UPDATE, WEDNESDAY, 7 AM: Gay Talese speaks out in the New York Times.
In a Letter To The Editor published this morning in the New York Times, former Times reporter Gay Talese, who covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery for the Paper of Record, expanded on his remarks yesterday during a gathering of Oscar voters and journalists. Here’s his letter, in full:
To the Editor:
Re “Film Casts Johnson as Villain, Restarting Civil Rights Debate” (front page, Jan. 1), about criticism of a film that depicts President Lyndon B. Johnson as “a laggard on black voting rights who opposed the marches”:
I have seen Ava DuVernay’s new film, “Selma,” and I was also part of this newspaper’s team that covered the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. In my opinion, there is nothing in Ms. DuVernay’s film that significantly distorts this historic event or the leadership role played by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A source of mine who helped me understand the situation in Selma was a local black attorney named J. L. Chestnut Jr., who had been among Dr. King’s legal advisers during the 1960s. In my memoir, “A Writer’s Life,” I described Mr. Chestnut’s feelings:
“Before the march, Chestnut had admitted to having concerns that the promotion of black people’s rights were being politically exploited by the Democrats in the White House in order to allow President Johnson to singularly dominate the daily headlines, and Chestnut was then bothered by the possibility that ‘King was no longer the number-one civil rights leader in America; Lyndon Johnson was … and we’d been outfoxed and were in danger of being co-opted.’ … But the successful completion of the Selma to Montgomery march allayed all of Chestnut’s earlier anxieties.”
As Mr. Chestnut later co-wrote in his book, “Black in Selma,” “The march to Montgomery was the first enterprise I’d ever seen involving black and white people where the black people set the agenda and ran the show.”
New York, Jan. 1, 2015
PREVIOUS, TUESDAY PM: Leaving no doubt that she’s prepared to defend her movie against attacks on grounds of historical accuracy, Selma director Ava DuVernay told a gathering of media and AMPAS elite in New York this afternoon that her vision of the events leading up to Alabama’s Bloody Sunday in March 1965 were as valid as any. DuVernay, who joked that her $20 million historical drama cost half as much as The Interview, had sound backing from no less an authority than Gay Talese, who as a young reporter for the New York Times covered Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery and the bloody events on Edmund Pettus Bridge .
“I was there, you weren’t,” Talese told the gathering as he looked at the 42-year-old publicist-turned-indie-director. He had gone into the screening with a reporter’s natural skepticism, he admitted. “I was there, I saw it.” After a few minutes, he continued, he saw that his doubts were misplaced. “She wasn’t there, but she got it…I was seeing what I truly remembered.”
The all-star event was a luncheon at the Metropolitan Club at which Paramount Pictures pulled out all the stops for an audience that included Harry Belafonte, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, Tina Brown, 60 Minutes chief Jeff Fager and most of the cast members from the movie. It launched with a laudatory introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the pre-eminent scholar of African-American history and host of PBS’ Finding Your Roots. Selma, he suggested, “has to receive multiple award nominations…and awards—anything less will be a travesty.” He also suggested that generations of moviegoers may come to regard David Oyelowo’s performance as “the living image of Martin Luther King,” which, to take nothing away from the actor’s achievement, is at least arguable.
Professor Gates brought up DuVernay, who introduced the cast members and then a riveting appearance by the rapper Common (who also appears in the film) and singer John Legend, performing the closer for the movie, their song “Glory,” accompanied by back-up singers and a small orchestra. A brilliant melding of rap and soul, it draws a powerful, hypnotic connection between the events of 1965 and the racial strife that persists today, and it brought the audience to its feet.
Then it was DuVernay’s turn to shine. She was joined by Talese and the Nigerian-born, UK-reared Oyelowo and Gayle King, the CBS This Morning co-anchor and BFF of Oprah Winfrey (who appears in the film and helped finance it). King lead a Q&A and got right down to business, asking the director about the controversy that has erupted concerning the film’s depiction of Johnson: “It’s been said that you were less than kind, or less than accurate, about President Johnson,” she said. “How do you respond to that?”
“I think everyone sees history through their own lens,” DuVernay replied, “and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see…That should be valid. I’m not going to argue history,” she said, taking a dramatic pause. “I could, but I won’t.” She went on to call the criticism a diversion from what was most important: “This film is a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices—black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths—to do something amazing.”
The remarks amplified what DuVernay told Rolling Stone last week: “I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma,” she said. “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.”