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Ava DuVernay – Returns the Struggle for Civil Rights to Selma

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey at the NY press day for "Selma."  Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey at the NY press day for “Selma.” Photo copyright 2015 Brad Balfour.

Ava DuVernay

Returns the Struggle for Civil Rights to Selma

by Brad Balfour

On the occasion of Martin Luther King Day, the film Selma is further in the spotlight because both director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo were not nominated for best director and actor Oscars respectively.

Though the film was nominated for Best Picture, Selma‘s absence in a number of other categories has highlighted the lack of diversity in both this year’s Academy Award nominations and its voting membership.

Nonetheless, the film, its star, and director have been garnering critical accolades for its depiction of Martin Luther King and – after 1964’s Civil Rights Act – his efforts to get into law the right of people to have the vote, regardless of the color of their skin. In the run-up to getting the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed, King and his supporters had to run a phalanx of opposition that included beatings and other attacks before he commenced the peaceful march on Selma, Alabama. That event galvanized the country and won the law’s passage.

That the Academy bypassed DuVernay might be a result of demographics, tough competition and some voting clichés, but it certainly highlighted the fact that even with an African-American President in office, racial issues still plague this country.

Beyond award concerns, the film also came under fire for its portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson as a reluctant warrior in the civil rights struggle. It has been questioned by Johnson scholars and friends as not only being unfair but inaccurate. Some even called for the film to be denied further awards.

DuVernay and others have defended this cinematic portrayal (played the great British actor Tom Wilkinson) as being in keeping with some recent books and articles. Additionally, Selma has been perceived as controversial because another company with rights to King’s speeches kept this production from using his original words. Nonetheless, many veterans of the civil rights movement such as Congressman John Lewis and the King family praise the film for capturing the spirit of King and the times.

Co-written and directed by DuVernay, Selma features both the jousts between King and Johnson as well the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery – a perfect backdrop to display the past drama of the civil rights movement in light of present day civil rights struggles. Initially released on Christmas Day, 2014, it has become a focal point of the “Black Lives Matter” movement going on today.

For her work in Selma, DuVernay became the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award. In addition, the 42-year-old Los Angelino has had other firsts, including launching her own P.R. company and a film distribution firm that spotlights African American productions.

The following Q&A with the director is pulled from a press conference held at New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel shortly before the film’s release. The conference also included producer Oprah Winfrey, actors Oyelowo (MLK), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Common (James Revel), Tim Roth (Gov. George Wallace), Tom Wilkinson (President Lyndon Johnson), plus producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner.

As a director, how did you strike the balance between a responsibility to history and the responsibility to tell a good story?

I think no one here wanted to make a film about a statue, a speech, a street name, initials or a catch phrase… all the things that I feel King has been reduced to in a lot of ways. He was dynamic and charismatic, a brilliant mind. He was a man of faith who was sometimes unfaithful. He was guilty. He was depressed. He had an ego. He liked to laugh. He was a prankster. He was a human being.

There hasn’t been a film made with Dr. King at the center of it released by a studio, ever. So when we were charged to do it, our main goal was to show him in all of his human complexity. Unlock him from the statue and let him live, breathe and tell the story through that lens.

This could have been told as a cradle-to-the-grave or as the “I have a dream” story since there is so much built-in drama in the process that led to the Voting Rights Act. But you devoted so much time to the Kings’ love story and his personal story – you added so many layers to this story of history. Was that a risk for you to do that?

A risk for me as a filmmaker [was] to make a film that felt like [taking] medicine or [eating] spinach, [but now] we’re on the other side of it so it feels good. But facing the idea of making a film about Dr. King, it’s like: how do you do that? What do you do to make that feel urgent, vital, immediate and not like a dusty history book?

The way you do it is to focus on story and character. In order to [do that], you have to be telling the truth about people. That’s the only way. I don’t think a standard script approaching this material would have attracted the caliber of this cast or our collaborators, our department heads, all of the creatives that worked on this. [They’re all] such geniuses at what they do. So it wasn’t a risk, it was the only thing to be done.

It was really powerful to see that Dr. King also needed people to flow into him in order for him to lead this movement, which was beautiful. How do you dig into the past of someone who is still something of an enigma?

You have to really deconstruct all of the things that you think you know about him. Really look to the fact that this is a brother from Atlanta. [His] father was a preacher, [his] grandfather was a preacher. He didn’t want to be a preacher. He went to Boston, fell in love with this fine sister, a beautiful sister. She was a little older than him, most people don’t know that. They fell in love. He moved from Atlanta to Montgomery because he wanted to get away from his father, and wanted to have a little room to breathe and be his own man.

Two seconds of him arriving there, he gets swept up by the local leaders. He’s handsome, he can talk pretty well. [So they] have him start talking about this bus boycott thing, have him start to talk about what’s going on with Mrs. Parks. And he gets swept up in history. That’s the way we approached him as a person and [his] real life story, as opposed to [reducing a] whole life to four words, to “I have a dream.” I mean, what would any of us do if we were reduced to four words? He was so much more than that.

This comes at an important time. Tens of thousands of marchers in this city and in cities around the country have been out there; it almost seemed like a scene from this film.

It’s a jaw-dropping thing that this piece of art can meet this cultural moment. That’s so rich, so robust, so bursting with the energy of people, amplifying their voices. This film is about that voice; this film is about being heard. We’re sitting here in this hotel doing interviews about how these marches change the nation, while I hear people marching outside.

One of the things about making a film like this is: how do you make it immediate? How do make it textural, relevant, something that people can see themselves in? Although this film took a long time to get made, once we were able to make it, we had to make it quickly. [We had] 32 days to shoot and run, run, run. I feel this film is here for a reason in this moment. We hope it can add to the conversation, to the energy that’s going on. What a vibrant time in our adult lives, to be able to see this nation galvanized around these issues. It’s very exciting.

If the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in Staten Island  hadn’t happened, what would you want its message to be?

Well, distressed race relations in this country are ambient, they’re not just happening because of these two things. It’s part of the atmosphere of this country. I certainly feel that as a person of color. I think about it all the time, when my brothers walk out of the house and I hope that they come back. That’s always there. Yes, this is a beautiful time, but there’s a magnifying glass on it. Certainly I don’t think it would have been entirely different if these events hadn’t happened. What was [at the] top of mind for me while making the film was the Voting Rights Act. That was all we were thinking about and talking about early on.

I really thought that that would be a big topic of conversation as we presented the film: the dismantling of the very act [the creation of which] we are chronicling in the film. The violence to that act that has happened and is hard to put back together. That’s what art does, it continues to illuminate things as the years go on. What we will see in this film, hopefully if people are watching it ten years from now, [will be] something that we probably haven’t even thought of yet.

How can we get these kind of engaging programs, not only in film but also in TV? In the ’90s or say the ’80s, there were many films about [ordinary] black life.

Well, black cinematic artists have always been making those films. There are some that have had a spotlight placed on them, but as a black independent filmmaker, there’s been a continuum of beautiful things made. Now you have a resurgence of attention around some beautifully [told stories], whether they be Fruitvale Station, 12 Years A Slave, and The Butler last year, or this year with Belle, Beyond the Lights, or Dear White People. It’s there. There are more coming next year, but there always have been.

I think the charge is to make sure that they remain in a place of consistency. We talk a lot about black, but what about brown, what about indigenous, what about Asian? I mean, there’s not enough diversity behind the camera. It’s really about getting storytellers, giving the storytellers of all kinds the ability to let their voice be heard. That’s my hope.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2015.

Photos 1 & 2 ©2015 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos 3 & 4 ©2014 Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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