Bracing an icy rain, Harry Belafonte, Gay Talese, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ruben Santiago Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Gayle King, Tamron Hall, and many others filled the grand ballroom of the Metropolitan Club on Tuesday for a luncheon honoring Ava DuVernay for her movie Selma. The journey was worth it. Backed by an ensemble of ten musicians, John Legend and Common performed their song, original for this historic film. With "We Are the World" on her mind, DuVernay gave these artists their freedom when she asked them to compose a special song for the film, but instructed them: it should be memorable. Coming at the end of this important movie about a benchmark moment in American history, "Glory" is a powerful anthem, but now performed at this special venue, you could hear the relevance of bringing the 1965 event into the present ethos. Ferguson is intoned, and you know the Martin Luther King, Jr.-led march across the bridge remains a metaphor for a democracy that is a work-in-progress.
Along with Harry Belafonte, Gay Talese a New York Times writer at the time reporting on Selma, was one of the few actual witnesses in the room. Talese affirmed the accuracy of DuVernay's film to the history. Belafonte appears in a cameo of archival footage at movie's end. At last year's New York Film Critics Circle gala, Belafonte spoke about the importance of 12 Years a Slave to his identity as an essential, not secondary, American. He did not take the stage at this lunch, but said privately, he's been active as always in the current events in Ferguson. Rather than see civil rights rolling back, he sees them moving forward.
The New York Times, said Talese, prizes the truth over the imagination. "I was seeing things in the movie I really remembered. All the television coverage made America wake up. Ava DuVernay captured that. People ask, did Martin Luther King say those things? Was it really like that a band of brothers surrounding him? Did Lyndon Johnson really say, 'We shall overcome' on national television? Yes. He did." Phylicia Rashad said she wanted all young people to see this movie: it's astonishing that people question this relatively recent history.
A large question looms through award season for many of the voters in the room: can the academy give an Oscar to a movie related to race in America so close to last year's 12 Years a Slave? Stay tuned.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.