Almost five years after conducting my first interview with Ava
DuVernay on Indiewire, she’s
become the first black woman director to be nominated for a Golden Globe, and
is heavily predicted to make similar history at the Oscars.
With “Selma,” she marries historical drama with a current sensibility that
makes the film extremely timely, and
relevant. I caught up with DuVernay after the film’s rousing world
premiere at this year’s AFI Fest, where we discussed her disdain for techniques
of the typical “black historical drama,” and how she chose to approach the
humanity of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Christmas Day in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington DC, and Atlanta. It
opens nationwide January 9th.
Nijla Mu’min: There are so many biopics that follow a formula and I think
that Selma deviated so beautifully
from that formula. When you were approached for this film, what were some of
your initial ideas about crafting a story with intimacy and getting away from what
we’ve seen with previous biopics.
Ava DuVernay: Well, I’m just not a fan of the black historical
drama. It’s just not something I like, so to challenge myself to try to make
one, I had to deconstruct what I didn’t like about them, and then try to make
something that wasn’t that. And, what I don’t like about them is they sugarcoat
and they put supermarket lighting on the events that were dark and dense and
textured, and fucked up, and everything’s suddenly bright and you’re skipping
over the visceral violence, the humiliation and the effects of violence.
We can show Jimmie Lee Jackson get
shot but you also need to show his grandfather in the morgue. If you’re going
to break that black body apart, you need to show what the ramifications of that
are, so those are the things I’ve been allergic to because they don’t happen in
the usual black historical drama, and I think a lot of it is because they’re
not made by a black director. They are made through the gaze of privilege and
so you skip that part about what happens to the family, the body, the community
afterward. It’s really important to show that, and it’s really important to
show when you put your hands on a black woman, how it feels when she goes down,
and I constructed those shots with Bradford so we get inside of how it felt. I
think that’s just examining it in a different way.
NM: What were the conversations with DP Bradford Young around
the visual aesthetic, because I think he did such an amazing job –
AD: He killed it. Always kills it.
Brad makes all of the dreams in my head come true on film, so I’d seen these
Kodachrome pictures- it was a style of film in 1965 that
was super popular. It’s very contrasty but falls off into something
really gentle around the edges. It’s hard to get, and I showed it to Brad and
he figured out a way to get it done. So, we wanted to place you in 1965 but
still have it be visceral and feel like his style and mine, and he was able to
Beyond that, with the production designer, it was really about not trying to
contemporize 1965 but when you see historical dramas, they overdue it and in
1965, they were wearing skinny jeans, they were wearing Converse. They looked
cool to me but they’re always looking old and homey. They were wearing black
suits so when those brothers walked down the street with their black suits
before the crowd comes behind them that could be “Reservoir Dogs.” It doesn’t
have to be tainted. I just don’t like black historical dramas, can you tell? I
just don’t like it! (Laughs.)
They don’t have swagger in those films, but these people were brave in a bold,
regal, fierce way. We’re not making it up, it’s been missing, we’re just saying
this is what it was, and I think that’s what we’re going to be dinged for-
making it something cool and it’s like, no really look at some pictures and
read and watch the old tapes, they were like that.
NM: And this threat of ever-present violence was so strong in the film, and
at any moment, you could be harmed, you could be killed, and I think of today
with Ferguson and the current moment of violence on black bodies. How do you
feel this film is going to contribute to that kind of conversation?
AD: I hope that it does, period. Selma is now. Selma is Ferguson. Ferguson is
Selma. It’s the same thing. It’s a small town, or a large town, where there’s a
disproportionate representation between the black population and the electoral
seats, or the politicians that control the town. You’ve got police aggression,
unfounded harassment. You’ve got black people facing an aggressive police
state, a militarized police state now and it’s so much the same so I hope
“Selma” holds a mirror to it, and says wow, this happened in 1965,
it’s happening now, it’s on a continuum until you deconstruct what that is,
really try to understand the root causes of it. It’s just not we’re getting
shot, I mean there’s something more to that and there’s something you can do
about it and part of what “Selma” shows is what those people at that time did
NM: I felt like the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta
Scott King was so textured and you didn’t shy away from their marital issues,
and in another director’s hands, it could’ve been easily scandalized or
completely erased. How did you look at approaching their relationship and the
humanity of MLK as a person, away from the Hallmark image we usually see?
AD: Great question, I might use that “erased or scandalized” because it’s
either they want to make him a saint or make him a complete sinner. And this is
a brother who’s away from home, he has problems with his wife, he got caught
doing something and you see him at the moment he gets caught. When I sat down
to look at the scene, that’s what I was interested in. What happens after she
plays the tape, how she’s looking at you and what are you saying, that’s what I
want to know.
So, I sit down with David and Carmen and was like, “This is what we’re doing.”
This is any black couple. This black love right here. This is what it is, this
is what you have to work through so once you get into that, it’s a different
way to go than- I think in Oliver Stone’s script, King is with his girlfriend
in the hotel room and I’m like okay, I’m not trying to see that. Who cares?
There’s a low-hanging fruit way to do that and I think that’s what we talk
about as black filmmakers and actually us recreating our history for film, the
things we’re interested in, and the way that we go about it. Look at Spike’s
“Malcolm X”- the way that that film is just embedded with a person who loves
black people, it’s much different. And so, it’s not a recreation. I always say
it’s not a recreation, it’s a reflection of the filmmakers who are doing it,
and that’s why it’s so important that we stay behind the camera.
Nijla Mu’min is a writer and filmmaker from the
East Bay Area. She writes scripts, short fiction, and poetry too.