Selma, Sundance, and Scandal: Ava DuVernay on Fighting for Equality in Film
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay has made a name for herself as a black female director in a land where mostly men hold the role. A Sundance award-winner and outspoken advocate for women in film, she's about to make even more of an impact as the director and co-writer of the Oprah-produced civil rights story Selma. The New York Times predicts DuVernay will win an Oscar nomination, making it all the more likely that in 2015, the number of female Academy Award winners will increase from the lonely one.
Watching the trailer for Selma while scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, you might notice sad similarities. In 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of demonstrators from Selma, Alabama to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery. Police attacked the non-violent marchers, and the brutality escalated until finally President Johnson stood with the demonstrators and signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that summer, abolishing literacy tests and poll taxes that disenfranchised minority voters.
Today, people continue to protest police brutality and inequality across the United States after Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by white police officers. Grand juries voted not to indict either officer.
In the trailer for Selma, the soundtrack strengthens the contemporary familiarity of this film. In “Say It Like It Really Is,” Public Enemy raps: “This revolution goes on and on.” Amidst the blatant injustices of today, it’s clear that the revolution is needed more than ever, and films like Selma show us both how far we’ve come and (more importantly) what’s left to learn.
In an interview with Vulture, DuVernay spoke to the correlation between Selma and our present struggles with racism: “The current dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and the breaking of the black body at the hands of police, this is not new,” she said.
Selma is director Ava DuVernay’s first high-profile film, though she’s been directing independently for years. In fact, she was chosen to direct Selma because of her ability to work within smaller budgets. In 2012, DuVernay became the first African American to win the dramatic directing award at Sundance with Middle of Nowhere, a film she made for $200,000. She described it to Buzzfeed as “a look at the prison-industrial complex through a romantic lens.”
Recently, DuVernay directed an episode of Scandal as well as a short film for Prada. When she spoke with MAKERS in January for the Women in Hollywood documentary, she shed light on getting into filmmaking, how she embraces her identity, and what it’s like to work with Queen Shonda. See the edited interview below, and check out MAKERS: Women in Hollywood for a broader knowledge of women’s history in cinema.
What were the earliest movies that made an impact on you?
The biggest film that I remember that made an impact where I really watched it and felt that it had done something to me chemically was West Side Story. I watched it alone, and I remember reacting to the colors and the brown people and the romance. I really didn’t care about Maria--I just loved the brown people because they felt like people in my neighborhood. I really can't think of seeing a film before then. Of course, I did. But that I think erased everything before, and still is one of my favorite films. I've seen it in all kinds of formats, all over the world in different languages. That film still makes me very happy.
How did you start to connect to your creative side? When did that happen?
I was always creative, I just never equated that to actually monetizing the situation and making a living and supporting my family. Like, that just didn't equate to me. But I always felt like a creative individual, and I always very much knew that there are artists among us who don't make a living that way. People who just live and see the world in a certain way. And so I felt part of that tribe. But certainly not to the point where I would be able to actually pay my mortgage doing this.
It wasn't until my 30s when I was working as a publicist in film. That I started to have this inkling of, well maybe I can do what I see my clients doing. I became a film publicistbecause my dad always told me -- he's an entrepreneur, owned his own business for all of my life--he always told me, find work that you like, and it's not working. We've heard this before, but I really took it to heart. So after UCLA, I immediately started to work in the film industry as a publicist. And I loved it. Really excelled at it and felt like there was a creative aspect to it in terms of the campaigns and the specialty that I had. While I was constantly stressed out, I really enjoyed it. It was that proximity to filmmakers, being on sets and seeing how it was done that demystified the process for me.
But when you're actually watching people that you represent, and that you're close to make films, you're like, “That guy's a jerk. He's making this film? I can do this. And so that is kind of how it started. And yeah. I just ran with it.
How do you feel about being the first African American woman to win director at Sundance?
Winning best director at Sundance in 2012 and that being the first time that an African American woman had, or African American, had won that award was bittersweet to me. It was lovely to see the excitement in the black community. That felt really good, but sad in a lot of ways. Bittersweet comes in because I know I'm not the first best black woman to make a film there--been a number of sisters that have made beautiful work there. Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, Gina Prince-Bythewood. I mean, many women have gone through. But for whatever reason, [the award] wasn't given. So I don't wear that with any kind of special pride--it was the time that it was given and I was there and I am grateful for it, because it helped the film and I think it's helped me. But I don't wear it as a definitive declaration that I was the first best director who happened to be an African American woman because I know it's not true. You got to tip your hat to the sisters who came before.
It was not anything that was in the realm of what I was going there for. I really just wanted to prove a point, that a film about a woman in this space -- a black woman in this space -- and this space being a black neighborhood, and this space being a black family. And this space being the world of incarceration and the invisible victims of that. That this is valuable and valid and should be seen. Everything that happened was a really nice cherry on top.
What were your favorite moments from Scandal?
My favorite experience on Scandal was a meeting that I had in Shonda Rhimes' office. She is just such a queen of that whole thing. Like she sits at her desk like a queen. And people are just coming in and out like the court. She's bad ass. So I was a little nervous, because I think it was maybe the first or second time I had really dealt with her, and it was about my questions. It was my time, a tone meeting. It was my time to ask her any question about the script. So she's just looking right at me, [and I thought] shoot. These questions better be good. Like usually I'm the Shonda. People are looking at me like that. But for some reason, I mean, just the hours and hours of television and the -- such a command of story that she has--I was so freaked out about these frigging questions that I had and finally I was just like, look. Girl. Just ask the questions that you have in your head. She's just a lady. It's going to be fine.
Sometimes you freak yourself out thinking about people. But she was warm and she was lovely and she was direct and she was smart and she was fantastic. Because most of the time, she said, “Whatever you think.” I was like, “Do you want it to be like this?” And she's like, “You do what you think is good.” So she gave me a lot of leeway. And yet she knew exactly what she wanted. And when you hear people talk about the kind of director that they want or producer that they want, or executive that they want, it's someone that's going to give you room and yet know where we're going. That was very much the case with Shonda. She was lovely. Her office is awesome. And she's just so on top of everything. She's queen Shonda for sure. Yeah, it was good.
Why are there so few women directors?
You know, I've tried to be really active in the institutional part of answering the question of how do you get women working. How do you get more women behind the camera? I do that by being on the board of Film Independent, being on the board of Sundance, trying to be as involved in that as I can with committees in the Academy.
Ultimately, women have to make movies, and we don't need institutions to do that. I think the more we can empower ourselves to know that there are other ways. We don't have to be authenticated by these structures, we don't have to be told that it's valid. We find ways to make it happen.
The first thing you make might not be the thing that your heart desires, but you just have to begin. It’s how [the industry] changes. I think this industry is no longer what it used to be. The gatekeepers’ gates are rusting. There are new ways to do things, new ways to shoot. New ways to monetize, new ways to distribute, new audiences to find, new ways to communicate with them. These new ways don't require some old man telling you, you can do it. Now that that's the case and we know it's the case, we need to begin.
Legends in the industry--the Nancy Myers, the Jane Fondas--these women had to excel within these parameters because that's what the industry was. It was locked. But it's not locked anymore. No one knows what's happening. They're trying to hold on to it, they're trying to make you think they know. But really, it's all changing so rapidly that it's open. So it's our time to step through and to make it work for us. That's what I intend to do, that's what I try to do.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I think a feminist, really simply, is anyone--man or woman--who believes in equality of the sexes. So I am, proudly. I'm also a womanist. Which is a feminist slant from a woman of color point of view, which has different nuances and angles.
I've heard of people saying, ‘I don't want to be defined as a woman filmmaker,’ or ‘I don't want to be defined as a black filmmaker.’ All good with me. But I want to be defined as a black woman filmmaker, because that's the lens through which I am working. That is my gaze. I’m proud of it. I don't feel like it's any less or limiting. I'm a black woman filmmaker and my films are just as valid as the white man filmmaker and whoever else.
Because the structure of this whole thing says that he's just a filmmaker, but I have to be a black woman filmmaker. Does it mean that I have to strip myself because that's the case? Like, when I write my scripts, when I say a man walked into the building, I mean a black man.
Because "a man" is white. That's on you. But you'll know, as you continue to read when I say a white man walks in, you'll realize, wait. Who were all the other men? It's all in perspective.
So if you see being identified as a woman filmmaker as a specialization that doesn't feel comfortable because you want to be considered the same as that guy? That's fine, I just don't feel that way.
When I was in Dubai, I met this beautiful Iranian filmmaker, a Chinese filmmaker. I met an Icelandic filmmaker. Why do we have to strip, we do we have to strip off who we are to fit in to some dominant culture? Say what you are, be proud of what you are. It doesn't mean you are not also just a filmmaker. But you got something special. That's awesome.