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'Selma' Director Responds to Criticism at Hutchins Center Q&A

By Daniel R. Levine, Crimson Staff Writer

UPDATED: January 20, 2015, at 1:23 p.m.

"Selma" director Ava DuVernay responded to criticism of her film's depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson Monday evening at a question and answer session sponsored by the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The discussion, which was hosted by University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., followed a free screening of the film at the AMC Assembly Row in Somerville.

"If there's anything that I regret about the faux controversy, it's that it's knocked off the front pages and knocked out of the discussion the fact that black lives matter," DuVernay said of her film’s portrayal of Johnson.

Over the past two months, critics have condemned "Selma" for depicting Johnson as an adversary to the 1965 voting rights movement, rather than an advocate. Though the film's Johnson speaks negatively of white Alabama politicians opposed to voting rights, he asks Martin Luther King, Jr. to delay the voting rights effort so that his administration can pursue the war on poverty.

DuVernay dismissed the criticism.

"It might not be motivated by anything except the fact that they're the custodians of a legacy and I am not the custodian of that legacy," she said.

In addition, she said she thinks the film has been controversial because it conflicts with traditional narratives of the Selma marches.

"It's so much about this uncomfortable space of people of color [and] women who are on the margins of being at the center of their own story," she said. "Everything doesn't have to be through one lens."

DuVernay also discussed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' recent Oscar nominations. “Selma” was nominated for best picture, but she was not nominated for the best director Oscar.

Comparing an Oscar to a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, DuVernay said the film's nomination for the best picture award on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday made her feel "lovely." She said the Academy's decision not to nominate her as best director did not surprise her.

"I was much more fine with it than Twitter," she said. "[A nomination] wasn't something I expected."

The event’s audience, which filled the theater to capacity, appeared to consist primarily of adults older than college-age. Several professors attended as spectators. Gates said a full video of the talk will appear on The Root, an online magazine.

Throughout the interview, Gates lauded DuVernay's work.

"Let me say, from where I sit, that not only did David Oyelowo deserve best actor award, but Ava DuVernay deserved best director award," he said. The audience applauded.

DuVernay said “Selma” is the first major motion picture with King as its protagonist.

"I don't think that studios have historical dramas with black protagonists at the top of their to-do lists," DuVernay said. "The film is not perfect, but I think it is closer to most people's ideas of what historical cinema might be, something that lives and breathes."

–Staff writer Daniel R. Levine can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @danielrlevine.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: January 20, 2015

An earlier version of this article misquoted "Selma" director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay referred to criticism of her film's depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson as a "faux controversy," not a "full controversy."

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