If you read Women and Hollywood regularly, you know that I am a gigantic fan of Ava DuVernay. I have been since her first movie, 2010’s I Will Follow, came out. She was one of the first people I reached out to who responded to my work and GOT what I was trying to do.
She’s been on an upward trajectory in terms of her filmmaking and has now reached the top with Selma. Not only has she made a moving, relevant, terrific and, OH YEAH, an Oscar-worthy best picture, she has put herself directly into the Oscar race as a potential best director nominee.
I want you all to understand what a big deal this is.
Only 4 women in the 76 years of the Academy Awards have been nominated.
One one has won.
They were all white.
Just so you know, there are only 388 people in the directing branch of the Academy, and only 36 of those — less than 10% — are women (including Ava).
It is very hard for a woman to get nominated as a best director. Actually it is really hard for a woman to even get her name into the mix. This year, we are talking about 2 women: Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay. Both women have made movies about men, and both are landing in theatres on Christmas Day.
Watching Selma last night with a predominantly African American audience, I couldn’t help but palpably feel the importance of this film right now. The action of the film might have taken place in 1965, yet in 2014 we as a country are still struggling with many of the same issues. We don’t live in a post-racial world. We live in a racist world. The fight to vote, to be counted — which people DIED for — is being rolled back by people all across this country, including the Supreme Court. This is unacceptable. And with the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson coming down any day now and the National Guard already mobilized there, the room was abuzz discussing how much hasn’t changed.
In my work, I meet and talk with a lot of women directors. They are all amazing. The problem is that lots of their movies are small and not always in the Oscar race, so the world doesn’t get to meet them on a big scale.
That’s the beauty of what is happening now with Ava. Everyone is meeting this amazingly gifted and talented woman. And what is also so clear is her vision and leadership. We all know the director is the leader on set, but until us regular folks who don’t work on sets see the interaction with the actors and the creative team, you really can’t see how that vision of leadership plays out. Ava is a born leader. But her leadership is clearly collaborative. Her leadership is not male leadership. It’s not about the fact that she is the boss. She figures out the best way to collaborate and brings people with her. You could see that from the folks in the room who worked with her. They love her, and they loved being a part of this film.
Here’s another reason why having a woman matters. Lorraine Toussaint, who is brilliant in the film, talked last night about a scene she had with Carmen Ejogo, who plays Coretta Scott King. Toussaint asked Ava about the scene, whether they should be talking about their husbands. Ava said no and asked if Toussaint had ever heard of the Bechdel Test. (I am paraphrasing here.) She explained the test and made clear that women need to talk about things other than men. And so the scene gives us a glimpse into these women’s lives as individuals, not just in relation to their husbands. And it also explains why having women as part of the film world is important.
Ava also spoke about the scene where Coretta confronts Martin Luther King about his infidelities (and wow, was David Oyelowo as King, really, eerily good.) As Ava said last night that she wasn’t interested in showing the affair, but in seeing how his wife would respond to it. And that is another reason why we need women writing our movies, because our perspective is different.
And speaking of writing, the credits on Selma will say a man named Paul Webb wrote the film. He wrote the first draft. He wrote a movie that was more of a tete-a-tete between King and President Lyndon Johnson. He wrote about two guys. In the film business, it is usual for other writers to take passes and do polishes on scripts. Because of rules (some ridiculous and plainly unjust) and contracts, there are lots of instances where people whose words we hear onscreen don’t get the credit. That is the case with Selma. While Paul Webb might get the credit for this film, he did not write what we are seeing up there. He knows it. The studio knows it. The producers know it. Everyone knows it. He could have given Ava a co-writing credit, but he has at all turns not been interested in acknowledging that this is a joint piece of work. Shameful.
But this is a story of potential promise — a woman with true vision breaking through the pack. Over the next months, people all across the country and the world will meet this woman, who is a wonderful spokesperson for where women directors are and where they are going. People will see a woman, a black woman, who is so clear in her thoughtfulness about her work. This woman will do what leaders do: open the minds of so many young boys and girls to new possibilities and potential.