There aren’t many films that can lead a back-to-back night of surprise world premieres — with an unfinished cut and before Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort — and still garner an enthusiastic response that includes a five-minute standing ovation. Yet “Middle of Nowhere” director Ava DuVernay’s ‘60s-set drama “Selma” did just that at AFI Fest last Tuesday, when it screened in its entirety rather than just the 30-minute sneak peek originally scheduled. The confidence shows in the film itself: it is a stunning, spirited biopic that shirks most of the conventions that come with the label (our review).
No discussion of the film should be without actor David Oyelowo’s name, though. Starring mostly in supporting roles up to this point (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” J.C. Chandor’s upcoming “A Most Violent Year”), he positively owns the role of Martin Luther King Jr., depicted in the film over a three-month period in Selma, Alabama as the Voting Rights Act slowly rolls into reality. He’s joined as well by supporting performances from Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common and Oprah Winfrey (who also helped produce the film).
The day after the premiere we met up with DuVernay and Oyelowo, who delved into the personal history behind the project, the experience of the premiere, and much more.
The Playlist: (to DuVernay) Last night during the Q&A you talked about your comfort zone in smaller “black indie romances” prior to “Selma.” How did that transfer into working for and speaking to a much wider audience?
Ava DuVernay: Well, it never felt like I was speaking for everyone. Had my mind gone there I would’ve been somehow crippled in the creative endeavor. To be honest with you, it was simply working with my friend [gestures to Oyelowo]. It was something that he wanted to do, and something important to me because my family’s from Selma and Montgomery. I approached it through an intimate way and that helped me get to the King of it all. If I walked in thinking “I’m making a movie about Dr. King” I would’ve freaked out, so I came in small and it was able to blossom into something else.
(To David) How did Ava’s involvement coincide with your decision to do the project?
David Oyelowo: I had been attached to “Selma” for a while, and my entry point to working with Ava was first reading her script that was handed to me by [one of Ava’s working partners] randomly on a plane. So it was very unorthodox, but her writing just felt so deep and layered, and then when I got to work with her as a director [on “Middle of Nowhere”] that continued; she got things out of me as an actor that were on the page but were definitely given way more flesh on the bone. I had always known that if you’re going to play Dr. King the one thing you couldn’t do is approach him as an icon or a historical figure, but as a human being. And she’s just one of the best directors I’ve worked with in terms of doing that — getting your hands dirty with humanity.
There certainly haven’t been too many depictions or mentions of Dr. King onscreen. The third one that came up in a search was “Our Friend Martin.”
Oyelowo: (Laughs) Oh my god, we’re going back with that one.
DuVernay: Exactly, yeah, there have been a few telefilms. Jeffrey Wright did a film that I’ve only seen a bit of, “Boycott” for HBO. But never a feature film, and never one for a studio, in theaters, with King at the center, which is nuts to me.
The film is certainly brutal in its depiction of clashes between police and protestors, but it mostly implies rather than shows. What was the process of deciding how far to go? Is the film PG-13 or R?
DuVernay: It’s PG-13. Yeah, good, we were trying to walk that line. We wanted violence that really illuminated the destruction of the black body, and also destruction of the people who supported the black body. And in order to illustrate the bravery and the faith of people who did it, you have to show what the test was. You have to know what they were up against, this terrorism, and it was: state-sanctioned terrorism in Alabama.
(To DuVernay) What were the experiences of your family while growing up in Alabama?
DuVernay: My father was 9 years old when the march went from Selma to Montgomery, and he lived in Lowndes County, the place where they did the Five-Day March. He was 9 and he remembers all the talk about it; in my family there was a lot of fear around letting the younger people participate so none of them did. When they say in the film there’s no one in the state for 100 miles registered to vote – that was Lowndes County. It’s called Bloody Lowndes, and it was. They were taking your property, really terrorizing.
What was the reaction watching it after such a whirlwind period leading up to the premiere?
Oyelowo: (to DuVernay) Yeah, where were you? Did you disappear?
DuVernay: I’m off to the side. I’m watching the audience watch it, when certain moments are coming I’m watching the light from the screen hitting people’s faces.
And what about for you, David? This was such a transformative role for you – can you watch it without constantly kicking yourself over what you didn’t do?
Oyelowo: What I always do, and what I’ve always done, is work myself to the bone. If I can categorically say I’ve done that then I’m able to leave it alone. If I know I could’ve gone the extra mile and didn’t then I’ll be very critical because then often it shows up on the screen. I know I left it all behind here.
DuVernay: You left it all on the court?
Oyelowo: Literally everything I could put into it. I did, because I was aware of the opportunity. It was the most blessed circumstances under which to be doing it, to be directed by my sister, to have Oprah whom I call my American mum. These ladies are so dear to me, and to have them by my side, to Plan B who’ve been cradling this thing for 8 years, Cameron McCracken at Pathé similarly.
It wasn’t a casual thing for anyone involved. The cast and crew that came onto it were on it for the right reasons, by and large. It was like, okay, we’re drawing up our sleeves and trying to tell the truth today. So knowing that we did that, all I felt watching it with the audience yesterday was pride. I just thought, “This is an offering. Here is this act of service, we hope you receive it in the spirit it was made.” And I felt that they did.
DuVernay: Eight or nine years they’ve been trying to keep it up but only a year since Oprah and I came on board. And it was really when she came on that it went into Oprah-drive. I think it’s also the success of some black films last year, with “The Butler,” the box office success of that, but “Twelve Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station,” the collection of all of those coming out and people saying, “These are viable, they’re doing box office, let’s put a risk on these.”
So I think we’re in a place where hopefully one feeds the other in this kind of cinema with people of color at the center, and we don’t have to keep re-inventing the wheel each time. I think that sets up a space for future filmmakers, because it’s always so hard to get it done. For “Selma,” it’s definitely the time and the team of these producers creating a perfect storm, as well as this guy who’s the same age as King, four children like King, been prepping King in his head and heart for seven years. You gotta take that moment.
What was the last moment in cinema like that for you? Before the last few years I’m thinking of films like Barry Jenkins with “Medicine for Melancholy,” and others around ’07 or ’08.
DuVernay: I think so, too. Barry was kind of the kickoff to me in a lot of ways. I mean if you wanna go further back you have the Cheryl Dunye, Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, the vets, right? Also through that you have your Spike Lee moments, your “Hoodlum” moments, but from there to the last five years there were only a few and they weren’t breaking through. For me it was really Barry’s ‘Medicine’ where we were like, “Ooh, we can do that? Shoot in B&W? Have rock music? It can be like that?” And I think he was hearkening back to other stuff but it was just a breath of fresh air, and after that you have Dee Rees and Tina Mabry and all the people who’ve come after.
Are you planning on moving more of a producing direction for filmmakers coming up, with some of your other companies like AFFRM [African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement]?
DuVernay: Well AFFRM was always built to distribute the work. It was always a very focused intention for once you have the work done — because I’ve been there. You have the work done and then where do you go with it? The film festival circuit, that’s it. So I think we had to analyze instead of being all things for everybody. David’s doing work in the production and development side with a new company, but for me, once it’s done as a filmmaker, feed the baby and let the baby be seen. AFFRM’s not producing but empowering filmmakers to let them know there’s an endgame. That’s why we do The Call-In, where I talk to filmmakers about their craft – [Justin] Simien, Spike, [Ryan] Coogler. Things like, “Where do you stand when you’re rolling? How do you rehearse? How do you block?” Things that aren’t usually asked.
Let me ask a bit, then. This is your third collaboration with Bradford Young – what were the kinds of conversations you had with him on “Selma,” for instance when lighting David?
DuVernay: Well, there’s one shot at the end of the film with Dr. King just before the final march – it looks like an unintentional shot of David from the back when he says, “I’m not going to get there with them, but I hope that they get there.” I could say something to Bradford like, “Just light his eyelash,” and he’d be like, “Okay, great.” And I’d come back and it’s David’s face and you just see the eyelash beautifully lit. Of course you don’t tell David though, cause then he’ll be wondering “How do I do the eyelash?”
Oyelowo: If I know that I’m acting through the eyelash. I will find the way to bring Kingliness up and through that single eyelash. [laughs]
[To DuVernay] Is he prepped to shoot your next flick, then?
DuVernay: He can come over to the house and shoot a paper bag if he wants. “I got an Evian bottle here, let’s just see what happens.” I ask him to do everything but he’s in a real demand right now – I just hope that my next one lines up with his availability and his interests. Because he’s very intentional about what he does, and so hopefully it’s something he likes and will come do.
“Selma” opens in NY and LA on December 25th, and opens wide on January 9th. And to see DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere,” a long-delayed DVD and On-Demand release lands on January 13th, 2015.