Since it first premiered at the AFI Fest late last year, Ava DuVernay’s civil rights drama “Selma” has drawn great praise, but also criticism from some over the film’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson in the film). The backlash started when The Washington Post published a post-Christmas Day op-ed by Joseph A. Claifano Jr., Johnson’s top assistant for domestic affairs, accusing “Selma” of inaccurately portraying the president attempting to obstruct the Selma march and using the FBI to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. (played by David Oyelowo in the film).
At a luncheon held in the film’s honor yesterday at the swank Metropolitan Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, DuVernay addressed the criticism by refusing to be drawn into the debate. During a conversation moderated by Gayle King, co-anchor of “CBS This Morning” and friend to Oprah Winfrey, who both appears in and served as a producer on “Selma” made, DuVernay said that “everyone sees history through their own lens,” and stressed that she doesn’t “begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see.”
She added that “Selma” had bigger aims. “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,” she said. “And if there’s 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 be heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act that we chronicle its creation in our film. So I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film. And that was our intention.”
DuVernay was joined in the discussion by Gay Talese, who covered the events in Selma for the New York Times in 1965. He also defended the film.
“When I was invited to the screening, I approached it with a lot of skepticism,” he admitted. “As a New York Times reporter we care a lot about factual accuracy. We do not appreciate the imagination. It has to be right, as right as it can be. My thought was at the time: ‘Hollywood is not going to do well by this story in terms of the verifiable truth.'”
For Talese, that skepticism carried over into the viewing experience — at first. “I sat through the first five minutes going, ‘This is terrific so far but it’s not going to go on. She’s going to screw it up soon or later,'” he said. “And then I came to the end of this fabulous film and I thought, ‘God, she got it. How did she do it?’…I was there, I saw it. She wasn’t there, but she got it. So when I was seeing the film, I was seeing what I truly remembered.”