As 2014 wound down and Oscar voting got underway, a controversy started brewing around awards season hopeful “Selma.” A former aide to former President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as the director of the L.B.J. Presidential Library and Museum, took issue with his portrayal in the film as a reluctant supporter of Civil Rights, arguing that he was a key figure in inspiring the march to Selma. Director Ava DuVernay responded on Twitter at the time, but she recently elaborated her thoughts more fully in an interview with Rolling Stone, sharing how she reworked the script to suit her vision and the story she was looking to tell.
“Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma,” she told the magazine. “You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.”
“This is a dramatization of the events,” the director continued. “But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.”
It’s a great response to an issue that seems to come up anytime there is some conversation about accuracy in based-on-true-events films. It’s often forgotten these are dramatized events, and moreover, history is complex and tends to be malleable depending on who is telling the story. And in “Selma,” DuVernay is not just aiming for factual consistency but emotional truth as well, and in turn she has crafted her film accordingly.
It’s something to think on as “Selma” goes into wide release this weekend. To get prepared here’s two clips, along with eight featurettes for the film.