Walk with me: Ava DuVernay on Selma

In keeping its focus on one of the key chapters of the Civil Rights Movement – the Selma-Montgomery marches and the push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – Selma avoids the pitfalls of the biopic and succeeds in portraying Martin Luther King with a rare intimacy. Its maker spoke to Miriam Bale in this cover interview from our March 2015 issue.

5 June 2020

Selma (2014) © Alex Williamson for Sight & Sound
Sight and Sound

With its title alone, Selma, the fourth feature from American director Ava DuVernay, indicates that the film’s focus will be the people of that Alabama town, so key in the Civil Rights Movement, as much as it will be about the film’s subject, Martin Luther King.

Taking place mostly in 1965, when King was in Selma to organise marches pushing for legislation to end racial discrimination practices in voting and voter registration, DuVernay’s film captures an especially fraught and signifcant chapter in the battle for civil rights and in King’s life. Television and newspaper reports of the marches, and the violent response they met from police under the orders of Alabama Governor George Wallace (played in Selma by Tim Roth), brought national attention to the issue, and pushed President Lyndon Johnson (portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, perhaps sooner than he would have done without that pressure.

With the help of DP Bradford Young, DuVernay captures the beauty in so many of the faces and voices that contributed to this critical moment in American history, the lessons of which still reverberate today. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August last year, a month after Selma finished filming, DuVernay found herself watching protests in Ferguson on cable news at the same time as editing scenes of 1960s protests in her film.

Ava DuVernay directing DP Bradford Young on the set of Selma (2014)

By avoiding the approach of a traditional biopic, DuVernay accomplishes something more unusual: a portrait of process and strategy that shows the way in which these can both work with and against a purely emotional outlook. This was also one of the key themes in her previous film, Middle of Nowhere (2012), about a woman coming to terms with her husband’s incarceration following an eight-year jail sentence, and which won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Selma has reached a larger audience than her previous three films (which include This Is the Life, a 2008 documentary exploring the alternative hip-hop movement in Los Angeles in the 1990s), and it’s an audience largely unfamiliar with her work. That might account for the fact that Selma has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but not for Best Director, despite clearly being the work of an auteur with a strong sensibility.

Having now worked with DuVernay on two films, David Oyelowo, the British actor who plays King in Selma, has developed a strong partnership with the director and is now set to act in her next project, a love story and murder mystery that takes place during Hurricane Katrina.

Oyelowo was attached to Selma from the project’s early stages, when different directors were in the frame, and it was his championing of DuVernay to producers that helped bring her on board. She quickly made the project her own by significantly rewriting the existing script, as she explains below, and directed Oyelowo in a way that eludes mimicry: in his portrayal, King’s voice is an instrument that builds until it reaches a crescendo of power and familiarity in the final scene. Like everything in the film, Oyelowo’s performance is deft and subtle.

Ava Duvernay directing Selma (2014)

The script for Selma had been in development for a long time before you got hold of it. I understand the earlier script was structured around a sort of antagonist/protagonist relationship between King and President Johnson.

Yeah, it was more of a two-hander between the two men. And I was very interested in elongating our view of the Civil Rights Movement and not letting it rest only in Dr King’s hands, which is inaccurate.

There were brilliant, brave people around him in leadership positions: intellectual strategists and all kind of folks who contributed to the success of the movement. But often, with the homogenisation of King’s image, that kind of complexity, of his leadership of leaders, is watered down. So that was a big part of what we wanted to bring into play, as well as to humanise him in general.

What changes did you make to the script? Did you add many new characters? Did you place more emphasis on the female characters?

Yeah, Malcolm X, the arc between Dr King and his wife Coretta, the John Lewis Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] storyline. The [original script] focused on Johnson, King and the White House. So everything outside of Johnson, King and the White House, whether it was the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the murder of James Reeb, these things that enhanced the core story, which was the fight for voting rights in a political realm.

My addition was to fill that out with a few things: certainly women, certainly King’s family life, certainly a look at him as a human being, not an icon encased in marble, and also a look at all the colleagues around him. With the SNCC, with Malcolm X, there was not one monolithic black thought on how to proceed, just like there isn’t now. So part of what we wanted to show was that diversity of thought at the time on how to act, and how to move forward.

Selma (2014)

King’s speeches were not available to you [because of copyright issues], so you had the Herculean task of writing words for him.

Yeah, I had to become Dr King’s speechwriter for a little while there, which was very odd. Luckily my English and African-American studies majors from UCLA came in handy, much to my mother’s delight. Finally the degrees were put to use.

It was really about getting underneath the intention of his words. I couldn’t use the exact words, but what I was trying to do was understand the ideas he was communicating in his speeches: really bold, really radical ideas that it would have been a shame to have locked away because of rights issues.

When I watched it for the second time, I noticed all kinds of subtleties in the structure, and part of that was in King’s speech at the end. He’s talking about poverty for everyone, including whites, and that echoes what Johnson says at the beginning of the film, of wanting to first prioritise the war on poverty. Was that intentional, that echo?

Yes, yes, absolutely. The two men [King and Johnson] were speaking each other’s languages. It was always a matter of timing. It was always a matter of context. But essentially, in that moment, in 1964-65, you had two huge, huge minds, and huge personalities working towards some of the same ideas, just in different ways. So, yes, that callback was on purpose.

Selma (2014)

In the film you have King, Johnson, the SNCC and Malcolm X, and they all have different strategies. I couldn’t help thinking of different strategies of art, too. There’s radical art, and there’s making art for white liberal audience… Was that something you were thinking about, those parallels?

Well, it’s a complex question, but I’ll just say I make art for myself. I’m not making a piece thinking, will it appeal to a white liberal audience, or will it appeal to the black community, or will it appeal to him or her?I make art to satisfy myself, my own likes, my own tastes. My own opinions, ideas and aesthetic sensibilities are important to a piece, and I have to trust as an artist that it will find an audience, that there will be people whose hearts and minds work the same way that mine do, and there will be some connection.

But once you start making anything, especially for me as a black woman filmmaker, to try to start to please people outside of myself, for that to be the context in which I make things, is a death-knell. It’s a strangulation of instincts, of intention, and it’s something that I work very hard not to do.

What sparked that thought was a specific scene between King and the SNCC where they talk about awakening the black consciousness versus challenging the white consciousness. And I can’t help thinking about the way that films do that as well. But maybe that’s not intentional.

Look, I said I make films for myself, so I make films for black people, and I make films for women, and I make films for people from California, and I make things for people who are all the things that I am. So certainly in my identity I am an African-American, so yes, certainly I am speaking very directly to the African-American people. Is my intention to make films for them? No, it’s to make art for myself.

So basically the parallel you’re making is, is this film to raise white consciousness? No, that’s the answer. I see the parallel you’re making, but it’s not that cut and dried for me.

Selma (2014)

In your last film, Middle of Nowhere, some of the most amazing scenes were of bureaucracy, of just trying to get paperwork, waiting in line. I could see some of the same themes in this. There tended to be a theme of bureaucracy versus drama.

I don’t see it as bureaucracy, I see it as my interest in process. In Middle of Nowhere you see this woman and her process in supporting her husband who’s incarcerated and what that looks like. Beyond just, “I love him.” What do people in that situation actually have to do in order to nurture the love and the relationship?

And if process is essential to Middle of Nowhere, it’s certainly tantamount in Selma: the process by which freedom is fought for and won or lost. The process by which minds are changed and hearts are changed. And part of that is bureaucracy and heavy lifting, and passion. That’s where my interests lie as a filmmaker. “How does this work?” is usually what I’m asking myself.

I’d like to talk about one of the scenes that opens the film [the bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963, which resulted in the death of four little girls. The subsequent shock and outrage spurred the Civil Rights Movement to a new level of intensity and engagement]. The scene was so powerful and the way you shot it was so interesting, almost abstract.

Whenever we shot any act of violence, beyond the shock of violence, one motivating factor was having reverence for the life lost. I am allergic to this trend in film where you hit someone, and then [the camera] follows the hitter, and then you just go on, and you’ve forgotten about the person who’s on the ground who’s been hit: his spirit, his face, his body.

In an action film, you can do that; but in this, when we’re talking about lives that matter – particularly black lives that matter – for me it was important to have reverence for that life. That dictated the aesthetic in terms of the framing, the pace, and the action in those sequences.

Selma (2014)

The film gives scrupulous attention to historical details, so the controversy about its supposed distorted portrayal of Johnson has been surprising [some, like former Johnson domestic affairs chief Joseph A. Califano Jr, have criticised the film for what they allege is a portrayal of Johnson that suggests he was more resistant to King’s demands than he was in reality]. People’s reactions to this seem to speak more to a perspective of how history is handled; here it’s less hero-based. It seems to be hitting something deeper, as far as the way people view history.

There’s a comfort level with hagiography and iconography. There’s a comfort level with hero worship, with keeping important people at a distance and a comfortable haze of respectability, and a patina of, “Everything was OK because this person lived.” It really does a disservice to the person.

A lot of this controversy has done a disservice to Johnson. One of the things that was most fascinating about him was his reversal, his change, his progression. How do you go from a man who for two decades voted against every piece of desegregation legislation that came before him to the man who signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Let’s see that beginning, middle and end. Let’s not be a custodian of a legacy that wasn’t real. Why don’t we embrace what it was and see the beauty in that. So we did that with Johnson, we did that with Dr King, we did that with all the freedom fighters in the film.

Selma (2014)

Ultimately, history is viewed through everyone’s personal lens. The way you and I remember this conversation is going to be different. If I say that mine is accurate, then I discount your experience and I discount your voice and I discount your memory. And it’s dangerous.

And in the case of Selma, it’s been beyond unfortunate; to say unfortunate is me being kind and measured. The hope is that people go out and check out the film for themselves. And really invite different perspectives about history, about the present, and about what the future will be.

A part of this whole idea is inclusion and representation, and everyone’s voice mattering. Everyone’s opinion is valid, including the people who think Selma is hogwash. That’s valid.

But the point at which those opinions overtake that, and become attacks on my freedom of expression is the point when I lose patience. This has been a process that’s really tested patience. But I’ve grown a lot from it, and I’ve become even more fervent in my desire to continue to tell stories in the way that I see them. And I will not be deterred by anyone who says my voice isn’t valid.

Selma (2014)

You’ve announced your new film, in which you’ll work again with David Oyelowo. Can you tell me more about that?

I’ve been thinking a lot about doing something around Katrina, and trying to think of different approaches to it. It’s so big. It’s like doing something about the Civil Rights Movement; you have to find something to emotionally hook into.

And there’s so much going on. You have the legislative malfunction, you have the levees breaking, you have the Superdome [where people took shelter], you have people on rooftops. It’s so sprawling that I think I found a through line with a genre approach with a love story and murder mystery. But it speaks very directly to the chaos and tragedy of the disaster, and the triumph of it. So it’s really just a narrative function to organise the story, because it is so big.