Sunday, April 04, 2010
Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images
Lee Daniels Wants To Tell The Story Of 'Selma' So We Don't 'Forget'
'It's So Easy To Forget, And That's Why It's Important To Canonize These People,' The 'Precious' Director Tells MTV News.
By Adam Rosenberg
This week marks the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil-rights protest march from Selma, Alabama, to the State Capitol Building in Montgomery. It was a critical moment in the 1960s civil-rights movement, one that "Precious" director Lee Daniels has chosen to focus on in his next film, "Selma."
MTV News spoke with Daniels on Tuesday about the project and why he's chosen to tell this particular story for film audiences four and a half decades later.
"I think that we forget. So many people have forgotten. So many African-Americans have forgotten. So many white Americans have forgotten," he said.
Recalling how many people laid their lives on the line in the name of equality for all, Daniels hopes he can lead audiences to understand where such a commitment might grow from.
"I wonder whether or not I could just blindly give my life for a cause," he said. "And do Americans have those balls these days? These guys, they blindly went after a cause that just leaves me...with my mouth open. We cannot forget it. I think that it's so easy to forget, and that's why it's important to canonize these people."
The march will be in "Selma," along with the factors that led to that march — the three marches, really. The first attempt resulted in a catastrophic confrontation between protesters and law enforcement, a grim showdown that later came to be known as Bloody Sunday. This outburst of violence was critical in leading President Lyndon B. Johnson to intercede in Alabama, to speak with Governor George Wallace about the harassment and, ultimately, to introduce to Congress and later sign into law the
National Voting Rights Act of 1965. The second attempt was stalled by a court injunction; it wasn't until late March that King and the protesters who supported him were able to follow through on the five-day, four-night journey from Selma to Montgomery. Daniels wants to tell that story, but he wants it to come to life through the individuals as opposed to a more expansive look.
"The story isn't just about the march, but the people. And what led up to the march. And the history of the relationship between the African-American and the white American," he explained. "There was a love/hate relationship between the white man in the South and the black man. Ninety percent of these white men that were lynching and killing these black guys were breastfed by black women."
Daniels is most interested in presenting the stark reality of the situation, the unobstructed truth in all of its many shades of gray. "We explore that relationship very similarly to the way that last scene was explored in 'Precious,' " he said. "You know, where we find ourselves not sympathetic but empathetic to Mo'Nique's character. We understand her. And so we don't justify racism at all [in 'Selma'], but we understand it."
The story will open during the troubled years immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ruled that racial segregation and unequal voter-registration practices were against the law, but the law wasn't initially strong enough for these to be enforced. As was the case in Selma, local government continued to fabricate barriers for black citizens to register as voters.
"We open our story with just that. You know, people that are trying to [register had to take] these literacy tests." The tests were designed to be impossible, Daniels explained, with questions like "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?"
And so "Selma" will focus on several of the individuals who were closely involved with the racial disputes in the city. Simultaneously, the story will also give a perspective on the big picture from an unlikely location: the White House.
"The core of the story is ... people that were just trying to vote. And also Johnson's arc as an individual too," Daniels explained. "Lyndon Johnson, the man was a racist. And he started out as a hard-core racist from the South. And he had to look the situation in the eye. The television made America look at the sh-- that was going on down there. And he was forced to ... do the right thing."
For Daniels, it all comes back to presenting as close an approximation to the truth as is possible without actually having been there, and he's ready for people to disagree with him. After all, an ongoing dialogue is the clearest sign of all that people haven't forgotten.
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