Ava DuVernay’s Selma marks her slashing through history books, editing the narrative, and restating the erroneous perception that women and blacks are unworthy of receiving coveted Hollywood nominations. Of course, this is when it comes to the Golden Globes. As the first African American woman nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, Ava did not win. And the recent announcement of the 2015 Oscar nominations finds DuVernay “snubbed” again by not being nominated for Best Director, despite her film receiving a Best Picture nod. The oversight seems strange, perceived by some as a disappointment and continual slight to women and African Americans by the Academy’s less than diverse pool of award voters.
Still, DuVernay marches one, rewriting the instructions that most filmmakers use to achieve success. Quick to mention that she did not go to film school, Ava is self-taught in the art of making quality movies. “Being in LA, I just cobbled together film school experience. There’s always Q&As. There’s always something going on where you can listen to people talking about their craft. And then the times I was outside of LA, I was always listening to DVD commentaries. DVD commentaries really were my film school,” says the UCLA graduate who majored in English and African American studies. “DVD commentaries are directors taking you frame by frame through their movie. And it’s just a DVD. It costs $9.99. Now you can get it on Netflix. I don’t know why more people who are interested in film, don’t do it. It is what I did constantly. I would watch a film with someone talking through it and go back and watch the classics and new ones.”
Reading books written by film and stage directors that talked about acting techniques, Ava casually drops bootstrapping knowledge with easy-breezy calm. As if it’s what everyone does. As if it’s typical to have been making films for only 5 years, be nominated and win multiple accolades including being the first African American women to win the Best Director prize at The Sundance Film Festival for her 2012 movie Middle of Nowhere. And in between all of this “it girl” hoopla, DuVernay made time to found the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM); which releases and distributes films by black directors. Yet still, with the release of Selma, a Golden Globe nod and buzz over not being nominated for an Oscar, Ava maintains a casual, laid back, tone of ease when it comes to discussing handling her biggest budget ever in directing the $20 million dollar, first big screen adaptation of the life of Martin Luther King, produced by powerhouses like Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt’s Plan B. “You know, the interesting thing about this film, is sometimes you just feel you’re in a state of grace. I felt like I had a hedge of protection around me. Truly. I was just in it,” says DuVernay, whose family happens to hail from Alabama. “There weren’t moments that I was doubting myself as a filmmaker. And having never done anything that big before, I’m unsure about why that was. I know that it certainly wasn’t me. But I just had what I needed emotionally. The ideas were coming. Everything was clicking,” she says snapping her fingers. “A problem would come up, ‘Alright creatively fix it.’ I was just in-pocket with all of my collaborators. There wasn’t a moment of panic of, ‘I don’t have what I need.’ Because the universe gave me what I needed.”
After watching Selma star David Oyelowo in DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Oprah saw Ava’s sparkle and sent an email. “I looked at the tape, I googled Ava, I saw that she was an African American woman, director, and read a little bit of her history, and I emailed her and said, ‘We’re going to be friends.’ And then I called her up and told her, ‘We’re going to be friends,’” says Winfrey. “And I could feel from her countenance, from the spirit of her, that there was something inside her that I also had inside me. I call it the ‘It factor.’ And those who have it recognize it in others. And I could sense from David a level of humility and a level of pure passion and desire to honor his calling, to honor what God had put him here to do. And I’ve had that favor, so I know what that looks like and I wanted to do whatever I could to elevate that. And I could feel the same thing in Ava. And I think the part of my trajectory here on the planet has been to try to inspire and lift other people up, so when I saw that here was somebody who has that thing, that ‘it thing,’ I wanted to do everything in my power to lift that up, to bring light to that, to bring attention to that. And so that’s what happened. And now, we’re just buds.”
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Oyelowo, who was also snubbed by the Academy despite his best actor Golden Globe nomination, adds to the DuVernay love. “She’s just brilliant with human beings in terms of literally and creatively on the page, especially for us as black people. Yes, I’m black, but I’m a man. I’m a father, lots of things other than the color of my skin. And I think she just does that beautifully. There’s something about what she brings emotionally to her films that has universal appeal,” says Oyelowo. “And I knew that if I was going to play this right, there had to be things about Dr. King that a young white boy from Idaho can look at and go, ‘I feel weak at times. I feel unsure at times. Where’s the Dr. King in me?’ And I think that’s what she was able to do when she rewrote the script and certainly how she led me through the performance.”
Selma poignantly tells the epic story of Martin Luther King’s three-month fight to gain African Americans the right to exercise their legal right to vote. Bringing out King’s reality of having a humanistic side, Selma focuses on the emotions of his struggle, the support system that lifted him up, and the difficulties in being a loyal husband and hopeful leader. Created with the blessing of the King family, accurately documenting Martin’s fears and doubts, DuVernay’s well-written saga is full of moving, remixed versions of King’s speeches. All make Selma soulfully depict the inner complexities of being part of a movement, which can often feel like a frustrating marathon of passionate up and down emotion.
And now that Ava’s work of art and activism has been released to the world, she shines in the glow of acclaim, soaking in the spotlight of rays, reflecting it on her next major moves. “My mantra since the beginning, has just been, ‘Stay shooting.’ It’s something I learned from Spike Lee. Commercials, documentaries, fashion films, episodic television, narrative, short, long, just stay shooting,” she says. “Look, I’ve got 6 different things that I’m trying to figure out which one goes next. Because I really just want to go out of this into something else for no other reason than I love to do it. And I feel like momentum is happening now and I’m enjoying it. The door is open, I’m walking through it. I ain’t leaving the room. I’m making myself comfortable. I’m putting on my robe and slippers and I’m here to stay,” she says laughing. “I got things to do up in here.”
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