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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  January 20, 2015 11:30pm-12:01am EST

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good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. tonight we welcome the award-winning director of the movie "selma," ava duvernay. the film, of course tells the story of one of the seminal moments in american history which led to the passage of the 1965 voting rights act. the movie has generated a great deal of controversy over its depiction of president lyndon b. johnson and his relationship with dr. martin luther king jr. we're glad you could join us. a conversation with director of "selma," ava duvernay coming up right now. ♪
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ >> so pleased to welcome ava duvernay back to this program. this time for the movie "selma," which she directed. the film chronicles the three-month period in 1965 leading up to the passage of the voting rights act. before we start our conversation, a look at a scene from "selma." >> as long as i am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote, i do not have commanof my own life. i cannot determine my destiny.
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it is determined by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed. those that have gone before us say no more -- >> no more! >> no more -- >> no more m. >> that means protest that means march that means disturb the peace that means jail, that means risk, and that is hard. we will not wait any longer. give us the vote! >> no more! >> we're not asking. we're demanding. give us the vote! >> give us the vote! >> i want to first say congratulations. i want to start right there, congratulations. you know my regard for dr. king. i regard him personally as the greatest american we perhaps have ever produced. certainly he's -- not going to debate on that. certainly there's no debate about the fact that he is america's leading democratic small "d," leading democratic public intellectual.
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so just the fact that you got this done, all the drama that went into making this happen. i want to say congratulations for just getting it done. huge accomplishment. >> i will take that. i appreciate it. >> since you're the director, i'm a lowly pbs talk show host. i'm going to let you decide whether or not you want to deal with the drama now or deal with it at the end. the controversy. want to get it out of the way now or at the end? >> do it now. >> now. i'm sick of it, frankly. what do you make of the controversy about lyndon johnson how he's depicted? your thoughts? >> it was anë distraction. i think it's -- a small but very loud minority of people. people come out of "selma," feel good about johnson. i would think people would like that who are custodians of his legacy. most people who think about johnson, many people think about vietnam. they think about his, you know record of segregationist votes early in his career as a
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politician. in our film people cheer for him at the end. somehow in there, the tone of one or two scenes has riled up people whose job it is to maintain a certain image of him. and 4e2@ was not my job. so it's unfortunate that that majority that minority has overtaken the beauty of a film that does so much more than talk about really anything to do with johnson. to the point where it's the first thing that i have to be asked any time i sit down with anyone thoughtful, they feel they have to speak to that. like i said, it's an unfortunate distraction. as far as i'm concerned, i said my piece about it. >> this is not the first film that's been subject to this. i think "zero dark thirty" and films that this has happened to. i think of the "hurricane" with denzel. this kind of stuff happens. how much of a distraction is it for you when you're trying to focus on a story that hasn't been told? >> it was. it was a distraction for a while. it was a couple days where it really got me down. shame on me for letting that, you know --
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>> you're here -- >> steal my joy. i am human. >> you are human. >> i am human. i am human. got me down for a little while just because of -- i know what my intention was. i know what my intention was. and that was not my intention. and i know what the intention of that rhetoric was. for a while, i got caught up in it and caught up in it if my own way, in my own heart. that time has passed. >> yeah. >> and so it is what it is. >> the one last question, then i'll move on. i'm asking because those of white house have known you for a long time, you were a big-time publicist -- >> wasn't a big-time publicist -- >> don't -- i'll embarrass you. i'll list the folks you brought on this show. they're a-list actors. are you a big-time -- anyway. that was your life before you got into what you do so wonderfully well now. what is the takeaway for you from what you had to deal with around this controversy? what's the takeaway?
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>> interesting. >> you're going to be directing many more pictures in the years to come. what's the takeaway as director the person in charge of the project? >> you know what, i think that's an interesting question i haven't been asked. i was trying to just be a director. i'm not going to get into this publicity-wise. i'm not going to think about the strategies around how to answer this. i'm going to be like every other director sit back and -- you know i was given -- i acquired these skills for a reason. my skill set for a reason. these are gifts that i've been given through experience and through doing it for a lot of other people. you know, i -- i should make sure that i don't kind of try to categorize what i do. all of what i am should be brought to the film. and so i wish that i would have spoken out sooner because i think not doing that let this get into a big friggin circus.
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everyone has a right to their opinion. at the point when you're saying things that are just off sides like the film should be ruled out, no one should see it or hear the voices, that have put it out, the point that you're just getting into kind of manipulateive rhetoric, i allowed it to happen too long. my lesson is it's okay for me to still be -- have a publicity behind it as i try to usher and shepherd these films out into the world. i won't make that mistake again. >> good. let me flip it. the good news thatyzcl -- is that you still had a wonderful opening weekend. i saw the rollout initially in l.a. and new york. i want you to know that i went to see this twice. paid for it. you all sent me a screener but i paid. not once -- you heard me say it, twice i paid for it. and folk folk with me. i wanted to make sure my money got in there.
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>> thank you. >> i say that because i saw the slow rollout in new york and l.a. goes wide in early january. and this is inside bob -- inside hollywood talk. that per-screen average was massive. >> uh-huh. >> i mean, it had a significant -- people went to see it over the weekend -- >> christmas? >> even in january. you know, the per-screen average was big. you had to be pleased with that. >> oh, yeah, yeah. look, it's a film about martin luther king jr. probably not the first thing you're trying to see on a friday night. you're with your girl trying to go -- you just got off work, got a little money in your pocket, should we see the "lights" movie or liam neeson shoot some people? the bottom sideline -- you know, it's not escapeyist entertainment. it's thoughtful, adult drama. it's historical in nature. it speaks to you know, contemporary issues that we're all grappling with. it's not escapist. i think it's enjoyable,
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entertaining emotional. people have come out of the film feeling transported into the time. certainly it's not the easy choice. and so in light of that those kinds of films do certain numbers. and we're right in line with those numbers. that was -- that was a good thing. >> let me ask you, i admit the question might be inyshlg politicses and might be impossible. i'm going ask you anyway because you hit on this. i've had this conversation with friends and people i know and don't know since the movie came out. that's whether or not it's worth it, whether or not it's worth it for you and the folk who put the energy and effort to fight to get this done. if black people in particular aren't interested in seeing something that isn't escapist. put another way if for whatever reasons -- i don't know. i said to myself the other day, i'm not going -- i have to do a combination with somebody someday about why it appears to me that black people in particular -- not black -- this
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is an american story here. i wonder why black people particularly just love comedies and can't seem to find our way into stories even when they're stories that herald our contribution. particularly when we always say they don't show us in our full light. they don't show the complexity of our character. and you put something out like this, and it does well, but it ain't ride-along money. you made the joke, it ain't taking three. i've seen it three times now. twice. it ain't taking three money. i wonder if you have thoughts about whether or not it's worth all the energy and effort to do tha one. and whether or not you have thoughts about why it is that maybe we've just lived this and don't want to see this again. i don't know. >> you know the answer, of course it's worth it. >> yeah. >> and you know this film -- some overindexed with african-americans, "the butler" overindexed. people regard movies as escapism, as a means of entertainment and escape. across the board for historical dramas, "lincoln" is not making
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as much as -- okay "lincoln" works. but that -- you know, "the hurt locker" is not making as much as -- >> fair enough -- >> -- as you know as -- >> "star wars." i got you. yeah. yeah. >> exactly. that's not just a black issue. that's what do you want to do on a friday. some people don't want to think. some people want to relax, and they deserve to do that. that applies to us. in terms of "the butler," the of "fruitvale station," of "selma," they over-index with african-americans. i think we have many thoughtful people who have gone to see the film. and supreme been surprised that they liked it. yeah, you hear that refrain, oh, i don't want to be sad. why do they always have to -- talked to somebody saying why do they always have to you know, show us the civil rights movement and martin luther king. i was like, brother, ain't been no movie ever. major motion picture reloews in theaters with martin luther king at the center. what film would you be speaking of? it's just this -- i don't know.
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i don't know where it comes from. but i think this film is different. i mean i've said before as we've been taking this film out, i don't like historical dramas. i'm one of those people who are like you know what these are not myñ favorite things. the3p "áju pa tina of respectability on it. there's this distance of like everyone's a hero that's untouchable. they don't feel like real people. they're93us cardboard cutouts. they're not living and breathing. our goal was to get underneath it give it a little sizzle a little texture. make them feel like real human beings who did great things which is what they were. they weren't avatar walking around. they were real brothers and sisters from the south who just risked. and so i think with that i hope> i'm fascinated because it sounds like you could have talked yourself out of doing it given what you just laid out now about your aversion to historical dramas. >> yes. >> and i happen to know, as others do the back story of
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getting this project done. you were not the first director assign to it -- >> or the second third fourth, or fifth. >> right. an assistant who only spent ten cent on her last two movies -- >> right. why are we giving her a quarter million dollars. indeed. >> you could have talked yourself out of this. and for all the reasons you laid out, you did it anyway. so why? >> it's king. >> yeah. >> it's king. it's -- you know, i mean it was irresistible. i sat on this -- i believe the last time i was here i was talking about my activist stance around contemporary images of black people in film and why do we always have to be seen in hindsight. and why do we always have to be in comedies -- then i go and make a civil rights, historical documentary. but -- you know what, i -- it was king. and african-american studies -- a movement real movement history not the top key facts and the "i have a dream" and the "mountaintop" speech and he died and believed in peace version. but the real down and dirty
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version of what -- what went on there is fascinating. and that has to be seen. and that i thought i had a take on it, and i gave it a try. >> yeah. the most beautiful part of this story so far -- i'll come back to the film in particular in a second. when i saw the story circulating on the internet about these folks who just decided to start buying tickets for kids to see this movie for free -- >> black folk? >> black folk who put money up across country -- >> for kids of all colors. it started with one man who had seen the film, rich -- rich brother. he started calling his friends, and within three days, they had created a fund for new york city seventh eighth and ninth graders of all colors. black business leaders of all colors, put money together to provide 27,000 tickets for kids in new york. all you have to do is walk up to a participating theater, and there are like 19 participating theaters, with your report card or i.d. and the kid you're in seventh,
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eighth ninth grade could see the film for free. just this morning -- unprecedented never happened. paramount announced black leaders in eight other cities philly, san francisco, boston, nashville did it again. separate leaders. created a fund so that kids in their town can see this film for free. that's how much people who are in the leading sectors of business who are african-american understand -- have a deep understanding of the impact of the story. the impact of seeing what this history really means. the impact of knowing that we're in a continuum that what's happening now with unrest and progressive action ain't new. it's important for people to know where it comes from. it's astounding. it's been completely smothered by this other fabricated controversy. and this thing is a
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jaw-dropping, beautiful, one of the many initiatives that have popped up around the film. so for me, box office yes, we have to talk about it. you know? no disagree to people who disagree. i don't appreciate the rhetoric. it was heightened and ratcheted up to a place that was disrespectful for the people whose story this is. but the bottom line is, there's all these other beautiful thing blossoming around the film. and a year from now, we're not going to be thinking about anything but the film. film is forever. this is a film geek talking. we're still watching films that were made 100 years ago. if i asked you or an oscar watcher who won best supporting actor three years ago. you cannot tell me. if i asked you to list all of the awards that "dead poet's society" won, you can't tell me. but the films -- the films won, right? that's what i've come to realize and embrace and let it fall
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awake. >> i couldn't tell you -- >> two years ago -- >> couldn't tell you. >> last year -- >> couldn't tell you last year. i, tell you the first black woman ever nt for a golden globe as best director -- >> that was a setup. >> you like that? you like that? like how i did that? i weaved that in there. >> that was a setup, okay. >> i raised that to ask how -- how this movie's about the south of course, but -- the moment in the south, voting rights. they say in the south, this is high cotton -- this is high cotton. how are you navigating this whole awards season and all the -- i mean, how are you handling it? >> high cotton? good, it's fine. no -- i think that is the great thing about the publicity background is when i'm on the red carpet, i'm not feeling myself. i'm actually looking at all of my friends, other publicists
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rushing around, trying to see, wow, they've got a lot of crews here. they've got that crew in. great. they sent a satellite truck like -- i'm just in that mode. >> you do look good on the red carpet. >> thank you. thank you very much. i try my best. but -- yeah. so you know i'm not -- i'm not -- i don't take those things into my heart like a lot of my clients inp%id the past do. i've seen people wrecked over this stuff. i mean, wrecked. the golden globes, at the golden globes. and we were nominated for four things and won one. everyone was like, sorry. what are you talking about? we have been here! we are here! we're happy. and so, you know, it's -- it's fun. that's all it is it's fun. >> i saw kommonpf both guests on this program take to the stage. a beautiful song. it's glorious. a beautiful song. >> prince gave it -- the actual
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man we call prince -- >> prince who rolled out -- i saw that. i only authorize to ask how fortunate in given my own underpinnings, i'll go a step further and say blessed. how blessed do you feel to have been surrounded by the cast? the cast just remarkable. >> when you said that, i felt like if i really thought about it too much, i'd -- i would weep. these people are so special. the community that's beenc çç created around this i mean, we really love each other. we all talk. we visit with one another. they support one /j?lanother. they brunch together. travel to see one another. their experience of coleman domingo and andre helen and niecy nash and david and kommon and our crew, bradford young, our beautiful black cinematographer, and spencer -- >> amazing. i never seen him make black folk
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look so good. can you help me out? >> he's the one. >> just on a consulting basis. can you make me look a letter-- a little better in this h.d.? amazing? >> ruth carter and rock freber. i mean, a beautiful collaboration. mark paul garnes, a great group who have come together around this subject matter. we've stayed together. and i think that kind of energy, that emotional connection embeds itself in the naj some+r÷way. that's why it's important when i'm creating to create an atmosphere of just -- just comfort and love and respect. i used to be crew i used to stand on these sets and be ignored. people walked past, and when they have to talk to you they're grouchy. they don't want to stop. people griping. i always said, i don't want anyone to feel that way on my sets. we work hard to create an atmosphere that everyone -- the way david is treated is the same way the grip is treated, the gaffer is treated. the same way that oprah winfrey's treated -- maybe oprah
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gets a litsdtle more love. >> a little. >> a little. i think -- like i said, i think it embeds itself in the image. i think you can watch a film. i know that i can watch a film and twhl they were having a good time. tell when there was a good spirit on it. >> i'm listening you talk about oprah and everybody and all the things that went into making this. how did you not feel intimidated -- i know you said earlier it was king. i get that. i've written a book and i love him. i get this. but how did you not feel intimidated by all -- all of this? >> right. right. yeah. i just stripped away the king part. >> that's a lot to strip away. you stripped oprah away, king away -- >> these are coping mechanisms. essentially you're making a film about people and characters, they have to be relatable and have connection to audience. so, yes, it is king. and yes i constructed the story in a way that was about movement, history, and the top points of it that i felt went deeper than the usual top
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points. just what i regard as a -- as a -- my take on liberation. what that is. so making sure that that went in i"h therement very there. very base, foundational. does it do everything bottom-up theory, top-down theory? the debates on how long diane nash is on screen -- look, she's on screen. she wasn't there before we got there. all of that making sure it was in there. ultimately, once i did that, i had to move it aside and focus on characters. and the film is called "selma." i wasn't a filmmaker coming in who had to wlarn it was like. i know what thehsy deep south is like. i was able to let that be me entry point. i. very -- i. felt very end pocket making it. >> i was joking about the black brits taking all the good jobs. >> yeah. right. >> they took the jobs in "12 years a slave," in "selma," everything.
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i must say this brother david did an admirable job as mlk. >> he did. when you think about portraying king -- >> heady stuff. high cotton. >> high cotton stuff. i have no idea how to use that in context. but yes. no that's -- intimidating, it's huge. it's the lore and legacy of king, the cadence, the voice the mannerisms. he was the first black man to play a king on the royal shakespeare company stage. an accomplished brother. this was tough to dive into. and he did it and did it well. >> i asked earlier -- time is about up. i asked earlier what your takeaway was from the film. so before but this, you didn't want to do a historical drama. now you have. so like what direction having done this does this push you in? >> the future. >> i know that. i mean the real future -- i got you. >> space. >> are there black folk in space? are we in the future?
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>> this is the question. >> yeah. >> we must fine out. >> yeah. we had a -- there was one of us way back when. >> many decades ago. yeah, no, i'm not sure. it's a beautiful time just to be in the space where i can actually have some flexibility, some options which is -- not often afforded to us. >> yeah. >> so i'm just living in the moment. >> yeah. i'm glad you're in the fhwñmoment. best place to be. only place you can be frankly. i don't need to tell you this, "selma" is in theaters everywhere now. and -- and awards season continues. you'll want to see everything before we get to the big night. so i highly recommend it. it is wonderfully done. and i -- i close where i began the conversation by saying congratulations. what it takes to get these stories told is -- it's yeoman's work. and i consider it righteous work to get the story told. so i bow to you and congratulate you on a job well done. >> thank you. >> i'm always happy to have you back on this program. >> thanks, appreciate it.
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>> ava duvernay director of "sell will ma." that's -- "selma." that's our show for tonight. and as always, keep the faith. ♪ >> for more information on today's show visit tavis smiley at >> hi i'm tavis smiley. join me next time as we take a dive into what's grabbing the country's attention in the coming week. see you then. ♪
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from ídl you. thank you.
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