During her 12-year career as a publicist, first for 20th Century Fox and later with her own marketing firm, DVA Media + Marketing, which specialized in delivering audiences of color to Hollywood films, Ava DuVernay recalls that she used to “plan junkets and actually be on my hands an knees rolling the red carpet.” So there will be many layers to her satisfaction if, as widely expected, she walks the red carpet in a couple of months as the first African-American woman ever nominated for a best director Oscar.
DuVernay would make history with a film about history. “Selma,” opening Friday, chronicles three pivotal months that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, including the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., led by Martin Luther King Jr. Starring David Oyelowo as King, along with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, and dozens of extras, “Selma” is a $20 million studio period piece helmed by a director whose last movie, “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), about a woman waiting for her husband to get out of prison, cost $200,000 to make. But DuVernay wasn’t daunted by big budgets or high expectations. Her approach to movie-making has always been DIY.
“I’ve always loved film and wanted to work around it. I knew being a publicist was possible; I didn’t see black women filmmakers then. I was happy as a publicist. I loved it; I was good at it,” she said during a recent interview in Boston. Being on film sets brought her in close contact with directors. “I’d be like, ‘That guy’s a knucklehead. He’s the director? It can’t be that hard.’ ” While not quitting her day job, she started to make her own films and founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which strategically marketed black cinema to mainstream theaters.
“I work without permission,” says DuVernay. “I don’t pitch. I don’t beg.” It was Oyelowo, who’d worked with DuVernay on “Middle of Nowhere,” who brought “Selma” to DuVernay and who championed her to the producers. Oyelowo had been cast back when Lee Daniels was attached to direct.
Roxbury International Film Festival director Lisa Simmons remembers DuVernay as “just as committed and focused” when she attended that festival in 2008 with her first feature, the documentary “This Is the Life,” about the hip-hop movement that exploded in Los Angeles in the 1990s. DuVernay also appeared on a panel to talk about indie film distribution. “Her trajectory has been meteoric,” says Simmons. “She’s passionate about getting films out there and creating opportunities for African-American films and filmmakers. She did it as a publicist, as an indie filmmaker, and she’s doing it with ‘Selma.’ She’s humble and smart and she’s fierce in all areas.”
Once signed to direct “Selma,” DuVernay’s first task was to deal with her distaste for historical drama. The original script by Paul Webb, who is British and white, was a “traditional biopic centered on King and LBJ and slanted more to LBJ,” says DuVernay. “I didn’t want to make ‘Mississippi Burning.’ It had its place; it was among the first that dealt with African-American-centered history and the only way to get people into the theaters then was to have a ‘white savior.’ But we’re past that point. If in 2014 we’re still making ‘white savior movies’ then it’s just lazy and unfortunate. We’ve grown up as a country and cinema should be able to reflect what’s true. And what’s true is that black people are the center of their own lives and should tell their own stories from their own perspectives. That was my first order of business.”
That meant rewriting the script, she says, and jettisoning all composite characters in favor of real men and, especially, real women such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee cofounder Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson); Annie Lee Cooper (Winfrey); and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), who’s still alive at 104.
“It’s not called ‘King,’ it’s called ‘Selma,’” says DuVernay. “Every filmmaker comes in and personalizes a project. For me, that personalization was bringing in the people of Selma.”
Recently, a few naysayers have taken issue, not with the film’s depiction of ordinary citizens but with its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. The highest-profile critic is former LBJ aide Joseph A. Califano Jr., who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that claimed the filmmakers “fill the screen with falsehoods” about the King-LBJ relationship. (One scene has LBJ trying to persuade King to hold off on his push for voting rights in favor of advancing LBJ’s war on poverty agenda.) DuVernay quickly responded via Twitter to defend the accuracy of her account, and Oscar wags began speculating about whether the “controversy” would impact the film’s Oscar hopes in the way that attacks from Washington, D.C., undermined “Zero Dark Thirty” two years ago.
DuVernay, a UCLA graduate in African-American studies, is confident that she “knew the history.” And there was something else that she brought to the film as well: an intimate understanding of the people of Selma that even Oyelowo didn’t know about when he pushed for her to be hired.
“My father grew up in Lowndes County, near Montgomery, and my mother works in Selma. She’s there right now,” says DuVernay, who grew up in Lynwood, Calif., next to Compton, and lives in Los Angeles. (Her parents and four younger siblings moved to Montgomery right after she finished high school.) “My dad got off work and drove to the capitol in his mail truck the night we were shooting there. I do feel I was meant to make [this film].”
Despite rewriting the script (including King’s speeches since his estate didn’t grant permission to use his words), DuVernay does not have a screenplay credit for “Selma,” a point that still hurts although she’s made her peace with it. Neither she nor Webb belong to the writers’ guild, she explains, and Webb “had a contract that said he doesn’t have to share credit if he doesn’t want to, and he doesn’t want to. . . . The collaboration with everyone else has been so beautiful. I can’t let one thing, one person who is making a choice, taint it.”
If her attitude sounds Oprah-esque, DuVernay credits the very existence of “Selma” to Winfrey, who served as a producer. “I would not be sitting here if not for her. I did not know her well and I just thought, ‘We are really going to be helped by her name on the movie.’ I thought that would be it. But I spoke with her every day. She visited the set constantly. She was an incredible hands-on producer right up through post-production. That’s more satisfying than who takes credit for what. I’ve never said this before, maybe I just feel like saying it this morning, but whatever pain I feel around that writing credit, I have gained so much more in the experience of working with [Winfrey] that in my mind I replaced that painful thing with all the beauty I gained through this process.”
Now poised to make history, talk of Oscars leaves DuVernay both proud and humbled. “It’s stunning that the film is even in that conversation. I haven’t wrapped my head around it. The film needs to be seen, and awards legitimize films for people of color,” she says. “But it is bittersweet that in 2014 we’re talking about firsts. So many beautiful black women who came before me were not honored.”