Ava DuVernay Vaults into the Big Time with 'Selma'

by Jada Yuan for Vulture

Selma director Ava DuVernay’s father, Murray, didn’t join Martin Luther King Jr. during his five-day Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, but he wasn’t far away, watching the protesters pass by his family’s farm in Lowndes County, Alabama, located smack-dab between the two cities. “He’s from the backwoods, where Klan snipers were hiding in the trees trying to pick off marchers,” says DuVernay, who’s widely expected to make some history of her own, with Selma, by becoming the first black woman to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Director. These days, her father drives a mail truck in Montgomery, says DuVernay, and one fine morning this past June, he got off his shift, headed downtown, and saw “his daughter shut down the streets of the capital of the state of Alabama so she could shoot a movie about Dr. King.”

DuVernay, 42, didn’t just close streets for the triumphal final scene of Selma,the riveting civil-rights drama she also co-wrote, which chronicles three pivotal months that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She took over the marble steps of Montgomery’s state capitol building, the very ones that Governor George Wallace had tried to prevent King (played in Selma by David Oyelowo) from setting foot on when he made his march-capping speech. “Now I had taken over that building,” says the filmmaker, “and my dad was standing there with a tear in his eye. That may be one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Getting to that moment was a long, unlikely journey. To again point out the obvious, DuVernay is a black woman, and there aren’t many people like her directing movies of any budget these days, let alone a $20 million studio tentpole about a historical icon that’s opening on Christmas Day. By comparison, her last movie, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, was an intimate look at the life of a woman waiting for her husband to get out of prison. It cost $200,000. This hundredfold leap is daunting stuff, but it hardly shows. The first time I meet DuVernay, she plops down next to me and starts gabbing in her great raspy voice like we’re old friends. We’re at a decadent ­Paramount-hosted dinner, the existence of which indicates the studio is betting big on the movie. This isn’t even a premiere; it’s a celebration of the first look at five minutes’ worth of semi-finished scenes at New York’s Urbanworld Film Festival.

DuVernay is so charming and chatty that we’re about 12 shoulder squeezes and knee slaps deep before I realize she has no idea I’m writing about her. She’s fully clued in three weeks later, when she picks me up in her car during a momentary escape from the Selma editing bay. We’re off to get vegan soul food in Inglewood, the historically black neighborhood in South Central L.A. that was her old stomping ground. (DuVernay grew up in Lynwood, next to Compton. Her parents and four younger siblings moved to Montgomery after she finished high school.) She majored in African-American studies at UCLA, and the dreadlocked DuVernay doesn’t seem far removed from those college days, looking every bit the urban intellectual in her black-framed glasses, floor-length cotton dress, army-green jean jacket, and sandals. “I came here every weekend for eight years,” she says as we cruise down Crenshaw Boulevard. “The closest I can describe it for non-black people from the hood would beAmerican Graffiti,” she says. “Kids in cars, black and brown people, looking at each other and having a good time.” Back in the day, she says, they’d call it the ’Shaw: “‘You going to the ’Shaw this Sunday?’ ‘Yeah, we rollin’.’”
Left: Annie Lee Cooper in Selma, January 25, 1965; Right: Oprah Winfrey as Cooper.

Our route takes us into the hills of View Park and Leimert Park, bastions of L.A.’s African-American upper and middle classes. DuVernay tried unsuccessfully to buy one of the glorious Spanish Colonial homes here. “Listings don’t come up in traditional sources,” she says. “It’s all like, ‘Miss Johnson is in the hospital,’ and you’ll be like, ‘Woo, her house is coming up.’ It’s very inside, and I wasn’t inside.” So she moved to Beachwood Canyon and spent $50,000 she’d saved for a down payment on her 2010 feature debut, I Will Follow. “I bought a career instead of a house,” she says.

“I never had a desire to be a filmmaker,” DuVernay tells me. “As a child and a teenager and in college, I was not aware of black women making films.” But she loved movies and wanted to be around them, so after UCLA she worked as a publicist at 20th Century Fox, then started her own marketing firm at 27. Her DVA Media + Marketing specialized in delivering audiences of color to films like Dreamgirls and Invictus. She was even hired as a consulting publicist onSelma years ago when Lee Daniels was attached as the director and the U.K. producer, Pathé, needed help facilitating communications with the King estate. “I remember getting a call from some British people asking if I would work with this film,” says DuVernay. “I wasn’t even directing at that time.”

It was while working as a unit publicist on Michael Mann’s 2004 L.A. neo-noirCollateral that DuVernay felt the urge to tell her own stories. She made a short film, 2006’s Saturday Night Life, about a day in the life of a single mother, and followed that with 2008’s This Is the Life, about the Leimert Park café where she used to rap as part of the duo Figures of Speech, and 2010’s My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop for BET, all while running her marketing company. She had an idea, inspired by “a homegirl of mine,” she says, that would become Middle of Nowhere. But she couldn’t get funding, so she did the more modest I Will Follow, based on DuVernay’s experience packing up the house of an aunt who had died of cancer. Roger Ebert was an early champion, calling it “the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made.”

DuVernay says she remembers during the I Will Follow shoot “thinking what a waste it had been to be on spin 12 years as a publicist.” But eventually she realized that her years as a flack weren’t a hindrance. She was organized and knew how to prioritize, communicate with actors, and articulate her vision, “the skills one uses as a publicist,” she says. She also knew the business and co-founded the African-­American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which aims to get black cinema into movie houses. AAFRM initially released I Will Followto five theaters, and the film earned back three times its budget. Still, DuVernay kept her day job, at least for a while. The Help (2011) was the last movie for which she did publicity before putting her company on hold to makeMiddle of Nowhere.

She became the first African-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance for that movie. Yet the win, she says, “raised my profile from zero to 2.2, maybe.” Prada commissioned her to do a branded short starring Gabrielle Union, and for ESPN she made Venus Vs., about Compton native Venus Williams’s fight for gender pay equality in professional tennis. “They were the only two,” says DuVernay. “It wasn’t a clamor from Hollywood at all.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Bergeron for Indiewire
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