We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making 'Selma'

The groundbreaking director talks about downplaying LBJ, honoring MLK's legacy and why you should always have Oprah on your film sets

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Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay on the set of 'Selma.' Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

As a filmmaker, you put the film out there, and you just want it to be okay," says director Ava DuVernay. "You don't want to let people down; you don't want to embarrass yourself." She's done much better than that with Selma, a dramatization of the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the movie, considered to be a leading Oscar contender, has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Peter Travers said in his rave review in Rolling Stone that DuVernay "blows the dust off history to find its beating heart."

DuVernay, 42 years old, grew up in Compton, but spent summers in Alabama. A film publicist before she shifted careers to directing, she had actually signed up to do publicity for an earlier version of Selma. The screenplay had bounced around for over five years, attached to directors such as Lee Daniels. "It was looked at as an unmakeable movie," says executive producer Paul Garnes. But British actor David Oyelowo — who had appeared in DuVernay's Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere — very much wanted to play King, and unbeknownst to DuVernay, was lobbying for her with an international team of producers. Despite a resumé that was limited to two microbudget features, a half-dozen documentaries, and an episode of Scandal, she got the job, and a $20 million budget.

Ava
Ava on the set of 'Selma.' Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

Our conversation with DuVernay in a vegan Mexican restaurant in Hollywood happened three days before Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, wrote a Washington Post op-ed complaining not only that Selma gave Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) short shrift, but that the president had come up with the idea for the protests himself. As it happens, earlier versions of the script focused on the relationship between King and the commander-in-chief, and how their joint efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She discussed why she had chosen to place less emphasis on Johnson, her casting philosophy and why it helps to have Oprah on your film set.

Let's talk about reducing LBJ's role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

This is a dramatization of the events. But what's important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don't think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Many presidents couldn't have done it.
Absolutely. Or wouldn't have even if they could.

I thought Tim Roth's performance as George Wallace was very nuanced, when it would have been easy to play him as Snidely Whiplash.
I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical...I didn't want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim has talked about every actor has to love the character that they're playing in some way, and in the time that we're talking about, there's not a lot to love in Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.

I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma.

Whether it was Roth or Tom Wilkinson — or Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Root and Alessandro Nivola — all these characters represented a real diversity of thought about this issue from the white perspective, from the dominant culture. I wanted to create an array of folks who all thought about it in a different way because white thought wasn't a monolith at that time, just as black thought wasn't a monolith.

What was your philosophy when you were casting?
To work with people who fascinate me. Oprah being in the cast allowed me to have flexibility because she is such a big name. Her fame and her power created space for me to be able to hire Stephan James, a 19-year-old from Canada, for John Lewis instead of the hot young guy who was just in The Fast and the Furious, or whatever. I was able to pick and choose cool people. 

What was it like having Oprah on the set?
Her first day of shooting was the day that Maya Angelou died. I had just driven up to the set in Marietta when I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Young, the real Andrew Young: "Sister Maya has passed on." And all I could think of was Oprah was on her way to the set. I immediately called her and said don't come, we'll do it another day. Tight schedule, a 32-day shoot, not a lot of room to move things around — but we'll figure it out. She said, "No, I can do this, it's okay." She had the same trailer as everyone else. I spoke with her briefly, and I should've stayed, but I had to go out back to the set: I had 200 extras out there. So I called Tyler Perry, he sneaked onto the set, they had their moment, and she came out ready to go. I'm grateful to him; most people see us as very different filmmakers, but in that moment we were united around Oprah. 

Ava DuVernay
Ava and Oprah on the set of 'Selma.' Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount

How did your old job as a publicist prepare you to do this?
To make a film?

As opposed to eating guacamole, yes.
[Laughs] Just being able to talk to people. I used to coordinate and develop and execute really big campaigns for studios with a lot of moving parts. But the main thing is just articulating what's in your head, which we overestimate that people can do — how do you get that out in a way that's clear and un-muddled with the intention of producing a result?

What was the hardest scene to shoot, emotionally?
When Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in the cafe. At that time there was no Mike Brown murder, there was no Eric Garner murder — but there were so many others that are just ambient. It's part of the atmosphere as a black person growing up in this country: You know that's it's happening somewhere on that very day. And a month later Mike Brown was killed. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, [editor] Spencer Averick, and I, we designed that scene in a really specific way. It was really important that we have all that stuff worked out in advance because I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional day. This wasn't a day for improvisation.

King's tactics imply that his supporters are going to have to get hurt: Nonviolence doesn't work unless the other side overreacts.
Being passive doesn't mean sitting there and getting hit for the sake of getting hit. And it wasn't all faith-based, either. There were some very practical reasons why it was used. You talk to most people about King now and they only know "I Have a Dream," and that he believed in peace and then he died. Really? That's what he's been reduced to? And we've allowed it to happen. And if there is anything that Selma does, it reinvigorates the narrative around him to be more full-bodied and more truthful about what his tactics were.

Are you religious yourself?
No, not religious. But I love God.

Can you talk about the aesthetics of violence of Selma? When the church blows up and kills those four little girls, it's harrowing, but it's also filmed in a beautiful way. How do those two things work together?
I don't know if my intention was to make it beautiful. How do you film four little girls being blown apart? There's a way to do it with a certain reverence and respect for who they were. That's why it was important for me that you hear their voices before it happens.

There's a sinking feeling in that scene — I counted five little girls, so I was hoping maybe it wasn't going to happen.
There were five girls and one lived. And I put in a boy, to misdirect you on purpose. The violence throughout the film follows the same pattern. I resisted the idea of just it being a physical blow. That spectacle has been done: All we do in this industry is blow people up. But how does the hit feel and what does the face do after? What happens to that broken body and what happens to the people that have to tend to that broken body? It's important to have the morgue scene after Jimmie Lee Jackson's death, to show the mother and slow down on her face, to slow down the girls, to slow down Annie Lee Cooper when the men put their hands on her and take her down. It was about having a reverence for that was the idea behind it instead of, say, making it beautiful. You're saying: This is worth taking a closer look at. Everybody stop and pay your respects to this.

Can you pinpoint a moment of joy that happened while you were making this movie?
So many things come to mind, but there was a day that we were filming in Richie Jean Jackson's house, doing that scene when they all walk into the kitchen. We're at this house in Atlanta, we had shut down the street. That was the day that Tim Roth and Giovanni Ribisi were coming for their hair and makeup tests. They have to come to see me, 'cause I can't get away. So they come to the set, and I thought, "Look at all my guys, they're all together — the White House guys, Wallace, the black guys." Those characters never cross, right? The chance to see them all together was so fun. Then a black SUV starts coming up the street, going around cones. Our assistant directors and our production assistants are running down, saying, don't go, they're shooting. The door opens and out comes Oprah. She's not supposed to be there; we thought she wasn't even in the state that day! She starts walking towards me and I just run up to her and give her a big old hug. It was like a house party in the street. 

Ava
A surprise visit from Oprah on the set of 'Selma.' Instagram/@directher

How was it having people like the actual Andrew Young on the set?
So cool. And it easily could not have been if they were grouchy curmudgeons. But there's still a spark about them. These are our greatest minds, our greatest radicals. Time has not done them in. If you look John Lewis in the eye and he's talkin' to you about something, you're like "Uh huh, let's go do it!" When I sat down with them, I was really clear that we weren't asking for anybody's permission.

But this [film] is not called "King"; this is Selma. This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King's story. There haven't been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders — all of them could've probably done it. Why him? He could talk the best. He was an orator who was able to synthesize all these ideas in a way that spoke to the masses and also that spoke to people in power. But they were there and they were the masterminds behind it. I tried to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That's how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin' battling it out, right? That's how change happens.

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