With all of the racial issues that have been exploding into the mainstream’s consciousness starting back in early 2013, it seems like having a film such as Selma being released at this time is nothing short of appropriate. Not only that, but it just so happens to put an end to a film world with no significant theatrical releases featuring the great Martin Luther King Jr. as the lead Protagonist. When Ava DuVernay came to town to talk about this film she directed, those are two of the points that were touched on.
Now, I’ve done plenty of interviews with a number of filmmakers, but my experience with her turned out to be one of the highlights of my interviewing career. Just by sitting with her for a short period of time that I was able to, I was able to understand just how intelligent, knowledgeable and extremely ambitious she is. Because of this, I even found her to be an inspiration to me whether she knew it or not. I didn’t write about everything that was spoken about during the interview, but below is the majority of what was said.
Movie Picture Show: Why was this particular time period in Dr. King’s life chosen as the main focus?
Ava DuVernay: His life is very episodic. You could make a whole film about his time in Montgomery around the bus boycotts. Or another one about the march on Washington, when he made the “I Have a Dream” speech. Or Memphis, or Birmingham. So for Selma, I was really attracted this time period, because I felt it really encapsulates everything that he came to be. You’ve got challenges in his personal life at that time, his professional life, the “Black Power Movement” was moving in, people were kind of veering away from him and yet he still had these very huge social issues that he was tackling. This is after the Nobel Prize, after the four little girls are killed in Birmingham, after “I Have a Dream,” so it’s this moment when he’s firmly established, and it’s kind of like, “What does a great man do next?” I was just really fascinated by that. Usually in films we see the rise, but you don’t really see what it takes to maintain that, so that was really fascinating to me. I really loved this three months that we explore.
How did people receive your portrayal of Dr. King? Did you think that any of them would take offense to showing some of what is in the film?
I don’t portray him as a flawed man, I portray him as a man. I’m a filmmaker that makes films and strives to illustrate real life in whatever it is that I tackle. That’s my charge, that’s my job. I was with Bernice King, with Andrew Young, John Lewis, Diane Nash, all the real people in the film. The real people in the film saw the film at Oprah’s house and there were a lot of tears and hugs due to somebody telling this story. I think we are being selfish to “the man” who really existed if you deify him, if you encapsulate him in a statue, a speech and a catchphrase, and you make him a street and a holiday and you don’t allow him to breathe.
Why has it taken so long for a major film release about King to come to fruition?
It’s ridiculous, I have no idea. It’s been fifty years since these events happened, and there’s never been a major motion picture with King in the center. He’s always been kind of an ancillary, peripheral character, if at all. But I don’t know, I think there’s some kind of chasm with the film wanting to be out right now. We’re in this cultural moment that’s very robust with a lot of conversation, and change, and action happening. Not just here, but around the world: Hong Kong, Mexico, Brazil, etc. You have movements with people really amplifying their voices. So I think there’s something around this cultural moment and a piece of art meeting that moment that’s really beautiful. I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but the time is now.
This is one of the few civil rights types of films where the protagonist is actually not Caucasian. How do you feel about that?
Yes, the “white saviour.” Well, there was a previous script that was more “white savior” centered, and that’s why I think it’s so important to allow different perspectives behind the camera and in the scripting process. No offense to white men writing “white savior movies,” because we all put ourselves in the center of our own story. It’s just human nature. And when I got the script, I put myself in the center of the story. And that’s why you have to have storytellers of different kinds. You write what you know and what you feel, and I think that the time has come for more voices to be able to tell their stories so we can all grow and learn from each other. If I have to see another Black, historical drama from a White perspective, I swear I’m going to scream in this room. They (the publicists) will rush in and say, “What are you doing to her?”
How was it filming the violence? What’s seen in Selma may be hard to watch for some.
It was really important for the violence to feel very visceral and very immediate. We opened the film with a very violent act, because it was important that we put you in the place of what it is. Really, it was a terrorist state at that time for Black people in the south. So to be able to really feel that and not have a distance from it was important. The way that violence is treated in film is so often spectacle, and the violent act is really the physical act: the punch, the hit, the gunshot. What I tried to do with this is try to show the emotion that happens after it. So we slow the camera down, we slow the film down and make you look at the face that’s just been violated. We make you look at the people around it and how they’re reacting to that violence. Maybe it’s a woman’s approach to violence? Really seeing the face of a mother screaming for her child who’s just been shot down or showing the grandfather in the morgue after. These things are a different approach to the violent act itself that goes past the moment of impact to the moment of emotional impact.
Some of these scenes containing violence feature slow motion. How did you decide when and when not to use that method?
We chose one shot to slow down at the impactful moment of every moment of violence. So sometimes you really see it and sometimes you don’t. There is a phantom frame, we used a Phantom camera to really speed up the number of frames. My idea was to select the moment of greatest impact within these violations to make us really stop and watch it. So often we watch violence and it’s just… things blow up and you’re like terrorized. And by the time you see the last person get killed, that life means nothing.
What did you learn while doing research for this film?
Well, I grew up in South Central in Compton (Los Angeles), so a lot of people loved King and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), but Compton is really the home of the Black Panthers. It’s a Panther, Malcolm X kind of place. That lore from those stories is what really takes precedence and what really captures your imagination being from that place. Because so much of the organizing happened for the Panthers on the West Coast: Oakland, Compton. So I think, for me, I thought King was a little soft, but really exploring the theories of non-violence… I thought, it was because he’s Christian and it was a faith thing, but really, what I really tried to show in the film was what I learned, was that it was a strategic, tactical, politically savvy, very radical way to go at that time. You cannot win against militarized force. We are regular people, and none of us have tanks. If we all said, “We are gonna do it,” and brought all the firepower possible, there’s nothing we could do to go up against that kind of brute force. And that’s just the way it is. Then what do you do? Do you keep throwing rocks at a tank? Or do you think of another way? And that is radical, and that is friggin’ badass! And that is, for some reason, been homogenized and kind of made to feel weak. Really, what I learned is how strong and dynamic it is. That was a big deal for me, and that’s what I tried to share.
In Selma, David Oyelowo stars as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With him (Oyelowo) being British-born, how much did he know about Dr. King before he took this role?
I was extremely surprised at how little he knew. And I said to him, ‘You don’t know anything about Martin Luther King?’ He said “Why would I? I’m not from this country. All I know is “I Have a Dream” and that he was shot.” It’s not taught in their schools. It’s barely taught in our schools, so why in the heck would it be taught in other countries? They know the speech, they know who he is, but they didn’t have the reverence that African-Americans have for him, so I think him (Oyelowo) being a Nigerian-Brit gave him a remove from it that allowed him to deconstruct the character in a way that I don’t know an African-American actor would have been able to do as effectively.
What’s the relationship like between you and Oyelowo? He suggested that you take over directing duties after Lee Daniels left and the two of you have worked together before. Based on that, there clearly has to be a great connection between you two as artists.
We were just asked to do an L.A. Times piece that I thought was super interesting about muses. I thought it was so cool that they included us, because when you think about a director and their muse, you think about some old guy and this young blonde type. And to think of a Black woman filmmaker and a Black man and him being my muse with this being our second film together – we’re making another one together – and he inspires me as an artist, and we have a great relationship. He said that there’s something about our chemistry that pulls things out of him that he might not have thought of in certain moments. It’s very brother-sister like. I’m like the big sister a little bit.
You started out as a publicist before you became a filmmaker. When did you decide that you wanted to try your hand at being a director?
I was on the set of a Michael Mann film called Collateral. I love that film. It’s beautiful and so good. As a publicist, I was standing on the set of that film and watching him do his thing with Dion Beebe, the Director of Photography. It was at night, they were using this Viper camera, it was Jada (Pinkett-Smith) and Jamie (Foxx) and (Tom) Cruise and Javier Bardem was on the set that day before anyone cared about who he was. I was just like ‘This is just the best.’ I’ve seen Mann and all these other filmmakers do their thing, but it was something about that particular night. We were in a place close to where I’m from – we were in East L.A., I’m from South Central – and I had a friend, a homegirl of mine who had an interesting story about something that happened to her a street over from where we were and I was like ‘I can tell a story about this very street.’ So there was something that took root there. I can pin it down to that night on the set of Collateral where I thought ‘Okay, maybe I can tell some stories.’
What does it say about everything when some of these kinds of problems still persist to this day?
It just says that we’re on a continuum and that we’re in the same space. I think that the level of oppression, and police aggression, and all of these systematic violations against people of color and people who are outside of the mainstream have matured, blossomed and kind of elongated since 1965. A lot has changed, but a lot has become more centralized in terms of systems. And I don’t know if the tactics of resistance have matured and blossomed in the same way, because in some ways we’re still doing the same things. I think that if you don’t know the history and what was done, you keep starting over from the same place. So what I’m hoping that Selma does is say, ‘This is the base, now what?’ Because resistance and the social action has to mature, just like what we’re resisting against has matured, and up until that happens, we’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over. You can’t change history unless you know it, so I’m hoping this film does that.
How do you see the future for Black film?
Black film has always been bright. It’s just a question of who’s looking at it. It’s always been there, it’s always been bright. You’ve always had amazing filmmakers making films. The question is the gaze. The gaze that gets attention is the mainstream White gaze. If they’re not looking at it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. So the future of Black film is fantastic, it always has been. Now, more people are paying attention which is lovely, but we’re going to be here regardless.
What about the future of “You” in film?
The future of me? I’m just happy I get to make films. This is my dream. I was a publicist for a long time, but I always loved film. I’m a film nerd. That’s why I like to be among other film nerds. I feel like I’m home when I walk in, so to be able to now make them is just dreamy.