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Selma Director Ava DuVernay on Hollywood’s Lack of Diversity, Oscar Snub and #OscarsSoWhite Hashtag

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Today we spend the hour with Ava DuVernay, the director of the acclaimed new civil rights film “Selma,” which tells the story of the campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to draw the nation’s attention to the struggle for equal voting rights by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965. While the film has been nominated for an Oscar for best picture, to the shock of many, DuVernay was not nominated. She would have made history as the first African-American woman nominated for best director. At the Sundance Film Festival, DuVernay joins us to discuss the making of the film and the Academy Award nominations. “The question is why was 'Selma' the only film that was in the running with people of color for the award?” she asks.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is underway. Today we spend the hour with one of the stars of the film world, Ava DuVernay, the director of the acclaimed new civil rights film, Selma. It tells the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign to draw the nation's attention to the struggle for equal voting rights by marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965, 50 years ago. But it also highlights the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as well as Malcolm X coming to meet with Dr. King’s wife, Coretta, while King is in jail. The film has also drawn controversy because of its depiction of President Johnson as a reluctant, even obstructionist, politician who had the FBI monitor and harass King. I sat down with Ava DuVernay for the hour, but we began with the trailer of Selma.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: [played by Dylan Baker] He’s got supporters—Detroit, New York, Los Angeles—inciting large-scale arrests and sympathy marches. ”

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: [played by Tom Wilkinson] I am very aware of that, Mr. Hoover.

J. EDGAR HOOVER: What I do know is he’s nonviolent. What I need to know right now: What’s Martin Luther King about to do next?

PRESIDENT’S SECRETARY: [played by Haviland Stillwell] Mr. President, Dr. King is here.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: [played by David Oyelowo] President, in the South, there have been thousands of racially motivated murders. We need your help.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Dr. King, this thing is just going to have to wait.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: It cannot wait.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: You’ve got one big issue; I’ve got a hundred one.


DIANE NASH: [played by Tessa Thompson] Here is the next great battle.

JAMES BEVEL: [played by Common] Selma’s the place, and they’re ready.


REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I tell you, that white boy can hit.

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: [played by Tim Roth] We will not tolerate agitators attempting to orchestrate a disturbance in this state.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: It is unacceptable that they use their power to keep us voiceless. Those that have gone before us say, “No more.”

CORETTA SCOTT KING: People actually say they’re going to kill our children. They are trying to get inside of your head.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: What happens when a man stands up and says, “Enough is enough”?

RALPH ABERNATHY: [played by Colman Domingo] We build the path, as we came—rock by rock.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: This cell is probably bugged.

RALPH ABERNATHY: It probably is.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We must march. We must stand up.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: You march those people into rural Alabama, it’s going to be open season.

REV. HOSEA WILLIAMS: [played by Wendell Pierce] May I have a word?

MAJOR JOHN CLOUD: [played by Michael Papajohn] There’s no word to be had.

UNIDENTIFIED: There are 70 million people watching. These pictures are going around the world.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: We must make a massive demonstration.

White, black and otherwise, come to Selma.

JAMES REEB: [played by Jeremy Strong] I heard about the attack of innocent people. I couldn’t just stand by.

GOV. GEORGE WALLACE: Looks like an army out there.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Mine eyes have seen the glory! Glory, glory, hallelujah!

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: What happens when a man stands up and says, “Enough is enough”?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Selma. It’s been nominated for an Academy Award for best film in 2014. We’re joined right now by Ava DuVernay, the film’s director. Welcome to Democracy Now!

AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on the nomination.

AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you. If the nomination gets me here sitting here with you, then hooray. Love the show, love you. Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: And congratulations for the Golden Globes.

AVA DUVERNAY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t get nominated, and there are a lot of people all over this country who have seen this film and are shocked that you weren’t nominated for best director. Your thoughts on this?

AVA DUVERNAY: You know, I didn’t expect to be. I actually knew that it wasn’t going to happen. I’ve been telling people since October; no one listened to me. I’m serious. Old interviews that are coming out now, friends who said, “Yeah, you did say that.” I just knew it wasn’t going to be the case, so I never took it into my heart, so it never—didn’t really bother me. I was more bothered by David not being nominated. That hurt my feelings, because I know what he—you know, the beautiful performance. But it’s a—

AMY GOODMAN: David Oyelowo.

AVA DUVERNAY: David Oyelowo, the star of the film who plays Dr. King. But the bottom line is, the film was chosen in some categories—best picture, best song were nominated—and wasn’t chosen in others. And, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Common and John Legend.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s Common and John Legend for the song, for “Glory,” and best picture, which is nothing to sneeze at. Nothing to sneeze at. So, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you know this hashtag, the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, that began trending soon after the nominees were announced, so many people shocked that your name wasn’t among them, and David’s, as well—


AMY GOODMAN: —pointing out that a 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found Oscar voters are 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and the average age 63 years old. Do you think that has anything to do with it?

AVA DUVERNAY: You know, I think—I think, you know, folks see films, see history, see art, see life through their own lens. And when there’s a consensus that has to be made by a certain group, you know, the consensus is most likely going to be through a specific lens. And unless there’s diversity amongst the people that are trying to come to the consensus, then, you know, there will be a lack of diversity in what the consensus is, if that makes sense. So, I think, you know, being here at Sundance is a great example of a group, of an organization that’s made a commitment to diversity, that have considered diversity as more than a talking point, but an action item. You know, I won best director here in 2012, but I was the first black person to do so. So it was a long time coming in that being—you know, that door being opened.

AMY GOODMAN: That was for Middle of Nowhere.

AVA DUVERNAY: That was for Middle of Nowhere. But there’s been a real articulated kind of mission by the institute, by the Sundance Institute, to say we—”Regardless of awards, we are going to be a platform, we are going to be a space, for voices of all kinds, all over the world.” And they’ve articulated that mission, and they’ve executed, and they’re continuing to execute. And so, I think when you talk about the Academy or you talk about just this industry in general, the studios, everyone needs to, if we really care about it, not just say we care about it, but actually work towards it. And so, perhaps all of the hoopla this year will trigger some action. But maybe not. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: No person of color not only for best director, no person of color, as you point out, for best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best supporting actor.

AVA DUVERNAY: This year.

AMY GOODMAN: This year.

AVA DUVERNAY: This year. In past years we’ve had it. But the bottom line is, I don’t think the question is so much about the awards; the question is: Why was Selma the only film that was even in the running with people of color for the award? You know what I mean? I mean, why are there not—not just black, brown people? You know what I mean? Asian people, indigenous people, representations that are more than just one voice, just one face, just one gaze? So, for me, it’s much less about the awards and the accolades, because, literally, next year no one cares. Right? I can’t even tell you who won the award for whatever three years ago. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the obstacles in the way?

AVA DUVERNAY: The obstacle, it is systemic. It’s systemic. It’s a system that’s been set up in a certain way. Times have changed, ideas have matured, and the system might not have caught up with that or stayed up with that. But you have very conscious people, very, you know, liberal people, very progressive people within the Academy. I’m a member. I was invited a couple of years ago. My black cinematographer, Bradford Young, was invited this year. There’s an attempt, but, you know, like I said, it needs to be articulated and followed up on. I think the thing that is challenging is when people talk about it should happen, but then there’s no follow up to that. So the hope is, with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who’s the new president of the Academy, and some other people there who are really intentional about wanting to see just an opening up—it’s not about Selma. Maybe people just didn’t like it. You know what I mean? Maybe they just didn’t like it. But it’s really more about Selma shouldn’t have been the only hope for faces of color in this kind of celebration of film [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re clearly very self-deprecating, because Selma has been received with critical acclaim. And speaking of obstacles, let’s go back 50 years—

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —to the man and the movement—

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —the many people that you portray in Selma, which isn’t a documentary—


AMY GOODMAN: —a feature film, taking on a massive obstacle in the United States—

AVA DUVERNAY: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: —the fact that African Americans were not voting, could not vote.

AVA DUVERNAY: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story of Selma.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, let me tell you this: I don’t feel like I’m self-deprecating. I feel like I stand in the shadow of giants, real, bold, brave Americans of color, and otherwise, all kinds of people, who marched for something that was really important. I mean, this, when we get to the statues and patting each other on the back, isn’t as important as the fact that the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act is violent and ongoing and very much an emergency. So, in working with Selma and thinking about Selma and thinking about all of the—what it represents, even now, with policing and police aggression in our communities, I just can’t get worked up about the other thing. So, that’s that piece.

But Selma is a story of justice and dignity. It’s about these everyday people. That’s what I loved about it, that it wasn’t called King, that when I came onto the project it was called Selma. It’s about the power of the people. It’s about voices risen and amplified through this one man. But one of the things I loved about our approach to Selma was that, you know, we didn’t show King in isolation, which I think has been so much a part of this really homogenized view of him, which I think he would have hated, because it was very much always trying to amplify the people around him. He was always very deferential to his comrades, you know, fellow soldiers in the fight. And so I think he would be—and because at the time he was bothered by the fact that he was the one lifted up.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you choose to take this on?

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, my—it’s King. You know what I mean? It’s King. It’s King. I’ve said in past interviews in previous years, “Why do we always have to see black people in hindsight? Why are the Hollywood movies always historical? What about the contemporary image of black people?” which is something that I’m very activist about. But then someone brings you King, a King story, and it’s like, “OK.” You know what I mean? I mean, it had not been done in 50 years. There’s been no major motion picture released by a studio, no independent motion picture, in theaters, with King at the center, in the 50 years since these events happened, when we have biopics on all kinds of ridiculous people. And nothing on King? No cinematic representation that’s meaningful and centered. So, it was just something I couldn’t pass up. And my father is from Lowndes County, Alabama, so—that’s the county right between Selma and Montgomery where they walked through. And he’s from that place, and he watched the march pass at 11 years old. So it’s part of my family history.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ava DuVernay, director of Selma. Her film has just been nominated for an Oscar for best film. Coming up, I ask the director about the controversy around Selma’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson and his relationship with Dr. King. The film depicts President Johnson as a reluctant, even obstructionist, politician who had the FBI monitor and harass King. We also talk with Ava DuVernay about her plans for her next film. All that and more is coming up.

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“The Power of the People”: Selma Director Ava DuVernay on Fight for Civil Rights, Voting Equality

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