When actor David Oyelowo speaks as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” some of King’s famous speeches might sound a little different than many remember them — and it’s completely intentional.
Unable to secure the rights to King’s intellectual property from his estate — which includes some of his most famous and noted speeches — Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” had to reinterpret history. For Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, that’s what made DuVernay a great choice for Week Five’s theme of “Art & Politics.”
“What we’re talking about with this week is the intersection between art and politics,” Babcock said. “ ‘Selma’ is a depiction of the past and an incredibly important political time. But they also had to make the decision to alter history.”
DuVernay will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater on the film and the issues that arise when art and politics collide.
“Selma” focuses on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches led by King and other civil rights activists. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including a nod for Best Picture. DuVernay also made history when she was the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes.
Gwen Ifill asked DuVernay in a January interview for “PBS Newshour” about the criticisms of the film, such as her alleged misrepresentation of President Lyndon Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
“My response is that this is art,” DuVernay said. “This is a movie. This is a film. I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian. I am an artist who explored history. And what I found, the questions that I have, the ideas that I have about history, I have put into this project that I have made.”
Babcock said DuVernay’s central role as the auteur behind “Selma” and her handling of the controversy over the film is what made her a natural fit for the week’s lecture platform.
“She directed this movie, and she took a lot of questions and some heat for the creative judgments that she made,” Babcock said. “And that’s exactly what the week is about.”
Congressman John Lewis wrote an op-ed on the film for the Los Angeles Times in January, praising it for its cultural and societal value. Lewis was one of the leaders of the Selma marches, and was portrayed in DuVernay’s film by Stephan Lewis.
“The movie ‘Selma’ is a work of art,” Lewis wrote. “It conveys the inner significance of the ongoing struggle for human dignity in America, a cornerstone of our identity as a nation. It breaks through our too-often bored and uninformed perception of our history, and it confronts us with the real human drama our nation struggled to face 50 years ago. And ‘Selma’ does more than bring history to life. It enlightens our understanding of our lives today.”
Lewis continued, saying the film reignited interest in an era that’s important to remember in order for the United States to move forward as a country.
In the final line of his piece, he wrote, “It would be a tragic error if Hollywood muted its praise for a film because it is too much a story and not enough an academic exercise.”
It’s a sentiment that DuVernay seems to agree with.
“I understand people wanting to see history through their own gaze, through their own lens, and this is the way that I see it,” DuVernay said in her interview with Ifill. “This is the way that I interpret it. And so, you know, I can get into a debate about the minutiae of history and interpretation, but I’m not a custodian of anyone’s legacy.”
Babcock said DuVernay’s outspokenness on the subject of her film makes her an ideal speaker for the week, because one of the focuses of the week is the ampersand in the theme’s title.
“It’s not about art, it’s not about politics: it’s about the intersection of the two, and what happens when the two have to alter each other, or take a point of view or even distort each other,” Babcock said. “And ‘Selma’ is right in the middle of all of that. We’re thrilled to have her.”