and resistance, and so that was another conversation. Now you have diversity and exclusion and inclusion, and that’s another conversation. And this film, you know, every month it’s morphing and taking on new issues, and, you know, for whatever anything else is going on. My heart—even in just talking to you, if I think about it too much, I’ll get emotional. But it’s a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: You screened the film for the Obamas at the White House?


AMY GOODMAN: Were the kids there also?

AVA DUVERNAY: No, the kids weren’t there. They had just finished their exams, and they were out with friends. So we were able to have a grown-up—a grown-up evening. But it was lovely. They have seen it; the children have seen it, though. And it was beautiful to be in the White House in 2015 with a film like Selma, knowing that in 1915 the first film to ever unspool at the White House was The Birth of a Nation. And so, 100 years later—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain Birth of a Nation.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, The Birth of a Nation is—do I have to explain Birth of a Nation to your audience?

AMY GOODMAN: In two sentences, yes.

AVA DUVERNAY: Do they know?

AMY GOODMAN: And there are a lot of young people who weren’t yet born in 1915.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s true. D.W. Griffith, a very innovative filmmaker, who craft-wise was at the vanguard of filmmaking, but politically and culturally was a complete racist, made a film that was epic and very widely embraced in 1915 called The Birth of a Nation, which was—might be the worst piece of film you will ever see, if you believe in the equality of all people. And that was the first film to ever be screened at the White House, and that was in 1915, exactly 100 years ago from the year now, in 2015, that we sit there and we show Selma, directed by a black woman, about—you know, about the triumph and the tragedy and the forward movement around what is Selma. And so, it was a big moment.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama says he’ll go on March 7th. The community there wants him to come March 8th, when it is actually celebrated.

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, is that right?



AMY GOODMAN: Any thoughts on that?

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, I didn’t know about the dates. I didn’t know anything about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you went to Selma, yourself, after.


AMY GOODMAN: Where did you film Selma?

AVA DUVERNAY: We filmed it in Atlanta and in Selma and in Montgomery, so to bring the film back to Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that like?

AVA DUVERNAY: I can’t even—it was two days after we had—Thursday, the Thursday of that week, were the Oscar nominations. The Friday, we were in the White House. The Sunay, we had brought the film back to Selma. We shot Selma with real extras from Selma. All the people that walk across the bridge, when you see the film, are really from that area. We didn’t ship in Hollywood extras. We used people from there, who we asked to reimagine, relive this wound, this open wound [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Had some marched 50 years ago?

AVA DUVERNAY: Some had marched, some survivors of the 1965 march there. And so, to bring the film back to them and to do this commemorative march from the city hall to the bridge, and then to have John Legend sing "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" at sunset over the water of the Alabama River, and for Common and Legend to sing "Glory," it was—it was more than spectacle. It felt like a rallying call, a call to action. The people in the community really just called it a refreshment of their intention to really let Selma be more than just something that’s locked in the past, but a legacy that really drives them forward.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you hope will happen with this film now? In New York, kids from nine to 13, or whatever, were able to go to the film in whatever movie theater to see it for free?

AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, that was how it started. Twenty-seven black business owners, black business leaders, pooled together their money, organically—no one asked them to do it—to send 27,000 New York City kids, seventh, eighth and ninth graders, to see the film at any participating theater. You just walk in with your report card or your student ID, and you could see the film. Since then, that announcement, 27 other cities around the country, black business leaders in 27 other cities, have given free screening tickets to over a quarter of a million kids, free. It’s unprecedented. It’s never been done. So, as much as people want to talk about LBJ and Oscars, ugh, it’s like this film is planting seeds, for seventh, eighth and ninth graders to see this story and to understand that MLK is more than a stamp, he’s more than your school name, he’s more than a street name, he’s more than that holiday where you get a couple days off. What he really stood for is a seed planted that I hope will bear beautiful fruit.

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