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‘Selma’ Director Calls Sony Emails ‘Sickening and Sad’

Ava DuVernay and producer Dede Gardner speak out at screening in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the same day that she became the first black woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for best director, “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay took a moment to remark on the controversial email exchange that, for some, has highlighted a dispiriting lack of progress in some of the higher echelons of Hollywood.

“I have two words: sickening and sad,” DuVernay told Variety at Thursday night’s Washington, D.C., premiere of “Selma.” “That’s really all I have to say.”

The director was referring to one of many conversations between producer Scott Rudin and Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal that were made public as a result of the massive Sony hack attack by Guardians of Peace, a group protesting the upcoming release of the studio’s North Korea-skewering satire “The Interview.” In the exchange in question, Pascal and Rudin traded quips about President Obama’s movie tastes — which, the two speculated, might run toward the likes of “Django Unchained,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler” and the comedies of Kevin Hart.

A later version of that conversation might well have included mention of “Selma,” which re-creates the 1965 voting-rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. in heavily segregated Alabama. On Thursday morning, the much-lauded Paramount release picked up Golden Globe nominations not only for DuVernay’s direction but also for picture and best actor for David Oyelowo for his portrayal of King.

During the post-screening Q&A held at the Newseum in D.C., the first question taken from the audience concerned the Sony hacking scandal. While DuVernay was circumspect about the matter onstage, “Selma” producer Dede Gardner spoke at greater length, acknowledging that Pascal and Rudin were being judged on the basis of a private communication.

“It’s confusing because it’s obviously a private conversation that was exposed and made public to the world, and it’s hard, I think, for people who know those people,” Gardner said. “You get let into spaces that you’re not meant to be in.”

“I’d like to think that it can be a very valuable lesson in how powerful the slightest words can be, and how lasting and impactful they are,” she added. “It is no joke. There are not grades of racism. There’s racism.”

Pascal and Rudin both issued apologies for their remarks on Thursday, with Pascal personally reaching out to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who had criticized the emails in question. He wasn’t alone. Earlier that day, Shonda Rhimes wrote on Twitter: “Calling Sony comments ‘racially insensitive remarks’ instead of ‘racist’? U can put a cherry on a pile of sh*t but it don’t make it a sundae.”

The “Selma” Q&A, which was well attended by local elected officials and moderated by “NewsHour” co-anchor Gwen Ifill, also included actors Oyelowo and Lorraine Toussaint, producers Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner (who are both among the producers of “12 Years a Slave”) and cinematographer Bradford Young. But the undisputed star of the panel was congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, a 25-year-old version of whom is portrayed in the film by Stephan James.

“I was deeply moved and touched to see myself played by a young guy, with all of his hair,” Lewis said to much laughter, before turning sober and reflective. “You know, when I was growing up in rural Alabama, a few miles from Selma … when we went to the theater as young black children, we had to go upstairs to the balcony. And all of the white children headed downstairs to the first floor.”

“You didn’t see anybody who looked like you on that screen,” Ifill said.

Lewis replied, “Seeing myself being played is almost too much.”

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