Deconstructing a Movement with Ava DuVernay

Our 2014 Film Person of the Year talks violence and illumination in Selma

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Last week, Paste closed out 2014 with a retrospective on our Film Person of the Year, Selma director Ava DuVernay. Our cover story is, for all intents and purposes, a love letter in essay form to the tremendous experience of violence and glory in one of the year’s best films. With Selma gearing up for wide release in the coming days—and hopefully attention from the Academy—we are excited to continue our coverage into 2015. Paste caught up with DuVernay to talk about deconstructing violence, and pulling back the veil on King. Like Jill Soloway, another director who blew us away this year, DuVernay also opens up about the importance of embracing the personal and spiritual elements that often inspire the most powerful and universal creations.

Paste: First off, I’m supposed to pass on greetings from our Movies editor, Mike Dunaway.
Ava DuVernay: Yes! He’s a good chap. Tell him I said “hello.” And thanks to him, and you, and everyone there for that cover story. It was really, really beautiful.

Paste: Thank you! I know that you were very involved in the writing process with Selma. Can you remember one of the first scenes you worked on?
DuVernay: We were just going chronologically, so the first scene that I wrote was the [bombing of the] four little girls. I’d had that as the first scene, but when I got in the editing room, I found a different way to open the film.

Paste: The first big shock for me from the film was that church bombing scene. Even though I saw it coming, I kept telling myself that you wouldn’t really show it. Can you talk about how you thought that through, and why it was important that the scene be presented in that way?
DuVernay: First, it was very important for me that we deconstruct violence. So often violence in films is just a physical act, and not emotional. But violence that takes place when any body—the bodies of children, the bodies of black people, the bodies of women, the bodies of white men, the bodies of whomever—when those bodies are broken by violence or injustice, it’s emotional. So it was important to make [the audience] fall in love with these girls a little bit, and get to hear what these little black girls talked about.

Paste: Yes.
DuVernay: This way you could really understand that they were in what everyone in the world thought was a safe space at the time, and you could understand the violence that entered into that sanctuary.

In a lot of ways, that changed the Civil Rights movement. That act of violence was the catalyst for movement leaders to start looking at dramatizing in the way that they did with the Selma campaign. So we didn’t want to veer away from it. It was really important that people felt what it was like to be terrorized.

Paste: I’ve never been in a theater where people wouldn’t leave at the end, and that’s what happened with Selma. I think that speaks, in part, to a spiritual element in the film’s presentation. At the end, you sort of feel like you’re in the middle of a prayer. Were there specific steps you took to imbue the film with this quality?
DuVernay: Yes, that is the filmmaking process—all the specific steps that we take to pour our minds, our hearts, our history, our identity, our culture, our family legacy into a piece of artwork. I can’t identify one step. It was an everyday step, and an everyday journey towards trying to illuminate the movement and the black citizens, as well as all of their allies of all colors who stood against injustice and indignity. So every day, every decision that we made was imbued with that mission and that vigor, and that desire to do this.

Paste: When I saw Niecy Nash in the film, I raised an eyebrow. I think she’s so talented, and her appearance immediately told me that somebody in casting really knew what they were doing. How did you all put this group together, once you got involved in the project?
DuVernay: The only person who was already cast was David Oyelowo, and he would have been my first choice anyway. From there it was just a cast of characters and actors that I really love. Niecy Nash was an idea that I had because I’d seen her in her HBO dramedy [Getting On], and I think she’s been really underrated. So whether it was her, or Common, or André Holland—who I’d only seen in 42—or Colman Domingo—whose stage work I’ve loved for years—or Giovanni Ribisi—who I’ve stalked for years [laughs]—these are just people that I’ve been collecting for years. Others went through the audition process, or we found them through our casting director, Aisha Coley.

Paste: I love when a film embraces the silences. As heavy and violent as Selma is, it also has all of these beautiful, quiet moments. I’m especially thinking about the scene where Cory asks Martin to answer her honestly about the other women he’s been with. What did you want to show in that scene, and what did you want to keep out of it?
DuVernay: It was really important to start to pull back the veil from this man, who’s really an icon. He’s embraced as a saint, or a sinner, when there’s really a lot of complexity and nuance. One of the ways to deal with the rumored infidelities, and the Counter Intelligence Agency and surveillance, was to put it in a scene that was a springboard of actual facts that we know from Mrs. King’s autobiography. A box had been sitting for a month at the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] offices. It was delivered to her home, and inside was a tape with basically what you hear in the film. You know, Mrs. King was a very discreet lady. She doesn’t go into what happens next. So as a storyteller, it’s about trying to put your arms around the emotion of a man and a woman at this crossroads—to really deconstruct this marriage that has this veneer of elegance.

By doing that, I hoped to illuminate something about both of them—that they were real people. They were just a brother and sister—he was from Alabama, and she was from Georgia. And they got swept up in history. But at the core of it, they were Cory and Martin. Doing that allowed us to illuminate other things about him, beyond the facts in the history books, and show that he was a living, breathing man.

Paste: Thank you so much for this. And best of luck, I’m looking forward to more from you!
DuVernay: Thank you.


Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.