Written by | Ray Cornelius
Sundance Film Festival winner Ava DuVernay recently participated in an intimate conversation as part of the BronzeLens Film Festival’s “Cinema and Social Justice Sunday.” The event took place at the Landmark Theater in Atlanta, GA and featured the BLFF Rising Superstar alum along with one of her Selma producers Paul Garnes.
Selma chronicles the landmark 1965 voting rights campaign regarded as the peak of the civil rights movement. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his band of brothers, the movement included several marches from Selma to Montgomery under dangerous opposition with one such event known as Bloody Sunday. The film produced by Pathe and Harpo Films will open in select theaters on December 25th and features David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Lorraine Touissant, Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Andre Holland, Colman Domingo, Ledisi, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Keith Stanfield, Stephan James and Alessandro Nivola with Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey.
DuVernay shared a six-minute clip of the film followed by an insightful Q&A with an audience that included Atlanta City Councilman, Michael Julian Bond; City of Atlanta Office of Entertainment director, LaRonda Sutton; Hit the Floor actress, Logan Browning; Selma actress Charity Jordan; AAFCA’s Gil Robertson; RoomieLoverFriend actress Shayla Hale as well as aspiring filmmakers and college students.
During the session, DuVernay talked about her experience so far as a filmmaker. Heralded as one the most thought provoking writer/directors in the nation, DuVernay revealed the real inspiration behind her directing Selma, why research is paramount to the success of any project and why casting big names doesn’t always equate to big dollars at the box office. She also talked about her transition from being a PR rep who promoted movies to becoming an award winning director of several movies.
Check it out below:
Why BIG named actors don’t always translate into BIG bucks or ratings…
For me, I love falling into a story and not seeing the actor but seeing the character. That happened for me while watching The Butler with Oprah. She is such a huge face to get past and for me it happened pretty early on during the film. At first I thought I was never going to fall into her as Gloria but by the second scene, I was seeing nothing but Gloria. You see so many movies that flop with big names. I just don’t think people go and see them because of so and so, unless Idris (Elba) is playing in it. (LOL)
Why her father is the real inspiration behind directing Selma…
Instead of being intimidated that I was making a film about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I just really focused on making a film for my father. My father is from Lance County, Alabama, which is the county that links Selma to Montgomery. Those marchers had to walk through the backwoods of that county under the threat of KKK sniper fire over those five days. My father’s family farm is in Lance County with generations of his people living right there. So much of what we talked about in the film is right where he is from. To make a film about Selma always made me think of him. Whenever I started to get shook and was like, ‘OMG this film is about MLK,’ I would just remind myself that it’s about my dad and where he’s from. I always come back to that.
Why research is so important to any director or project…
We can’t underestimate as filmmakers just having a real grasp of not only what’s going on now with our people but also our history. We should be able to bring that to bare on any type of story—historical or contemporary. From my family’s proximity to Selma to my personal history there to my own knowledge of what happened, I went in with a base which allowed me and Paul to go in even deeper into the story. We took research trips to Selma to learn more. You almost have to with a project like this. Many of the people did so much for us and are still living. Even if they weren’t, we have a responsibility as filmmakers to tell what really happened.
How her PR background prepared her for film directing…
For a long time I thought I had wasted my life and that I should have gone to film school. I wasted the 20’s because I didn’t start making films until I was 33. Now, I just see how my previous career in PR was just preparation and a training ground. To know how to organize a film crew is major. I mean, a film set is basically a small business. To know how to run it is the same as running a PR campaign. How do you communicate with someone? How do you articulate your vision? How do you follow up and make sure it’s getting done? What do you say when it’s not getting done? All of those questions and concerns equal PR! My responsibilities just shifted from one thing to another but it took me a long time to see it.
Why you don’t need permission to pursue goals and dreams…
I always encourage people that if there is something you’ve always wanted to do, then do it. Life is too short. I know it sounds crazy to give up a real job with real money to pay your real bills for that thing you want to do but I say go for it. I had put some money aside from my film, I Will Follow and was saving for a house and decided to buy a career instead. Don’t wait for permission! Don’t wait to have everything lined up. Just do it!
Check out photos below from the event:
BLFF’s Deidra McDonald leading the panel with Ava DuVernay and Paul Garnes
Deidra McDonald, Ava DuVernay, Paul Garnes and Kathleen Bertrand
Ava DuVernay with actress Shayla Hale and Logan Browning
RC with Selma actress Charity Jordan
RC with Ava DuVernay
Photo Credits: Megan Alodie