“Selma,” the first major feature film to depict Martin Luther King Jr., was thought to be impossible to make. The script drifted through Hollywood for five years, went through seven male directors and six different versions.
Then it reached Ava DuVernay.
The film, released last December, earned rave reviews and garnered DuVernay a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director of a Motion Picture. Now a highly sought-after filmmaker, DuVernay sat down with Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, for the morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater to discuss the film’s success, her career and the political role of cinema.
DuVernay spent 12 years as a publicist and crewmember, gaining experience both on sets and in executive boardrooms. Her first film, the independently produced “Middle of Nowhere,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 when she was 35.
“I thought for a while I had wasted my time early on,” she said.
But she grew to appreciate the breadth of experience she had in and out of the Hollywood system while other contemporaries struggled to navigate the same realm. She deemed her hands-on education “the best film school.”
It paid off. She worked with David Oyelowo, who portrayed King in “Selma” and Brian in “Middle of Nowhere,” and it was his recommendation that brought DuVernay aboard. He and producer Oprah Winfrey fought for her vision, including her contractually obligated “final cut,” a term which means the director has full control of what edit of the feature reaches theaters. It is a privilege rarely held by a first-time studio filmmaker.
Coming from the world of independent cinema with much less restriction than studio films, she said bringing life to the first feature film about King’s life was daunting. But she felt very strongly that making it for a specific audience would do a disservice to the film.
“I am an audience of one,” she said. “I think it’s dangerous for an artist to think about the audience in the creation of a piece. You can start chasing your tail, and it infects the work. I knew this needed to speak for broader issues. But ultimately, in the crafting of the scenes and the dialogue, what we were showing and not showing, I was fiercely protective of my vision. If I’m really honest, I wanted black people to like it. I wanted a sense of fierce pride in seeing the time depicted cinematically, in all its violence, spectacle, triumph, horror and beauty.”
One of the biggest challenges was transcending the myth of King and giving a human, intimate scale to the historic events — a narrative beyond the soundbites and his closely guarded legacy.
She described King’s era as violent and said African-Americans of the Deep South lived in a “terrorist state.” Her job as a writer and a director was to deconstruct the broad strokes and to paint the canvas anew with not only King’s strengths but also his follies: his fear, ego and anger — even his marital issues.
After signing on to the film, she was told she would have to make it without the rights to any of King’s speeches. She was discouraged at first but was determined to not let the setback halt the film. To overcome the handicap, she would walk around her hometown of Los Angeles and listen to recordings of his speeches.
Eventually, she took King’s ideas from his texts and reinterpreted them in new that speeches she wrote herself. Afterward, she said one of the greatest compliments she received was when audiences didn’t realize “Selma’s” speeches weren’t King’s own.
A commitment to her personal vision granted her independence from the pressures of King’s estate or the LBJ Presidential Library. One of the criticisms of the film was about the portrayal of the late president.
DuVernay said previous iterations of the film put more focus on the relationship between LBJ and King. But defining blackness only in relation to a white character was a tired Hollywood trope DuVernay specifically wanted to avoid.
“The script I received initially was more mano-a-mano between King and LBJ,” she said. “It didn’t ring true to me. I wanted to, as much as possible, touch on the different points of view within the movement. The thought is that all black people were lockstep behind King, which wasn’t true. So it was important for me to show even among his cadre of followers the difference of opinion in any particular approach to a problem.”
Among these groups were the Black Panthers, Malcolm X and black women such as Annie Lee Cooper and Amelia Boynton Robinson.
“All of those pieces were more important to me than Johnson,” she said, citing three films about LBJ in development this year alone, including an HBO film “All the Way” starring Bryan Cranston and “LBJ” starring Woody Harrelson, both due for release sometime in 2016.
DuVernay wrapped principal photography on the feature a year and a month ago and was editing the feature when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. In a timely coincidence, she was editing a scene of the true story of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a follower of King’s who was murdered at the hand of an Alabama state trooper.
“It was the first time someone had died on King’s watch, under his directive,” she said. “The energy [of Civil Rights] hasn’t changed, while the architecture and faces surrounding it have. We live in a continuum. We’ll be talking about these issues in another 50 years.”
She said it is common in Hollywood studios to look at films aimed at or about black people and hear “it’s not commercial.” The answer they suggest is often to insert a “white savior” character that studios feel can attract white audiences.
Despite portraying important American history, financing for the film came primarily from international sources. However, DuVernay had a connection to the material in her bones. Her father was from Montgomery, Alabama, and her mother, to this day, lives and works in Selma. Because of that, she felt at ease filming on location.
“I felt comfortable asking people to do uncomfortable things, particularly asking white people to perform the aggression,” she said. “We didn’t ship in extras from Hollywood. The people in the film are residents of Selma.”
Among filming locations was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for the former Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. It was the location of the events of March 7, 1965, better known as “Bloody Sunday” wherein white deputies of County Sheriff Jim Clark used tear gas and beatings to disperse the peaceful protest march from Selma to Montgomery.
DuVernay looks forward to an eclectic future, with TV projects and even an experimental virtual reality project. One thing she will not do is direct Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” the studio’s first film featuring a black superhero in the lead. While she respects Marvel’s massive success and looks forward to the film, she decided it ultimately wouldn’t be her version that would end up on screen.
“I don’t make films by committee,” she said.
Future filmmakers and content producers shouldn’t insert black people for the sake of diversity, DuVernay said, citing criticism of actress and writer Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” for lacking black representation.
“The diversity problem is not Wes Anderson having only two people of color in his film. It’s that that no one is allowed to be the black Wes Anderson,” she said. “Or that more people of color are given the tools or the wherewithal to be behind the camera to make films. Their perspectives are unique, and they aren’t available on screen.”
It is not only racial equality behind the camera but gender equality. Previous drafts of the “Selma” script depicted King’s affairs through flirting or flat-out showing his sexual encounters.
“As a woman, I wanted to know, ‘What did his wife think when he came home?’ And, ‘What did you say to her?’ ” she said. “That’s an example of point-of-view and what a woman behind the camera could do to shift that. These are choices made by one dominant gaze that affect how we think. Opening cinema up is really necessary, vital and critical.”
DuVernay said art inherently serves a political function, but she doesn’t ascribe to the idea that the artist or art must be compelled to have overt political purposes.
“Art just has to be art,” she said.
That said, for a black woman like herself or a Native American, the act of making a film is a radical act. She said it is a choice for the artist whether they want their work to affect social or political change. And those artists must learn to accept the responsibility that brings.
The revolution in content distribution has given her hope for a broader, more democratic voice to emerge. Her upcoming work in virtual reality, which she begins in a couple weeks at the Sundance Institute, includes filming complete 360-degree shots to fully immerse audiences. Her challenge is to apply this new technology to the art of storytelling.
As for the future of African-Americans, she was inspired by a recent gathering of #BlackLivesMatter activists in Cleveland. While concern has been raised about the lack of a strong leader like King was for the Civil Rights marches, DuVernay said the democratizing influence of social media has created a movement full of leaders.
“The Civil Rights sustained itself for 12 years,” she said. “Back then, there was only one microphone. Now, thanks to social media, there are many microphones. It’s a vibrant, vital and real movement that needs to be paid attention to.”
the fierce pride of the film, that you really wanted black people to like it. Do you have a story about hearing that fulfilled?
A: Oh, many stories. And people who don’t like it. Folks who feel like someone important wasn’t represented, or a certain idea didn’t get enough time in the film, which I understand. It’s a limited amount of time. But overall what I feel is warmth and a real connection to the material. So I feel satisfied that at least my intention to represent black life during that time was met with a good feeling.
Q: A person just asked a question about truth, about whether your definition of truth as a director is the same as your definition of truth as a person.
A: Well, that’s a great question. I had to really wrestle with the idea of truth and fact in film, and that really led me to interrogate the ideas of truth and fact and accuracy in my own life. What’s factual for you is different than what’s factual for me. What’s true for you is different than what’s true for me. Like I said, if I was to film this moment or I was just to talk to someone else about this exchange on this day, we’d all have a different idea about what it was — the truth of it. Is the truth of it that we all sat here together, or is that the fact of it? Is it accurate that we all listened to the same thing? Did we hear the same thing? Did we digest it in the same way? Did it mean the same thing to us? And so, I think, when we get into ideas of the film being accurate, well, accurate to whom? The facts being right? Well, what are the facts? So we got into a lot of this with the LBJ connection. During the time, there was an op-ed with people connected to the presidential library, who said that our film wasn’t factual, wasn’t accurate in the way that LBJ thought about King. But I read history a different way. I listened to his tapes. I heard what he said about King. I didn’t just take what was presented to me by the library or by his estate, the people who’s job it is to preserve his legacy. I listened to people — black people — talk about how they felt about him during the time. To me, that’s fact. That’s a part of being accurate, that’s a part of the truth of who he was in my eyes. So I think when we get into those areas, when it comes to art, we’re charging and demanding that artists be factual and accurate and tell the truth. You’re playing with fire, because none of it’s really real in the context of art. None of it’s really real in the context of our lives, either. The way your son or daughter sees the truth of you in your life is different than the life you lived. Is their perception or interpretation any different, any less valid, because it’s real in their minds? So I think those are all questions we grapple with as artists, and for me, like I said, it came back to satisfying myself and feeling like I had fully researched and interpreted the story as truth to me, and that’s the only thing I can guarantee.
Q: What should the role of a white ally be in a movement like Black Lives Matter?
A: What a fantastic question. The first order of business is to listen. So allies, first thing in any situation is to listen because so often, people who are well-meaning center themselves and don’t even know it. They walk into a situation or a conversation with someone about the issue who is of color, or is a woman, or is in the LGBT community, or who is trans, whatever it is, who is young, who is old, who is opposite of you, and the first thought is to insert themselves into the situation. To center themselves, to offer their thoughts about it, to offer solutions from their point of view, and all of that talks over and interrupts and disrupts the personhood and centering of the folks who need to be heard at any given time. So that’s always the first order of business, to listen and to try to make connections from a listening place. But so fantastic to have folks in this day and age who consider themselves allies, who really know and want to investigate what the position of an ally is in relation to what’s going on right now. I heard that a lot as I travel around and, I think it’s fantastic.
Q: What was the hardest scene or idea that you had to leave on the floor?
A: I have one regret in Selma. I don’t even think I’ve ever said this publicly. It was my final cut, so everything that I wanted was in except one thing that I got talked out of, and every time I see the scene I think, “That was wrong. I should’ve put it in the way I wanted.” It was, if you’ve seen the film, a moment when King goes to the morgue and speaks with the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who’s lying on the table. And there was a longer exchange there, and the old man cried. In the scene as it is now, he doesn’t cry. He’s overcome — there’s a small tear — but he doesn’t cry. And a couple people that I really respect told me, “When he cries, I stop crying, because I don’t want him to cry.” And every time I see the film, I feel like he should have cried for that black body on screen. That should have been captured. I had it, I had the scene cut the way I wanted, and I backed off from it, and I regret it. Not to say you don’t listen to all kinds of notes, because the film was filled with notes from all kinds of people, with all kinds of compromises and changes that felt good to me, but that one was one I never felt great about and I regret. I always said I was going to release it on YouTube. This reminds me, I’m going to put that scene out the way I wanted it. It’s a little difference, but you know how regret goes.
Q: Let’s move forward 40 years, and you’re asked to pick a person from 2015 who changed the course of history for people of color. Whose story would you be telling?
A: Oh goodness. Freddie Gray came to mind first. I think Freddie Gray, this young man who was murdered at the hands of the Baltimore Police, and his murder and the cover-up sparked the Baltimore uprising. We’ve had many instances of police aggression caught on tape, whether it be Walter Scott, or Eric Garner, or Sandra Bland, or Rekia Boyd or many others, but I think there was something about that one that solidified the Black Lives Matter movement to the nation in a way that made everyone stand up and say, “Wow, this is a sustained thing.” This is 10 months later, and we’re still talking about this. There was something about that, in its media coverage, in the conversations that I was having with people, with white and black and otherwise, there was something about that case that really allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to enlarge and blossom in a way that felt like a movement and not individual incidences. The way that it was being covered in the press felt enlarged and like a movement. And to think this is just a young man in Baltimore who never thought his name would be synonymous with anything that important. His death has actually triggered a whole series of ideas and actions and enthusiasm and vigor around this idea of black humanity and the way we treat it. So, Freddie Gray.
Q: Will the name of Edmund Pettus come down off that bridge?
A: No, I don’t think so. There are a lot of people in the town who agree with it being there from a historical perspective. The town is pretty small. It’s still pretty segregated. And it’s a part of the lore of the place. It’s a part of the fabric of that community. There are also some black people and activists who feel like it shouldn’t change because it denotes the “evil” and “racism” that we’re struggling against. So any walk across that bridge is a triumphant act and flown in the face of the name of it itself. I have to say, I did take some pleasure in being a black woman filmmaker calling action and cut and looking up and seeing his name. I know he was like,”Get off my bridge!” Somewhere in the cosmos, he didn’t like it, and that brought me some joy. But yeah, we’ll see.