Yesha Callahan

Ava DuVernay Responds to Selma Criticism: ‘I Wasn’t Interested in Making a White-Savior Movie’


Selma Director Ava DuVernay sat down with Rolling Stone to respond to the criticism Selma is receiving when it comes to the portrayal of former President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Screen-Shot-2015-01-05-at-10.28.07-AMThe criticism comes from former Johnson Administration domestic affairs chief Joseph A. Califano, Jr.
Califano, Jr. penned an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he claimed the film “falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.”

“In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano, Jr. continued. “He considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, [and] he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted.”

DuVernay on LBJ criticism:

“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. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

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.”

To read the full interview click here.

  1. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    “Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero.” Keyword = “reluctant.” Shout out to DuVernay for speaking up and making that very important distinction. People (namely White people) are such in a rush to herald LBJ as this hero, when he was just as much invested in the status quo of that era as other White government officials and political leaders.

    • January 6, 2015 - Reply

      @Drea |

      very well said. This is the key point.

      • January 6, 2015 - Reply


        Thanks, Gail.

  2. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    “People” are struggling with the fact that Selma is NOT a “white-savior movie.” I, for one, applaud Ms. DuVernay, and am looking forward to her directing my book/ movie, “Queen Mother.” 🙂

  3. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    Kudos to her

    • January 6, 2015 - Reply

      @Mary Burrell

      Preach Sister.

  4. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    I understand DuVernay’s view, but the actual history shows that the African Americans on the ground were the heroes/heroines of the struggle without distorting Johnson. Evidence I have seen suggests Johnson was not reluctant, he simply was very skilled in passing legislation, which meant that he understood the value of Dr. King and everyone else on the ground in Alabama creating incidents that could provide momentum and political cover for the passage of new Civil Rights legislation. More importantly, it is simply a historical fact that then US Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed the FBI order to tap King’s phone a year before JFK’s assassination and Johnson became president.

    • January 6, 2015 - Reply


      Although this article is about Johnson, I am definitely in agreement about Kennedy. He was not as progressive in regards to the Civil Rights movements and may have gotten more credit than he deserved. As a matter of fact, I read somewhere that Hoover had actually attained his orders from Kennedy to spy on Dr. King. Franklin Roosevelt was another case. He passed the New Deal and other measures with the sole exclusion of Blacks.

  5. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    I’m glad Ava DuVernay wasn’t interested in creating another “white-savior movie”. A lot of people are tired of seeing Hollywood crank these out, especially in the past several years, and I am one of them.

    • January 10, 2015 - Reply

      @Coil del Rey


  6. January 6, 2015 - Reply

    The Sister
    Ava Duvernay made very great, wise points. She has every right to not make her
    film a “white savior” movie. Too many people want to ignore the blood, sweat,
    and tears of what black people have done. Lyndon Johnson was a politician. He
    wanted to have things his way and he couldn’t control people like Dr. Martin
    Luther King Jr. in a submissive manner. Dr. King was his own man. Not to
    mention that the Selma movement existed before Dr. King spoke to Lyndon Johnson
    about voting rights. She is right to say that we can’t forget about the women
    and the people of Selma who took a leadership role in fighting for human
    rights. A movement is not done by the work solely of one person. It is an acumination
    of the efforts of many people, who cooperatively stand up against injustice.
    LBJ did not authorize the wiretaps of Dr. King in that time period, but LBJ was
    great friends with J. Edgar Hoover. That’s a fact. Califano is a known apologist of LBJ. I have heard of him for years. Califano is wrong to say that Selma was LBJ’s idea. That is a
    disrespectful statement and it is an affront to our black people.

    Black people
    have lead the black liberation movement for centuries and our role ought to be
    respected. It is important to note that LBJ never stopped or prevented Hoover
    (and RFK once supported it) from conducting his illegal wireatapping when he
    knew what Hoover was doing. LBJ and Dr. King disagreed on strategies in dealing with Selma, but they
    wanted the Voting Rights Act to be passed. LBJ was pushed to allow the Voting Rights Act to be passed in a quicker fashion. LBJ passed many progressive
    legislation, but he was a racist. He called many people the N word including
    Thurgood Marshall and Robert Parker. Johnson’s foreign policy was blatantly imperialist
    as he not only supported the evil Vietnam War, but he supported coups
    throughout Asia and Latin America (where progressive leaders were killed as a
    means to cause fascist governments to emerge). When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. publicly opposed the Vietnam War, especially with his great Riverside Church speech in April 4, 1967, LBJ hated him. I wish the best for Ava Duvernay
    and I love her standing up for her integrity as a black woman.

    • January 6, 2015 - Reply

      I see Johnson as quite progressive for Southern white politician of his generation. Given his age and region of origin, I would be shocked if he didn’t use the n-word. In his own way, I think he was anti-racist, and once the Civil Rights movement was strong enough it gave him cover to act decisively against discrimination even though he knew it would cost the Democratic Party the white vote (fifty years later, white Democrats in the South are extinct.)

      Current activists need to look at the Civil Rights period and understand that their activism, and unfortunately, even their blood, may be necessary to give those in power the cover they need to bring about meaningful change. It is more difficult now, probably, because instead of regionalized overt anti-black racism, there is now thinly veiled racism all over the country, especially in urban areas, that usually talked about in terms of “crime.”

      As for Johnson’s foreign policy, he probably saw Civil Rights legislation as partially an addendum to foreign policy because ending overt discrimination undermined a popular leftist critique of America. Johnson ultimately was angry at King over Vietnam because King was first and foremost a spiritual man of principle, not a politician who would bite his tongue because it would upset a powerful friend.

      • January 6, 2015 - Reply


        As compared to Andrew Johnson, then yes LBJ was quite progressive. Back when LBJ was born, the majority of white Southerners viewed black people as inferior genetically by birth, which is a total absurdity. White racists lecture people on personal responsibility all of the time and he was wrong for using the N word. He supported progressive, legitimate laws, but he was still a racist. It is like a person can still be a racist and still join anti-racist organizations. We all agree that he was right to signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He knew of the consequences of his actions and he did it anyway.

        It is more difficult now, because as you say that thinly veiled racism and because of the record income inequality. From 1945 to 1975, America saw the most smallest amount of income inequality in American history (possibly world history). Now, we see economic oppression and the errors of the 1 percent. Yes, reactionaries use “crime” as a code word to scapegoat us as black people collectively.

        His foreign policy was a product of his Cold War liberalism too. In the sense, that many of them legitimately wanted to improve the environment, fight for civil rights, etc. but they had a paranoia about Communists. Therefore, Lyndon felt that he was fighting against Communism to promote “democracy” while he actively supported fascists who could care less about true democracy. I agree with your last sentence completely. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood by his conviction that the Vietnam War was not only unjust, but it stripped resources that could of been used to help the poor, etc.

        • January 6, 2015 - Reply

          I can see calling Johnson racist, but I think his willingness to support progressive racial policies is more important than the names he used to refer to African Americans. Ronald Reagan, he spoke in favor of states rights in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1980, just fifteen years Schwerner, a Goodman, and Chaney were murdered, was always described as personally polite and courteous to people of color that he knew personally.

          Politics is about the possible, and Johnson pretty much did what was possible in favor African Americans during his tenure as president.

          • January 24, 2015 - Reply


            ‘Reluctant’ willingness…

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