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

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In our extended interview with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, we broadcast excerpts from her Oscar-nominated film, which highlights both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in Selma, as well as the grassroots civil rights movement’s role in pushing President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act, and Coretta Scott King’s secret meeting with Malcolm X while King was in jail. DuVernay also explains her approach to showing police and vigilante aggression used against activists in the movement for civil and voting rights. “There is so much violence in this era that we’re talking about, but I wanted the violence to be something that was reverential to the lives lost … these black lives that mattered,” DuVernay says.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, from the Sundance Film Festival. We’re broadcasting from Park City TV. Today we spend the hour with Ava DuVernay, director of Selma. The film begins with the death of four young girls: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins. They died on September 15, 1963, killed when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The bombing came less than a month after the March on Washington. I asked Ava DuVernay why she chose to begin Selma with this devastating attack.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, for me, our approach to violence in the film was, you know, one that we considered very carefully. I’m an independent filmmaker, so this was my first film. My last film was $200,000; this is a $20 million film. And there’s so much violence in this era that we’re talking about, but I wanted the violence to be something that was very reverential and respectful to the life lost. And so, in trying to figure out how we brought people into the story and how we established a reverence for these black lives that mattered at that time, that we approached it in a way that got you right at the top. And the four little girls really was the catalyst for so much of what happened in Selma, that very visceral shaking of the leaders of the civil rights movement to do something off the beaten path, out of the box, was the push toward Selma. So it was a trigger. But then also, just in the way that we designed those shots, and with real intention to get you stuck in your seat and make you watch this thing, in a way that we don’t really watch historical dramas, kind of at a distance, you know, when we see these things, it’s got—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we meet these little girls talking—

AVA DUVERNAY: We meet the—you hear them speaking. You have respect for their life. You know that they should—there should have been more conversations like that and more growth and a womanhood and all that follows. And so, to have that snuffed out was, you know, a salute to them, but also just to really invite people to be with us in the story, be with them. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you take us on the journey to Selma. Dr. King, hearing from Ralph Abernathy and Diane Nash—tell us who Diane Nash was, and Ralph Abernathy.

AVA DUVERNAY: Oh, Diane Nash deserves her own film. Diane Nash is a freedom fighter who is still alive and kicking. She was one of the leaders of the desegregation of Nashville, basically. She was a student at Fisk University who was one of the founding members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And she, along with C.T. Vivian and John Lewis and Jim Bevel, did amazing work around the Freedom Rides. Stanley Nelson, a beautiful documentarian, one of our best, did a gorgeous documentary about the Freedom Rides, as most of your viewers will know. And then, anyway, so she became aligned from SNCC to the SCLC and started to work with King very closely. But it was really her idea, her and James Bevel’s idea, to really launch a full-scale voting rights campaign in Selma on the invitation of Amelia Boynton.

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re driving in a car for the first time to Selma.

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, in the scene, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, Andrew Young and James Orange are driving with Dr. King into Selma, and they’re trying to convince King this is the place we need to be.

AMY GOODMAN: And you hear Nash, and you hear Abernathy.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s right.

RALPH ABERNATHY: [played by Colman Domingo] Oh, my lord. What you got us into, woman? We’ve got 128 miles to come to our senses, gentlemen.

DIANE NASH: [played by Tessa Thompson] Hush. This here’s the place we need to be. This right here is the next great battle.

RALPH ABERNATHY: I can only imagine. Decent-looking place to die, though.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ralph Abernathy and Diane Nash in the film Selma. Of course, those were the figures who are portrayed, well, by actors. Colman Domingo played Abernathy, and Diane Nash was played by Tessa Thompson.

AVA DUVERNAY: Tessa Thompson, fantastic.

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re going to Selma, and King is right in there, and he’s going. So they get to Selma. And talk about the violence that they face and the challenges there.

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, well, Dr. King, you know, upon arriving in Selma, was immediately assaulted by members of the White Citizens’ Council and Hotel Albert. We show that incident. Also very, very early in the film you see encounters at the Dallas County Courthouse. Very famously, C.T. Vivian, you know, shouted down and kind of preached to Jim Clark about—

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Clark is the sheriff of Selma.

AVA DUVERNAY: Jim Clark was the sheriff in Selma—about, you know, the protesters’ rights to be there. And so, we’re trying to show the wall of aggression that they were up against as they went in. I mean, at that point, the thing that’s so fascinating about this time in history for me is, King was already a national figure. He had already won the Nobel. He had already given “I Have a Dream.” He could have done anything. He really could have. He had been invited to work in the administration in some way, invited to write books, lecture. He could have just said, “I hand this off to someone else.” But he got right back in there to Selma. And that’s what was so fascinating about this era to me. It’s not a man becoming a leader. You’re watching someone lead and what that takes. It takes people who want to be led, and it takes comrades who are supporting it.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk about the adversity outside. What about the adversity inside? You have this amazing clip, that you could set up for us, when he’s debating with, well, now the congressman, John Lewis, but a very young guy.

AVA DUVERNAY: Yes, yes. No, we have a scene in the film—you know, it’s important to really recognize that, you know, the civil rights movement and the people who participated were not a monolith in their thought about—they weren’t monolithic in their thought about how to achieve it. With as many people as there were fighting for freedom, there were that many ideas about how to do it and how to approach it. And so, I thought it was so important to just show that everyone was not in lockstep. You had a lot of very smart people with a lot of smart ideas, and they had to be synthesized into one action. But ultimately, I was just fascinated by the process, and that’s what that—this scene shows.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have here James Forman—


AMY GOODMAN: —John Lewis, and you have King asking them to describe Selma Sheriff Jim Clark, as Ralph Abernathy looks on.


REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: [played by David Oyelowo] John, James, answer me one question. I’ve been told the sheriff in this town isn’t like Laurie Pritchett in Albany. He’s a big, ignorant bully, like Bull Connor in Birmingham. Well, you tell me. You know Selma. You know Sheriff Jim Clark. Is he Laurie Pritchett, or is he Bull Connor?

JOHN LEWIS: [played by Stephan James] He’s Bull Connor.

RALPH ABERNATHY: [played by Colman Domingo] Bingo!


AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about the decision that was made at that point, what direction they would take, what King decides and what SNCC decides.

AVA DUVERNAY: They decide to move forward in, you know, wide-scale protests in Selma. We show one march on the courthouse, but there were several marches on the courthouse. Teachers marched, which was huge. Children marched, which was massive. You know, the clergy marched. But it was all really focused only on the black community. You know, it was very insulated within the black community at that time. Later, as Jimmie Lee Jackson is killed, who was a local Marion, Alabama, native who was doing these local marches, did they—did that murder trigger an idea about national mobilization. And that’s where Bloody Sunday and Turnaround Tuesday come into play, to not just march on the courthouse, but to march to Montgomery from Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the fact this isn’t just one march, when people hear Selma to Montgomery.

AVA DUVERNAY: Right. Most people think it’s just one.


AVA DUVERNAY: Most people don’t—most people don’t know. Someone said to me at a screening, “Thank you so much.” And I said, “Oh, gosh, thank you.” And she said, “I thought Oprah was playing a character named Selma. I didn’t even know what this”—I was like, “Well, goodness.”

AMY GOODMAN: Oprah is in it, right?

AVA DUVERNAY: Oprah is in it, but she is not a woman named Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: And she’s not—and Selma is not a woman’s name.

AVA DUVERNAY: Yeah, that’s correct. But yeah, no, it’s—these marches, yeah, there were three attempts to do it. The first two attempts were unprotected by the federal government. They were opposed by the state government. Local government, local law enforcement were against them and beating them and out to get them. So, at all levels, there was no protection. To think about walking out—I mean, we march now, and we raise our voices, and we know that, you know, as a mass, we will not be harmed. But, you know, walking out there knowing that the local sheriff is out for you, he has posse men, that the governor has ordered state troopers to physically harm you, and that the federal government and the president have not sent troops to protect you, have not ordered protection, and they did that twice, is astounding and something that we shouldn’t forget.

AMY GOODMAN: John Lewis sits in Congress today, had his head bashed in Bloody Sunday.

AVA DUVERNAY: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right. He was the leader of that march. He was on the front line of that march. So when I see John Lewis now, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Now, King wasn’t there at that time.

AVA DUVERNAY: He wasn’t there at Bloody Sunday, no.

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to the final clip from Selma, where Dr. King is calling all people of conscience to come now to Selma after that first march.

REPORTER: Dr. King. Good morning, Doctor. Can we get a statement, please?


REPORTER: Morning.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: While rageful violence continues toward the unarmed people of Selma, while they are assaulted with tear gas and batons like an enemy in a war, no citizen of this country can call themselves blameless, for we all bear a responsibility for our fellow man. I am appealing to men and women of God and goodwill everywhere, white, black and otherwise, if you believe all are created equal, come to Selma. Join us. Join our march against injustice and inhumanity. We need you to stand with us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from the Academy Award-nominated Selma. We’re talking to the director, Ava DuVernay. We’re here in Sundance. Ava, that moment where he calls on all good people to come to Selma, talk about what happened then.

AVA DUVERNAY: I love that moment, because that was the blossoming, in my mind. That was the moment where there was an open invitation to people of all faiths, colors, classes, cultures to join the fight. I mean, if you believe in justice and dignity, come stand with us, you know. And that call is so, so moving, so emotional.

AMY GOODMAN: Were those King’s very words?

AVA DUVERNAY: No. We cannot use Dr. King’s very words. I had to approximate, because another filmmaker has the rights to his exact words.

AMY GOODMAN: I don’t understand.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, King was a private individual. He was a private citizen. And his public statements, most of them are [copyrighted]. And so the estate has licensed those words to another filmmaker that’s not me. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Has that filmmaker made a film?

AVA DUVERNAY: No, but he’s going to be making a film, and it’s going to be beautiful, I am sure.

AMY GOODMAN: So you can’t quote King at all?

AVA DUVERNAY: No, no, it’s domain of his estate, yeah. So then the question was: Do you not tell the story, or do you untether yourself from the words and try to get underneath what he meant, what the ideas were? And so, I just really tried to listen very closely to everything he was saying. I rewrote those speeches. Everything you hear him say was just, you know, trying to approximate what he actually said, because the ideas are so bold, they’re so fresh, they’re so—they’re so outstanding, that it felt wrong to let them be locked away without trying to attempt them.

AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated film Selma. Coming up in our last segment, we speak with her about the grassroots civil rights movement’s role in pushing President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act. We also learn about Coretta Scott King’s secret meeting with Malcolm X while Dr. King was in jail. And we talk with Ava DuVernay about her newly revealed plans for her next film. That’s all coming up on Democracy Now! Stay with us.

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“Selma” Director Defends Film’s Portrayal of LBJ-MLK Dispute on Voting Rights Legislation

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