Interview: Ava DuVernay of “Selma”

Posted on December 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures
Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures

My favorite movie of the year is “Selma,” the story of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery, to bring attention to the barriers the Southern states were using to prevent black citizens from registering to vote. It was a very great honor to talk to director Ava DuVernay, who is the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Director and is a good candidate for an Oscar nomination as well.

I have read a couple of times that you were hoping that this movie would change the conversation. So tell me how you want it to change the conversation.

I don’t know if I want it to change the conversation but I do want to be a part of the conversation. I feel that art meeting this cultural moment is an important thing. It is a little surreal that the film is ready at this particular moment. And so I think that you can’t help but say as an artist – Can we meet this cultural moment? Do we have something to say in this piece that might add to the energy that’s brewing right now? I think so. I can’t say what that will be because everyone will bring a different part of themselves to the film but certainly you are hoping as a storyteller that this story has some impact. So that’s my desire. We’ll see.

Copyright 2014 Ava DuVernay
Copyright 2014 Ava DuVernay

People are understandably unhappy right now about the persistence of racial divides in this country. But how do you convey to those too young to remember the Civil Rights era the pervasive bigotry and abuse of that era?

AI think the beautiful thing about with “Selma” coming out is that we don’t have to re-create what it’s like because they are feeling it right now. I don’t have to say in 1965 all this bad stuff was happening so people went on to the street. They are doing it. This is the energy that is ambient right now. It’s all over. The atmosphere right now is that of change, that of the power of people, that of unrest. And so even a year ago, you would have to really explain how this felt to be so outraged that you left your house and took to the street and it’s happening now, literally all over the country in vibrant ways.

So I feel like it’s a blessing that we don’t have to articulate tone because people are living in that right at the moment, right now.

One thing that is very striking to me about the film is the impact that television had on Dr. King’s message getting out and letting the rest of the world know what was actually happening in a way that would not have happened even five years earlier. How do you feel that today’s media environment has helped or hurt to the way we talk about race in this country?

Oh, it’s a good question. I am a proponent of social media because there is no barrier, there is no filter, there is no one interpreting what I say or what I mean. I can say it and broadcast it to whoever wants to listen and whoever is following and sometimes things are hitting your timeline or your radar on social media that you don’t want to listen to which is also interesting.  And so I just think this era where people can broadcast themselves, where people can really amplify their own voices is tied so much with what was happening during the time of 1965 in this film in particular.  King was a master of optics. Television was new and he used television as a tactic for protest for the movement.

We had to find now how to use social media, how to use twitter as a tactic for the movie and what we found with the uprisings in the Middle East and Hong Kong and the Solidarity happening through this technological broadcast from individual to individual and so now the question is can tactical … Can tactics, can tools, can strategy be applied to this way of communicating with each other that’s kind of leaderless, it’s more people lead. So there’s a lot of ideas around… And I don’t know the answers but I don’t it is an exciting time and you just hope that the energy that’s happening right now is turbulent, toxic, triumphant time that we are in will equate to something very tangible.
One of the things about the Selma movement is they had a very specific ask.  It was all about voting rights. And now we have extraordinary optics of people having spontaneous protests around the country, around the world; we are able to see it on television, we are able to see it online, we are able to get messages on our text but what is the ask? What is the goal? I don’t know if that’s been as carefully defined.

Congratulations on the Golden Globe nominations!

It was exciting to share it with David . It was exciting because it was recognition for a film that we had worked long and hard on. And the most exciting thing about it that I know that it will bring attention to the film in a way that will get butts on seats. My highest hope is that people will see the work.

So many films are made every year.  Not a lot of those are made by women, even fewer of those are made by black women. The odds of those films being seen particularly when you have a black man in the lead about topics that are very closely aligned with the history of black people in this country around the politics of protest, there’s a good chance that might not get seen. We are doing okay right now but every little bit helps. And so I know what those Globe nominations mean in terms of validation and some people need that to say, “Hey, it would be good to check that out.” And that is a big deal so we are very happy about it.

And, I love David and to see “The world’s Best actor” next to his name – because he is the best actor, he is the best actor — that is wonderful.

Oprah Winfrey helped produce and plays an important role in the film.  Is it intimidating to direct her?

The day that I directed her, the first time that I directed her, Maya Angelou had died that morning.  So my heart was with her in a different way and all of my nerves were out the window.  I just really wanted to take care of her and make sure that she was taken care of.  Whenever I am directing anyone, for me it is all about them, trying to make them feel as comfortable as possible, as a safe as possible, as supported as possible in the performance. It’s not about me yelling, you know what I mean? Getting exactly what I want all the time. Maybe it is about making it what I want but they need to feel a true partner in it and we can only do that if you trust someone.  I think with someone that’s had as much experience as she has, she was just, especially on that such a hard day, so generous, so lonely, so nourishing to all of us.

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