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.
“Selma” opens 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 find that.
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 about it.
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.