Ava DuVernay is brilliant. Completely and awe-inspiringly brilliant. When I say that, I hope I don’t come across as if I’m shocked. I only mean to state it as fact. But it isn’t something that can be said enough.
She’s currently exposing that brilliance to the world in the form of her latest film, Selma, a historical drama about the campaign for voting rights among black people in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The film’s star, David Oyelowo, lobbied for DuVernay to come on board as director after a number of big names dropped out. For that, Oyelowo, too, can be called brilliant. There is no other director, to my mind, who could have so deeply tapped into the richness of the black experience in America, combined that with this compelling history, and retained the humanity of people we, as a nation, think we know and those we’ve never heard of. DuVernay did all of that and more.
I had the pleasure of speaking to DuVernay about this amazing film, the current movement to protect black lives, and much more. Our conversation only further convinced me that her brilliance isn’t something I, or anyone else, can convey. You simply have to experience it for yourself.
We spoke on December 27, 2014—two weeks after DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best director, and on the day the city of New York held a funeral for Officer Rafael Ramos, who, along with Officer Wenjian Liu, had been killed a week earlier.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mychal Denzel Smith: You started making this film before Ferguson grabbed national headlines, before Michael Brown was killed, before there were a hundred-plus days of protest, before any of the backlash to the protests. But now this film exists in a world with all of these things on our minds. How do you feel about releasing it into this political climate?
Ava DuVernay: I think it’s just an honor to have something that might add to the conversation in some way. People are coming into it with heightened feelings. People are walking into this film about history feeling like it’s speaking to the present. For a filmmaker or storyteller, telling a story about the past and for it to feel current and urgent and immediate, through no doing of mine, but because of the time that we’re in is certainly moving and certainly an honor for us to have something to say during this time. It’s really just trying to provide some connective tissue between then and now and to just remind folks that this is not now, and maybe just illuminating that fact in some way might change some of our ideas about what the next steps are. If you know that what we’re taking is not a first step, but a step from a journey that’s been decades long, centuries long, then that perhaps changes the way you walk.
MDS: I’ve heard you say multiple times that you’re not a fan of historical dramas, and I can understand that because most of them are just really, really boring. They all seem to follow the same script. Selma is a big departure from that because we get this intimate look at the characters and the humanity of the people involved. But I feel there’s something special about that with regards to talking about black people because we don’t get to have our humanity explored on the big screen in that way.
AD: A film is a groupthink in a lot of ways. A lot of people put their hands on the thing by the time you’re at the end of it. I was in a very unique situation where I was the one who was able to have my hands at the wheel. But it was rare and it was because of Oprah, who made a way for me to be the one to tell the story and would not allow that to be compromised at any turn by anyone, no matter who wanted to. It’s rare. You know, you have someone like Spike [Lee] and Malcolm X. He had his hands on the wheel through that film—not to compare the films at all, but just to talk about the process of movie-making and the way it usually goes—but it is rare to have a black storyteller have some autonomy over [the] story. Also it’s just rare to have a black storyteller telling the story when it comes to history, period.
So I think when you don’t have that, you have this kind of groupthink that turns into a homogenization of the events, turns into us not being at the center of our own story, as people of color or women or what have you, and this kind of smoothing of the edges starts to happen, and that starts to contribute to this whole idea of “ugh, the same old thing.” And so with this I was very focused on not letting that happen. For whatever people think about the film, whether they love it or hate it, it is the vision of a black storyteller undiluted. For whatever that means for the way we are presented as people of color on screen. I think part of the reaction that some people have to history, particularly around black history, is just the way that it’s been told and by whom.
MDS:And with that, you’re telling a story in which the center of it is Martin Luther King Jr., but the name of the film is “Selma.” People could read this as an MLK film, but it really is about this community and it’s about this movement. How did you avoid making it just King?
AD: [I] just [didn’t] write it as just King. I wrote it for what it was. There’s a King story, and there should be a film that’s just King, but this film was about the voting-rights campaign. It’s about this small town that had been ripped apart by segregation and oppression and state-sanctioned terrorism, and the people who were living under that and who decided “no more.” And that’s fascinating. Why would you not tell that story? Just the idea of being able to paint a picture of King while looking at the larger portrait, the larger landscape… I think his story is told. To try to tell his story in the context of the people that he led is really, I think, a great way to tell the story of a leader. And in order to tell that story you have to bring in the people, you have to bring in the people who were around in him, you have to bring in the people that he led, otherwise you’ve got a story of a caricature of a leader. If you’re trying to tell a story of a leader and you are not talking about the people who [they] led or the context in which [they] led, you’re not really, I don’t think, interested in telling that story. You’re interested in upholding this iconography and this caricature and that’s what we were all opposed to.
MDS: There’s an ordinariness to many of the characters, but they still remain vital to the telling of the story and also the movement itself. Part of why this is noteworthy to me is that with the way we’ve lionized King or Malcolm X or whoever, it feels like we’re telling stories about these extraordinary people who respond to extraordinary times, or that they’re superhuman and they do it by themselves. But the way you told this story, it’s about the entire community. From the 80-something-year-old man who needs help walking to be a part of the protests to the woman who is cooking for these activists/organizers when they all descend on her house, these are all “ordinary” people that play a role in this movement.
AD: Absolutely. And beyond them it’s also just the idea that these are not superhuman people. We really have to deconstruct our heroes. I think that’s our job. We can’t just hero-worship. You have to know what you are looking at and what you are holding up. I’ve had people come out of screenings talking about the scene where you see King eat a biscuit. He eats!? Yeah, he eats. He smokes?! Yeah, he was a smoker. He laughs? He plays with his children and tussles around? He gets upset, he’s depressed, he has an ego? Was he mad about Malcolm? Like, was he mad about the ideology or was he mad that his wife was in love with Malcolm?
The things that I’ve been hearing from people are just fascinating to me, because so much of it is just him walking, breathing, and being a normal brother from Atlanta. And the fact that all that has been stripped away and he has been reduced to these four words, “I have a dream,” and that’s it. I have a dream, I believed in peace, and then I died. And that’s really about the broad strokes of what most people know. In terms of knowing anything more about the radical ideas and the bold tactics that went into his thirteen years as the de facto leader of the civil-rights movement, [they don’t know any of that]. It’s a shame, I think. And that’s what we were trying to do, just tell more. That’s all. There’s so much more to tell. And did we get it all? No, but hopefully it sparks some interest in him as more than just a kind of…this yawn and the roll of the eyes people do sometimes when you say “King.” No, no, that [making a caricature] was done to him. So it deserves a closer look.
MDS: Part of the movie that sat with me and made it so I was saying to myself, “This is a phenomenal film, I don’t know if I can watch it again,” was the violence and the way it’s portrayed. It’s deliberate that you slowed it down, and make people sit with what exactly was done to these people. But I wonder about the limitations of our sympathy or empathy for seeing black bodies tortured in that way. I understand the purpose behind it, but I wonder if a general viewing audience appreciates it.
AD: I don’t know. That’s not anything I was thinking of when I made it. As we were working on these scenes, it was about telling the truth of it. Because ultimately, we’ve become desensitized to violence. You can see people be beat in a night march, but not to jump in and actually see… so you can see someone being manhandled, but to not jump in and slow down and see the look on the woman’s face when two white men put their hands on her and pull her down—that’s something we slowed down to make sure you could see the fear, the humiliation in the face. And that’s important for me, not even to make people take a look at, for me to take a look at as a storyteller. To see Jimmie Lee Jackson shot, and okay, usually that’s the end of the story. The troopers storm out and it’s over.
There were two looks there that were important. The look on [Jackson’s] face, like, it’s over, I’m dying, this is over, this is how it ends for me. And that’s the story of so many young black men in this country—caught out somewhere, not thinking that the minute you walk into that cafe, or the minute that you’re walking home with your Skittles, or the moment that you were on the street corner really minding your own business, that that is it for you and this is how it ends, like so many statistics. So I wanted you to see that look on the face. And the mother afterward who gets that news. You have to look at her. You have to see the morgue afterward. You have to look at that grandfather. Because these men aren’t just dying; they’re leaving broken, shattered dreams, and families behind. That is a fabric of our community. It’s interwoven, it’s ambient in how we live here. The idea of making folks, and really myself, stop and look at that.
There’s one way to shoot and there’s one way to present it and there’s one way to edit it, and there’s another way to do it where you just say, “We will take a moment here and we will honor this moment.” So that was the idea behind it. And I don’t know how much people can take or not because at the time of crafting it. I’m just trying to get to the truth of it. And it may be too much for some, I don’t know. But we just try to tell the truth with that stuff.
MDS: And I appreciate that. I guess I’m just sitting here with the thought, “I wish that those images could move people so that they understand black humanity,” but we watched Tamir Rice be killed, we watched Eric Garner be killed, and people still label them thugs. I’m trying to figure out where the line is drawn, what is the threshold that people have to get over in order to see our humanity?
AD: I don’t know what it’s going to take. Nothing that we can do as people of color, or progressive people or allies, can be in that context or should be—in my view, which is different from King’s view, even, or some of that tactics that are in this film, which are kind of “show and tell.” That generation was very much about dressing in a certain way, presenting in a certain way, for a certain end—to tell the story that we are human. “I will dress this way, I will have this car, I will have this house, I will have this job, I will present myself as just as good as you so that you will see that I’m just as good as you.” The question is—and it’s an ongoing kind of cyclical question, one day I’d feel one way about it one day I’d feel another, [but] it is a question I ask myself and I try to resolve—does any of that matter? That presentation, does that matter? Does it change the needle? I don’t know.
You have these cops today, who asked protesters to not protest, to respect the slain officers—officers that were slain for no reason except one guy wanted to kill them—it has nothing to do with the protest, it has nothing to do with people raising their voices. And yet protesters and people who are challenging police aggression were asked to stand down, [but] at the funeral of the officer, [the police] protested by turning their backs on their mayor. There’s no outward presentation, there’s no answering any call for respectability, that we’re asked to do [that] really makes a difference in the end. So the question is [whether to] be yourself, follow your own mind, build as you will, as opposed to trying to fit into some of the respectability politics. It’s a question that we’ve all as conscious people had to ask ourselves, but it’s something to think about. But I think, what do we have to do to [get others to] see our humanity is not a question I ask myself at any point. I don’t need to prove that to anybody. That becomes a question in the filmmaking, that becomes a question in the writing, in the storytelling that we’re all doing. The narrative that we’re all weaving is, “Am I here to be myself or am I here to prove I am myself?” That’s a question for each person to answer.
MDS: It’s at this point Kiese Laymon [Vassar College professor and author of Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America] would say, “Fuck it, just make some shit for us.” So I’m glad you made some shit for us.
AD: [Laughs] That’s a good brother.
Selma opens in theaters nationwide today, January 9, 2015.