Was Ava DuVernay neglected for a Best Director Oscar nomination for her work on Selma?  The Internet certainly buzzed about the topic.  Here, I’ll frame the discussion in terms of filmmaking and not Hollywood politics. In fact, this is a great opportunity to examine what makes compelling storytelling.

Some Background

Before we get rolling, let’s first acknowledge that Selma has some serious historical inaccuracies, especially in its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson.  As has been detailed by those who were there, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. very much saw Johnson as a partner, not an obstacle, when it came to Civil Rights.  More recently, Andrew Young acknowledged that the film pushes too hard in its portrayal of Johnson.

mlk lbj white houseAnd we don’t have to rely just on people’s memories.  Like other Presidents of the era, Johnson taped many of his phone conversations.  That’s why we have a recording of King’s call to the White House on January 15, 1965, less than two weeks after he first went to Selma (phone call part 1 & phone call part 2).  In this extraordinary conversation, Johnson confides in King both the specifics of how he will send voting rights legislation to Congress and the reasons for his particular plan.  King, for his part, cleverly reminds Johnson that the only states Johnson lost in the 1964 election (save opponent Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona) had large black populations who weren’t able to vote for him. Johnson replies:

That’s exactly right. I think it’s very important that we not say that we’re doing this, and we not do it just because it’s negroes or whites. But we take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it’s a Negro or whether it’s a Mexican or who it is.

And number two, I think that we don’t want special privilege for anybody. We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle. But I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man’s got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow or whether he’s got to quote the first 10 Amendments or he’s got to tell you what amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens. And some people don’t have to do that. But when a Negro comes in, he’s got to do it. And we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don’t want to follow [Adolph] Hitler, but he had a–he had a[n] idea– that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn’t true, why, people accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where–well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but follow–drive a tractor, he’ll say, “Well, that’s not right. That’s not fair.”

And then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through in the end.

And if we do that, we’ll break through as–it’ll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this [19]64 [Civil Rights] Act. I think the greatest achievement of my administration, I think the great achievement in foreign policy, I said to a group yesterday, was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I think this will be bigger because it’ll do things that even that ’64 Act couldn’t do.

This call makes it quite obvious that Johnson and King were strategizing together.  And Johnson, anticipating what Southern politicians would say, clearly stated that a key part of their coordinated message was that voting rights are not about giving special privileges to anyone, but rather preventing anyone from being treated differently.

A political alliance between a southern black pastor and a southern white President makes for a pretty compelling story.  Paul Webb certainly thought so.  That is why he wrote a screenplay about it.  A screenplay which made the 2007 Black List.

Enter Ava DuVernay and a Rewrite

As is typical for films, Selma had a circuitous path through Hollywood.  Eventually Ava DuVernay was attached as director.  DuVernay’s first narrative film, I Will Follow, was lauded by Roger Ebert.  Her second film, Middle of Nowhere, made her the first African-American woman to win the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

She wrote and directed both films.

So it’s not surprising that DuVernay negotiated a rewrite of Webb’s script as a condition for her directing the film. (Editor’s note: Paul Webb tells his side of the story to BBC.As she describes it:

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. 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…

This is a dramatization of the events. 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.

Like many of us who create, DuVernay believes that art has the power to contextualize history and make it vibrant. Historical films need not be documentary-like to give us special insights beyond a set of connected events. A great film can place us in the timeframe of an event and allow us to better appreciate the motivations and perspectives of those who lived through the period.  In school, we might learn that “Lincoln freed the slaves.”  In Lincoln, we learn how tortuous the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage was.

It’s why we need art.

Few expect historical films to be meticulously accurate. It’s okay that neither Frank Langella nor Anthony Hopkins look like Richard Nixon. George S. Patton did not have the stentorian voice of George C. Scott.  The Polish mathematician, Marian Rejewski, broke the Nazi Enigma code by hand years before Alan Turing even set about cracking a later version of the code by computer – but none of this is mentioned in The Imitation Game.  And, in fact, King’s speeches in Selma were subtly altered to not violate copyright.  (King had his speeches copyrighted to help fund the civil rights movement, his estate holds the rights.)

Most people take no issue with any of this. For story’s sake, we accept artists’ altered timelines, composite characters, and imagined dialog.

But we should not accept artists’ judging their characters. That’s for us, the audience, to do.

DuVernay selma film still martin luther king lyndon johnson

Actors understand this quite well. It’s one of the first things they learn.  After all, no normal human being thinks that their actions are evil.  Or as my acting instructor often said: “Vampires aren’t trying to hurt you, they just need your blood to survive.”  Die Hard is a classic film in part because of Alan Rickman’s performance as the villainous psychopath, Hans Gruber.  Are we surprised to learn that Rickman felt his character was neither villainous nor a psychopath?

Not hardly.

Good directors have strong visions.  DuVernay is no exception.  Her shifting the script’s focus from the politics to the protests is a very intriguing idea.  It is similar to Howard Zinn‘s notion that history is really the continuing struggle of “common” people rather than the larger than life figures we normally hear about.

Portions of Selma are quite powerful.  We experience firsthand the cruelty of the Jim Crow laws as we watch Annie Lee Cooper attempt to register to vote. We are literally put in the middle of Bloody Sunday‘s life-endangering mayhem giving us a perspective beyond even the brutal televised images of naked hatred and racism.

And there are also equally compelling moments that are not typically found in textbooks.  For instance, DuVernay accurately depicts a fragmented black community, including the split between the Southern Leadership Christian Conference (King’s organizational base) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who had been the boots-on-the-ground effort in Selma before King showed up.  Here, DuVernay truly makes history vibrant.  How many people today are aware of the complexities within the black community at that time? How much more difficult and demanding was King’s job when he needed to stitch together multiple factions within the movement?  By portraying history more accurately, we not only learn more but we also have better insight into just how much of a political genius King was.

It’s a classic example of showing rather than telling.

A Matter of Character

If only DuVernay had kept this level of accuracy in her development of Lyndon Johnson.  He is an ideal story character as is, for Johnson was well-known to be a mass of contradictions.  While representing Texas in Congress, for example, he got rich from kickbacks by awarding large construction companies with contracts to electrify rural Texas.  And yet this crucial public works infrastructure happened much faster as a result of that backroom dealing.  And it’s also well-known that Johnson was steeped in the basics of southern tradition, including entrenched racism.  However, without that side of him, Johnson would not have been able to credibly coerce the Southern block in Congress to pass a series of bills that delivered on the promise of the Thirteenth Amendment.

This doesn’t mean that illegal kickbacks and racism are good things.  It does mean that these issues are intimately mixed up in stories where good things happened.  You can’t  tweeze the bad from the good nor the good from the bad.  They are linked.  That’s the nuanced complexity of life.  Something that the dramatic arts can make easier to understand.

In a 2012 interview in Script, Duvernay said

It’s important for me to get inside the story the same way I do a doc, where you have to crawl into the skin of your subjects and make sure that you are painting a full picture. I find them very similar.

So it’s unfortunate that DuVernay judged Johnson by saying that civil rights were “not in his heart.”  In spite of his racism, the evidence suggests otherwise.  Johnson had been working the issue of civil rights since his days as Senate Majority leader, and it’s generally accepted that most of that legislation wouldn’t have gotten through the Senate without his immense political skill.  That doesn’t mean that all the landmark legislation of the era produced landmark results.  But Johnson was well aware that the Southern contingent in Congress had successfully blocked the same sort of civil rights reforms for a hundred years, and he had to pick his path extremely carefully.

Johnson’s commitment to civil rights is also evident in his very first Presidential speech to Congress, just days after the assassination of President John Kennedy.  In fact, he openly uses Kennedy’s death to push the political agenda of civil rights:

First, no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.

I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a Civil Rights Law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race or color. There could be no greater source of strength to this Nation both at home and abroad.

Does this sound like Johnson is “reluctant” as DuVernay claims?  It doesn’t sound reluctant to me.

How can Johnson be a racist and yet still be moved by the memory of the poverty he witnessed when he taught Mexican-American children early in his career?  I don’t know.  But I also don’t know how a pastor, a man of God, can break one of the 10 Commandments by repeatedly cheating on his wife.  Yet in Selma, DuVernay obviously had no trouble portraying King as a real human and not a saintly myth.  Her story is all the richer for it.

Conversely, DuVernay scripts Johnson in a way that sabotages her narrative.  Historians consider Johnson to have been a master politician, one of the best the United States ever produced.  Is it realistic to therefore imagine he irritatedly and gruffly said “no” to King as in DuVernay’s film?  In any sort of professional setting, when someone turns you down, you never hear “no.”  You hear every word except that one. No one likes to say “no.”  Least of all, a master politician.

Instead of characterization, DuVernay gave us caricature.

king johnson portraitIn the taped phone call of January 1965, Johnson clearly tells King that voting rights are a priority for him.  Both men understood that the word “fairness” is an essential core of the American mythos and that was how civil rights would be sold both to Congress (by Johnson) and the American public (by King).  One could also assume that both men understood that their timetables would not necessarily mesh because each was dealing with his own set of dynamic forces, Johnson’s in Congress and King’s in the movement. But that doesn’t mean their relationship was mostly antagonistic as DuVernay’s script implies.

The moment that DuVernay assumed that Johnson had to be a mere obstruction for King lest the President be seen as a “white savior” was the moment that she deprived her film of the vibrant history she sought to portray. Her script turns Johnson into a simple wall that King must somehow breach.  In reality, King wanted to push Johnson to work as fast as possible without losing him in the process.  King needed what Johnson brought to the table just as much as he needed what the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee brought to the table.  In that sense, Johnson is another part of the tapestry of the movement King had to stitch together.  As much as King’s leadership skills were necessary to unify the various black groups within the movement, applying those same skills successfully to the President, the leader of the Western world, is quite another matter.  Nevertheless, King was able to bring Johnson to his timetable, rather than the other way around.

So DuVernay actually diminishes her portrayal of King’s genius by robbing us of an opportunity to witness his skill in simultaneously pushing and coordinating with a shrewd and intelligent (rather than stock villain) Johnson.  It would have been artistically just as easy to show this more nuanced tone during the King-Johnson meetings (like that evident in their phone conversation) rather than the contentious one we saw.  It would not have changed Selma‘s focus from the marchers themselves but it would have given us a better appreciation of the type of immense political puzzle King had to solve.

And this diminishment of Johnson doesn’t just happen in the script.  It happens in DuVernay’s directing as well.  Enter into our story a second white Southern politician: Alabama Governor George Wallace.  Now Wallace is an objectively vile man, to be sure.  He openly and intentionally used racism to win elections:

“I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes — and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers — and they stomped the floor.”

And yet, he was a shrewd enough politician to be the last person to ever win independent electoral votes in a national Presidential election.  Just because someone is evil doesn’t make them irrational.  In fact, when an evil person rises to the public consciousness, there’s an excellent chance they have been very calculating to attain such a position.

Again, this nuance of life is something that art can portray well.

But instead DuVernay gives us a Wallace that is completely one-dimensional, snarling and angry in every scene.  The story already had a blunt instrument of racism:  Sheriff Jim Clark.  Had Tim Roth been directed to play Wallace as a more slippery, insidious form of racism – the kind that allows it to become institutionalized into a culture – it would have not only been more historically accurate but also raised the stakes for King.

Nowhere is this problem of DuVernay’s one-note direction more evident than when Roth’s Wallace calls upon Tom Wilkinson’s Johnson in the White House.  The meeting is famous and well-recounted (cue 2:15).  The scene could have been a masterstroke in the film.  Roth’s Wallace doesn’t want to use State troops to protect King and the other marchers; Wilkinson’s Johnson doesn’t want to forcibly send Federal troops into Alabama for fear of alienating the South (and the votes needed to pass the civil rights legislation).  Each Southern politician ends up trying to outmaneuver the other.  In Selma, DuVernay has her actors scowl and argue.  Johnson’s lines like, “Don’t you shit me, George, about who runs Alabama” can be said in a multitude of different ways.  Said with a frown, it’s said in anger and practically a conversation ender. The same line said with a smile, however, is suddenly charming and far more persuasive.  In Selma, DuVernay shows Johnson and Wallace at aggressive loggerheads.  In reality, Johnson ended up verbally checkmating Wallace into publicly asking for the Federal Troops to come into his state.

When DuVernay directed Roth to play Wallace with a single-note, he became a paper tiger.  She therefore robbed herself of a chance to show Johnson in his best light: whip smart and extremely persuasive.  Instead of one crafty Southern politician working his magic and having his way over another crafty Southern politician, we end up with simple head-butting.  Watch Path to War to see the same scene – containing practically the same lines – performed with far greater sophistication and nuance.  And with the additional benefit of being closer to participants’ memories.

As before, had we seen a more capable Johnson outmaneuver a more slippery Wallace, the genius of King’s accomplishments would have increased even further.  After all, King was outmaneuvering Johnson at ever turn, essentially forcing this master politician’s hand.  The moment DuVernay judged Johnson and diminished his political skills in her story, she sabotaged the size she could have made King.

The bigger – and more complex – obstacles you put in your hero’s way, the greater your hero becomes.  Neither DuVernay’s script nor direction do justice for that side of King.

What Might Have Been

Which brings us back to the original question:  was there an oversight in not nominating DuVernay for an Oscar?  While I’ve written that it’s already dubious to give awards for creative endeavors, especially those that are culturally based, I don’t see a problem here. The structure of the story DuVernay told is good but not great. Where there could have been nuance through art, as in other parts of the film, she proposes scenarios that are literally black and white.  As a result, the storytelling is not consistent throughout the film.

The absence of a nomination is not an issue of historical accuracy but one of creative soundness.

The sad irony, however, is that the Internet lit up over this alleged “snub” of a mere award nomination far more than it did in 2013 when the Supreme Court determined a key part of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. The Court’s action significantly gutted the law.  A law which had spent 48 years on the books and had no less than 5 Congressional reauthorizations. A law that, as Selma reminds us, was hard won through serious burden and loss of life. A law just swept away.  By the Supreme Court of the United States of America.  Perhaps, like Dr. King and the other Selma marchers of 1965, we need to keep our eyes on the real prize.


Originally published February 18, 2015 in Script Magazine.