Ava DuVernay on ‘Selma,’ the Racist Sony Emails, and Making Golden Globes History

The director of the powerful Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss the film, as well as race in America and Hollywood.

Amy Dickerson/The New York Times

The road to Selma, the first studio biopic of legendary Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., was a bumpy one.Once British screenwriter Paul Webb finished his first draft of the screenplay in 2007, it passed through the hands of filmmakers Michael Mann and Stephen Frears, before landing on the lap of Lee Daniels. So, Daniels cast his Paperboy co-star David Oyelowo as Dr. King, and surrounded him with A-listers like Robert De Niro and Hugh Jackman. Then, in 2010, Daniels opted to helm The Butler instead and most of the supporting cast dropped out, leaving Selma on life support. In stepped Oyelowo, who handwrote a letter to the film’s financiers at Pathé begging them to consider an up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Ava DuVernay for the director’s chair. DuVernay had worked with Oyelowo on Middle of Nowhere, a gripping drama about a woman struggling to come to terms with her husband’s pending eight-year prison stint. But that film was made for just $200,000, half of which came from the personal savings of DuVernay (a former publicist and Hollywood crisis consultant).Oyelowo nonetheless sold the film’s French backers on the idea, and Tom Wilkinson (Lyndon B. Johnson), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King), Tim Roth (George Wallace), and a host of others joined the cast. Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey joined Brad Pitt as a producer on the film, and also stepped into the role of activist Annie Lee Cooper.

“He’s my muse,” DuVernay says of Oyelowo. “Usually muses are hot, young things for some old-man director, so he’s my hot blond. He inspires my imagination because I know he can do anything I can think of.”

Selma tells the story of the 1965 voting rights marches led by Dr. King, which began with the brutal “Bloody Sunday,” where police attacked peaceful marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and ended with King’s famous speech on the steps of the State Capitol. “How long? Not long! Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” King proclaimed.

The film is garnering plenty of deserved awards buzz—including for its maker, DuVernay, who last week became the first black woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director.

Congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination for Best Director.

Oh, thank you.

I wasn’t aware that you were the first black woman to ever be nominated for it, and hearing that factoid struck me as, well, pretty crazy. And I also read that you were only the second black female director to be accepted into the directing branch of AMPAS.

I didn’t know that was the case with the Globes until afterwards. I thank the journalists that are in it now that decided to include me with such a wonderful list of directors, but yeah, the organization’s been around since 1943 so there’s a lack of progress there. It’s nice that they’re catching up to it, but I know that I’m not the first black woman deserving of this honor, so I stand with a lot of women behind me who helped this moment happen.

As far as “awards season” goes, it’s great that Selma is getting the appreciation is deserves, but it’s also the only film by or featuring people of color that’s even in the awards conversation.

Not enough black films are being made to warrant a piece of the pie. You can’t have four films and expect real change, or real integration to happen. We’ve had lovely films in Belle, Beyond the Lights, and Dear White People, and Ryan Coogler is working on Creed, and Dee Rees just finished a film for HBO. These are all by people whom I know and admire, but it’s a very small group of people. The expectation that those things are going to be lauded or that accolades will be put on them isn’t the reason why they’re being done. We all keep in constant contact and conversation with one-another because we know that it’s vital to not just our community, but to the culture. It cannot be that the images that move around the world are just of one kind of person. That’s the reason we do it.

Right. The most troubling thing about those racist Sony emails that leaked was that these high-powered film executives were “othering” these films and considering them to be their own separate category, when they were all very different films whose only connecting tissue was that they featured black actors. And it was such casual racism by people in the halls of power.

I heard about that and read the emails as they were published on the day of the Golden Globe nominations, and I thought it was a great gift to me to be reminded of that kind of sad, limited, crass view of the work that people do in this industry who are not from the dominant culture. It was a gift to me to be reminded on that in that moment when there were a lot of shining lights on me and hoopla around the Globes. It was sobering, and it provided a moment of clarity that I’m thankful for as I move forward.

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It’s pretty serendipitous that you’re promoting a film about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. just one day after Million March NYC, where thousands took to the streets protesting police brutality in the wake of the Eric Garner ruling.

Yeah, absolutely. We were junketing all day and heard people marching outside. It was poignant, and we so wanted to leave and be out there. It was kind of extraordinary. Protest is still very much alive and well in this country, and it’s such a poignant moment for people who have been traumatized by these issues for so long to have a groundswell of emotion, with people taking to the streets with such a fierce desire to be heard. It so oddly equates to our film, and the cultural moment we were in in 1965. It’s jaw-dropping and weird that it’s happening at the same time.

And there were no riots at Million March NYC, and very few arrests. Like the “Bloody Sunday” sequence in Selma, it seems like the presence of a militarized, imposing police force—such as those blocking the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 or those in present-day Ferguson—can lead to increased tension and a far greater likelihood of violence.

The violence emanates from the other side far more often than not. We know that even with COINTELPRO and all the surveillance that was enacted on the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and many other movements in the 1960s, that infighting was encouraged, and emotional violence—as well as physical violence—that was all constructed, and manufactured. So much of that is what that aggressive police presence is. When you saw it out in Ferguson, there was a baiting going on.

The media isn’t completely faultless, either. That CNN split-screen they do juxtaposing talking heads in the newsroom with protesters drives me nuts.

Media manipulation is a big part of it, but if you look at King, Malcolm, and the Panthers, to be able to use the media right back was a big part of the Civil Rights Movement. And today, when you look at social media, you see that the narrative can be overtaken by people just from Twitter and Instagram. I know when Ferguson was going down those first few nights, I was watching feeds on the ground on Twitter, not CNN.

Right. And the Eric Garner episode wouldn’t have even been such a huge news story if it weren’t for a bystander who caught the whole thing on camera.

He would be one in a long line of black bodies broken every day in this country that don’t get the headlines. This aggression is ambient, it’s all-around, and it’s the atmosphere of people of color in this country. It gets amplified when these incidents happen, but it’s not the first or the last time. And with Selma, it just proves it’s on a continuum that’s very painful.

It’s insane to me that there hasn’t been a biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. yet.

It’s a jaw-dropper. No film with Dr. King at the center in the 46 years since his assassination. And the film came together in the way it was steeped in the brother/sister relationship I have with David [Oyelowo] and his desire to keep this project alive when the previous director [Lee Daniels] stepped aside. David’s the unsung hero, because at that point, the project was dead, but David kept it alive by suggesting me, pitching me, and making a very strong case for me to the producers.

It is troubling that it proved so difficult to put together a $20 million biopic of one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. What does that say about the film industry?

It was financed by Pathé, a French company—which I think is very telling. They always had the money in hand, but the challenge is that [the budget] should’ve been more. We live in a world where a J. Edgar Hoover biopic got made before a Martin Luther King Jr. one.

And for more money. That’s the case, and it’s an ongoing thing. Yes, it deserved more, but that was what was on the table, and my producer cracked the budget and figured out a way to do it for that amount.

The framing of the film seemed very relevant today, having the scrolls of FBI surveillance updates on King, tracking his every movement. And of course, he was even spied on by the NSA under Project MINARET.

The FBI’s COINTELPRO program, and the level of surveillance, and the level of infiltration, when you look at it along with today’s issues of spying on citizens, they definitely speak to each other. It’s part of the legacy of this country, unfortunately, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

I imagine one of the more delicate things to tackle in the film, which you did very well, were the rumors of King’s extramarital affairs. The way you had his wife, Coretta, play him the audio threats and alleged sounds of King’s tapped hotel room tryst that accompanied the FBI’s infamous “Suicide Letter” was very affective.

No, it wasn’t difficult. It was exactly what was necessary to have happen. None of us were interested in making a film about a speech, a statue, or all that good stuff; it was about getting underneath it. I’m really allergic to historical dramas. I just don’t like them and when I have free time, it’s not the first thing I’m looking to watch, and so to be charged with making one, I had to build a true character and a large part of that are those intimate moments that color in between the lines.

I tend to have issues with historical dramas too—especially race-relations ones—because whether it’s Schindler’s List or The Blind Side, we’re almost always fed the “white savior” narrative.

Yeah, it’s the “white savior” story, which is certainly not anything I’m interested in making. So we reject that. We know there needs to be diversity in storytellers telling their own stories. I think there’s a beautiful forward movement in that direction with McQueen telling 12 Years A Slave, with Coogler telling Fruitvale, and with Daniels telling The Butler. Especially when we’re dealing with issues of race, culture, identity, and history, the time has passed for the “white savior” holding the black person’s hand through their own history. And I think audiences are more mature now, too. You see this Egyptian movie [Exodus] with no black people in it. That time has passed. It’s an antiquated way of thinking, the world has changed, and Hollywood has to change with it.

Now on a lighter note, with Selma, you did get Oprah to throw a mean haymaker.

Well, according to her, everyone gets her to throw it! She says that every film she makes, she has to hit someone—The Color Purple, The Butler, and Selma.

Good point! Although I think the one with the most on it was in Selma. How nerve-wracking was it to shoot that sequence of Oprah being slammed on the ground by the racist sheriff? I mean… it is Oprah.

A little bit. The day we shot that scene, it was her first day on set and Maya Angelou had died that morning. I told her, “We don’t have to do this today,” and Oprah told me, “No, I’m going to do this for her.” It was a very emotional day. But Oprah is all-in, and such an amazing actor. She’s so flexible and open to ideas. And she throws a good punch.

This is admittedly a loaded question, but do you feel James Earl Ray really killed Martin Luther King Jr.? I understand the King family doesn’t, and there are so many conspiracy theories.

Oh gosh. I don’t know… probably not. I think it was probably deeper than that. But the bottom line is a great man was taken from us, and it retarded a movement that was afoot. Imagine what could have been. If he were still alive to day, with all the Ferguson stuff, I imagine Dr. King would be right out there with the marchers.