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.
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.