Given the long journey you’ve been on to bring “Selma” to the screen, what was it like to finally see the completed film for the first time?
I first saw it on the afternoon before the evening that we screened it at AFI Fest. Partly why I had waited that long was because Oprah had seen an earlier iteration of the film and she called me and said, “David, I’m warning you right now, make sure the first time you see the film is not in public. You’re going to need a moment to take it in.” I took her advice. She couldn’t have been more right. I was a wreck for a good 25 minutes. I can’t fully articulate why. I think it could have been the long journey to get the film made, but also just to see me up there as him was very, very emotional for me. I was very glad of not being a puddle of tears in front of the AFI crowd.
Actors often say that they can’t objectively watch their work as regular audience members, but it sounds like that wasn’t the case for you on this project.
I wouldn’t say I was objective when I watched it that first time. Being a typical actor, what you’re watching for is if you got away with it, in terms of a performance. But in a sense you’re right. It transcended what is a normal first watch for a movie, because I just couldn’t believe that we had got this thing done. I’m very aware that on paper, I’m not the first actor you would think of for this, and yet here it is. It’s so rare in life that you have a dream, something you so want to do before you die, and not only does it happen, but it happens even better than you thought it would. And that’s what I was watching.
What’s it been like to go on this journey with Ava?
It’s one of the most beautiful things in life and my career that’s ever happened to me. To find someone who gets me so much as an artist and who I trust as a director — I really believe in her cinematic point of view. I’m so elated that the world is now getting to see the caliber of director that she is. She showed evidence of that with “Middle of Nowhere.” One of the things I’m also just so proud of, for both of us, is that so often, to be perfectly frank, as a black actor, and quadruply so as a black director, you almost never get a nice spike in opportunity on the basis of good work. You have to flog away in the trenches so much longer than you would do if you were, to be perfectly frank, a white male. So for us to have done “Selma” together, in two years of having done “Middle of Nowhere” together, is such a rare thing, whereby someone like her can have that kind of opportunity. It happens day in and day out that a young, white, good-looking actor and a young, white, wunderkind director who has a great showing at Sundance — almost always that’s what goes on to happen. It doesn’t happen for us in the same way.
It took huge amounts of tenacity. I’ve been trying to move the needle on this for seven years. I truly believe it’s Ava’s independent quality that got this made.
What does that fact that it took “Selma” seven years to get made say to you about the industry?
Well, I think undeniably one of the challenges we were facing is that in 2007, we were still in a world in which a black protagonist at the center of his own story was something that Hollywood, I think, was resisting. You think about films like “Selma,” one of the last ones I can think of, before “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler,” was “Malcolm X.” And I mean in terms of a historic drama of size that has something to say. Often, those films are told through the eyes of a white character, that is imposed upon the story that impacts who should be the protagonist through the movie. That’s how these films have been done, a la “Mississippi Burning.” I truly believe that “Selma” benefited from “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave” doing so well, not just critically, not just at the box office domestically, but also overseas. There are all lies we’ve been told for so many years: black doesn’t travel; black people don’t want to see historical dramas; white people don’t want to be made to feel guilty. These are all reasons I feel that the movie wasn’t getting off the ground. There was a desire to have a MLK movie made, but if you’re constantly stumbling, if you have five, six directors coming and going, if it’s always a budgetary this and that — look, if we’re in a world where a J. Edgar Hoover movie exists before a MLK movie, that’s a problem!
Having said that, am I happy that there wasn’t a Dr. King movie made before I could come along? Yes. And do I now think there’s a degree of divine timing considering what’s going on in the country and this film dropping now? I would say yes. It’s bittersweet, but we’re definitely now in the sweet patch of all of this.
Did the racially-charged hacked email exchange between Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin even come as a surprise to you given all you’ve just expressed?
It’s a tricky one with that, because at the end of the day I think we would all admit that we’ve said things that we thought were in private that we wouldn’t say publicly. But what reading those emails proves to me is that I’m not crazy. What I mean by that is sometimes you walk away from these scenarios where you’re trying to get films made, and you just feel like, why is this so difficult? To be perfectly frank, you know in your spirit there’s something going on. Maybe this is why.
On the set of making “Selma” with Ava, did you feel like you were part of a change?
Yes, one hundred percent. I felt like I was part of a change with Ava on “Middle of Nowhere.” I’ve always had this notion that no one is going to tell your story better than you. And I mean that in terms of who you actually are as a human being. I think we all go to the movies to see ourselves in movies. And that’s why so often you see white men being the protagonist in movies, because it’s white men who greenlight these movies. They want to see themselves in the movies — often younger, better-looking versions of themselves. That’s the way it goes.
To be around a woman who’s not waiting for permission to have stories about people of color, and who’s going to do it beautifully, integrally, poetically — to be around her is to have it reconfirmed to me that we now live in a word whereby you can make a film for $200,000 dollars and have it find an audience. Not only that, but you can get critical acclaim and move the needle on what you’re trying to do. For me, she is symbolic of the future. She is symbolic of the mistakes we must not make that were made in the past.
There were black cinematic renaissances in the past, and what happened is that those filmmakers then relied on studios to greenlight their movies. Unfortunately what happens is that you have one failure as a minority filmmaker and it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy of, “Ah, you see it’s just a one-off thing. We gotta stick to what we know.” What we have to do is not rely on any studio. Do it yourself.