PARK CITY, Utah—On March 21, 1915, a motion picture was screened for the first time inside the White House. President Woodrow Wilson sat down to watch D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” The film, considered one of the most nakedly racist of all time, falsifies the history of Reconstruction, depicting African-Americans, freed from slavery, as dominant, violent and oppressive toward Southern whites. Wilson said of the film, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film would serve as a powerful recruiting tool for the Ku Klux Klan.
One hundred years later, another film was screened at the White House, this time at the invitation of the first African-American president. The film was “Selma.” The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, watched it with the First Couple. I met DuVernay here at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where, in 2012, she was the first African-American woman to win the festival’s Best Director award, for an earlier film. We sat down for an interview at Sundance Headquarters, where she recounted her feelings after the screening: “It was beautiful to be in the White House in 2015 with a film like ‘Selma,’ knowing that in 1915 the first film to ever unspool at the White House was ‘The Birth of a Nation.’”
“Selma” is the story of one of the key moments in the civil-rights movement, the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, best remembered for “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, when the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was violently attacked by Alabama State Police. A young John Lewis, then a leader of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and now a long-standing member of Congress, was one of the march organizers. Police beat and bloodied him, fracturing his skull. DuVernay’s film puts that march into historical context. Said DuVernay: “‘Selma’ is a story of justice and dignity. It’s about these everyday people. That’s what I loved about it. … It’s about the power of the people.”
The story is also about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who played a central role in organizing the marches that followed Bloody Sunday. DuVernay told me: “There’s been no major motion picture released by a studio, no independent motion picture, in theaters, with King at the center, in the 50 years since these events happened, when we have biopics on all kinds of ridiculous people. And nothing on King? No cinematic representation that’s meaningful and centered. So, it was just something I couldn’t pass up.”
“Selma” gained national attention, not only because the film is an Oscar nominee for best picture, but also because DuVernay was not nominated for best director, prompting a furor on social media under the Twitter hashtag “#OscarsSoWhite.” A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found Oscar voters are 94 percent white and 76 percent male, and the average age is 63 years old.
The film also has drawn controversy because of its depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant supporter of voting rights, sometimes even an obstructionist, who had the FBI monitor and harass King. “I’m not here to rehabilitate anyone’s image or be a custodian of anyone’s legacy,” DuVernay told me. She went on: “We have to work without permission. Especially as women in this industry. Who are we asking for permission to do what we want to do? That should be eradicated. You need to set a path and start walking.”
Far from Sundance, but not so far from Selma, a real-life drama unfolded this week in a South Carolina courtroom, as the 1961 convictions of a group of civil-rights activists were overturned. The Friendship Nine were young African-Americans who sat at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, S.C. They were sentenced to 30 days of hard labor. On Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III overturned their convictions, saying, “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” Judge Hayes is the nephew of the judge who sentenced the men 54 years ago. Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett thanked the men, for himself, for his daughter and for making the state of South Carolina and the nation a better place.
Over in Selma, on the weekend of March 7, people from around the world will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic “Bloody Sunday” march. Barack Obama, president of the United States, will be there as well. Change happens, slowly, but it happens. Could the birth of a new nation be at hand?
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
© 2015 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate