In the 50 years since he led the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King has become an oddly neutered figure in the minds of most Americans. All of the things that made him human — his dreams other than that dream, his fears, his desires, his faults, his anger — have been ironed out, like errant wrinkles on a flag. Selma, the new biopic starring David Oyelowo and hitting theaters on Christmas, seeks to reclaim the man from history. Director Ava DuVernay finds herself at an unprecedented moment: She is the filmmaker who managed to bring the first feature-length motion picture about King to the screen and will become, if all the awards pundits are on their game, the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar.
We caught up with Ms. DuVernay in the middle of a whirlwind press tour in support of Selma, which has just been nominated for Best Motion Picture, Drama by the Golden Globes (both she and Oyelowo got nominations as well). She reflected on how being an indie filmmaker gave her the tools for her first studio movie, how the current unrest over #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe mirror the social upheaval that King helped foment and how being a black woman in Hollywood has found her in something of an undiscovered country.
Can you remember the first time you heard Martin Luther King speak?
Oh, God…Dr. King in my house was like air, wind… He was always around. It was very ambient. I don’t know if that’s a uniquely African-American experience. I can’t remember the first time. There’s a local black radio station in LA that Stevie Wonder owns. It’s the only independent black radio station in LA and every King Day that would play a bunch of speeches of his. I don’t know if it’s the first time, but it was always around when I was growing up.
A figure like Dr. King can all too often become a sort of historical slab, an impenetrable obelisk. What was your lever into King the man?
We’re dealing with this homogenized figure. A man who’s been reduced to a four-word catch phrase. He’s a street, he’s your elementary school, he’s a holiday, a sale, he’s a statue…he’s anything but a man. Certainly not a radical. He was a radical, he was complicated, he had a engo, he had doubts, he had guilt, he was a man of faith but he wasn’t always faithful, he was one of the greatest orators that anyone could think of. He was the son of a preacher, the grandson of a preacher, but he didn’t want to be a preacher. He was the husband of a woman who was older than him. Many people don’t know that he was younger than Coretta; she brought him into the movement. A lot of the ideas of non-violent resistance were brought to him by her, as a result of her being taught by Quakers. He’s fascinating. But the thing that he’s been reduced, this warped, homogenized, vanilla reduction symbol — he was a man of peace and he had a dream… Shame on us for allowing that to happen, as Americans and black people. And the fact that there hasn’t been a major motion picture with King at the center in the 50 years since the Civil Rights movement and the 47 years since he died is just nuts.
Why do you think it’s taken so long?
The list of reasons is as long as my arm. But the fact is that it’s here now. And it’s really a head-scratcher that it’s from me and my homies. But my father is from Alabama, right between Selma and Montgomery, and I spent many summers, every Christmas, flew out for every Father’s Day, Mother’s Day — so when an opportunity presents itself to make a film that’s so literally close to my home…. There’s something to that. So when this presented itself, I knew it was something I had to step into. It’s really kind of odd on the other side of it now, having made it. We shot it in 32 days, had only three months to edit it. This time last year, I was still doing rewrites. But the speed, the velocity, the accelerated pace – all because Paramount had decided on the Christmas date, I thought. But now, no one could’ve foreseen this cultural moment we’re in the middle of. Civil disobedience and unrest and social action and voices being heard… Bernice King told me just this past weekend that this is the most civil disobedience she’s seen since the Vietnam War protests. And it seems to be sustained; it’s been going on since August. There’s really something in the air, and it’s coming together – I don’t know if it’s kismet, or the universe or God. I don’t know. It’s something.
The scale of Selma is much grander than anything you’ve done before — was there a moment where the sheer size of it all hit you?
You know what? It really felt like an indie. I thought $20 million was gonna be a certain thing. My last film was $200,000 and this was 10 times as much. I thought it was gonna be a lot more plush. But $20 million on a period film is actually $10 million. And when you’ve been making movies basically illegally – as an indie filmmaker you don’t get permits, no one gets paid properly — when you’re making a film of this size, everything’s union, everything’s gotta be on the up-and-up. So by the time you get to the end of it, you’re really making a film for a fraction of that budget. And then you add period costumes and a trillion extras and horses and guns and stunts… In the sense of the day-to-day work, it felt very accelerated, very indie, very make your days; finding creative ways to solve problems because you can’t throw money at the problems cause you ain’t got no money… That’s how you do it in the indie world and that’s how we did it on Selma. It felt familiar in that way. The energy of it. And I peeled away the “King” of it in my head. I was really telling the story of this man. Because my father was from that place, I knew the place, so that was my entry point. I know how black people talk to each other. I know the relationships between black men and women. I know how it is when a bunch of brothers walk into a sister’s kitchen and try to stir her grits. I know what it is to look your man in the face and ask him some hard questions and what his posture would be like. Some of that I knew. The familiarities of the things I knew carried through the things I might not have known. I felt like I knew so many other parts of this that I felt comfortable.
I’ve gotta think that making a King movie without the rights to the text of his speeches is a bit like making a Jimi Hendrix movie without the rights to the music — which is exactly what John Ridley did. Not impossible, clearly, but it adds to the degree of difficulty. How did you face that challenge?
Part of the reason a King movie hadn’t been done was because of those speeches. No one could crack the speeches. They’re the intellectual property of the estate and, for whatever reason, different incarnations of the script, they were not cool with them. Part of the many reasons why a film hadn’t been made for all these decades. Rather then let that inhibit this story and limit us going forward, I just decided I was going to untether myself from the words themselves and anchor myself to the ideas. Line by line, I would go through and ask myself “What did he mean to say? What is he trying to tell us?” Rather than get bogged down with the words themselves, saying what he was saying in a slightly different way. Which got us around speech permission and allowed us to make the film as true independent filmmakers. I think King was so much more than the speeches. He was an idea guy. And he was a strategist. And he was charismatic. And with someone like David, the first black man to play a king on the Royal Shakespeare Company stage, I knew he was gonna throw down on the speeches and we were going to be cool. I knew that if I could just get the words close enough he was going to be able to take us there.
What kind of film do you want to do next? When you look at the possibilities, what kind of filmmaker do you want to be?
No one’s ever asked me that. Everyone always asks me “what’s next?” I’m like, “Um, I dunno.” I want to do the same thing I wanted to do before Selma. I want to have a canon of work. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder, I don’t want to be a two-hit wonder. I don’t want it to be nine years between films. I don’t want to be an icon that’s remembered 30 years from now because she made one decent film. I want to be a working filmmaker every day of my life. And that means that I cannot be precious with these stories. I have to continue to tell them. So, from here there’s all this strategizing about what’s next: “Does it have to be bigger? What does it have to be, subject matter-wise, to forward the career?” But I’m not gonna do it. Of course, I’m getting every black historical drama script ever written. That is all that’s coming my way. “Do you want to direct the story of the first blah-blah-blah.”
“We’ve got a Paul Robeson movie. Do you want to do a Paul Robeson movie?”
There are beautiful Paul Robeson stories. But I want to do something different and contemporary and subtle and vital and something that’s also wildly interesting. So, yeah. I don’t know exactly what the answer is — there’s a lot brewing. But I know that I am going to go where my interests take me and not try to follow some plan about how to stay ahead. I’m going to tell the stories that interest me. That’s the only thing I can do. Because in the end, all these strategies about how to get ahead really don’t apply to me. There is no precedent for a black woman to be playing that game. There is not one. And so if that game doesn’t work, and there’s no precedent for playing a different kind of game, then I might as well just do what I like. That’s truly how I feel right now.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com.