“Selma,” the latest film from writer/director Ava DuVernay, had its first screening in New York Monday night for influencers, Academy members and press.
We spotted Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher in the crowd, in addition to MoMA film curator Rajendra Roy. This screening was hosted by Paramount and Ava DuVernay’s organization the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), a distribution collective of black arts organizations dedicated to quality black independent films. AFFRM’s founding organizations include Urbanworld (NYC), Imagenation (NYC), DVA (Los Angeles), Reelblack (Philadelphia), Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (Seattle), and BronzeLens (Atlanta).
“Selma” chronicles the weeks and months of planning that went into the March on Selma, Alabama orchestrated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) and company in the summer of 1965. “Selma” is the first major motion picture to focus on the life of Dr. King in this capacity. Reactions from this screening and its premiere at AFI last week have been stellar and you will be hearing a lot more about “Selma” as awards season progresses. DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young stayed after the screening for a Q&A, including one question from “Pariah” actress Adepero Oduye. Check it out below:
Smokey Fontaine: Give us a sense of the history of how this project came together, I mean we saw so many struggles on the screen and how the big moments happen with the small moments, and all the big important decisions that were made. Tell us about some of the decisions you made to tell this kind of story that we just saw.
Ava DuVernay: I came to the project because of David Oyelowo, who [cinematographer] Bradford and I had worked with on our other film “Middle of Nowhere,” a tiny, tiny film that only four people saw. A very small film we worked on with David, who we fell in love with. David brought the project to us because he had been attached through director Lee Daniels at the time. When that project fell apart, David kept it alive, like he would ask the producers can we still do this? Can I gain the weight? Can I fix my hair? Can we get someone else? He brought me to them and I mobbed in with all my people (laughs).
That’s basically how it happened and our challenge and the early conversations with Bradford and the other collaborators and Spencer Averick, my editor, and our production designer and costume designer and casting director, having to gather a massive cast, it was always “How do we do the Civil Rights movie that hasn’t been done? How do you do one, since I’m a person who normally doesn’t like them, that would be interesting?” So we were always trying to deconstruct the genre and act as people that, you know, are proud of our people, and be able to get underneath the people of Selma. The film is called “Selma,” it’s not called “King,” and it’s important that we adorn him in the film with this band of brothers and sisters who really made it happen. You can be a leader, but if there’s no one following you, what are you doing? That’s the core that we tried to attack with the images and the narrative every day.
Smokey: Tell me about the script and story, because this is very much not a cradle to the grave film on purpose and you even said at times that you wanted to humanize Dr. King and tell a full story, a breadth of a man and his full life story. Tell us about the writing choices you made in that regard.
Ava: Whenever a director comes to a story, the imbuing it with their point of view. Previously, you had a whole bunch of directors, all of whom were male, trying to figure out what Selma meant to them and my version was very much White House balanced with people on the ground. Other iterations had been focused on LBJ and King like a mano-a-mano thing between the two, but it became “What’s Coretta doing?” What’s happening over there and what are all these other people doing? Amelia Boynton and Annie Lee Cooper and Richie Jean Jackson. I found a little book in a bookstore in Selma about a woman whose home Dr. King and them stayed in named Richie Jean Jackson. I just imagined all these brothers walking into her kitchen, looking at grits and just getting into the texture of people and, Kinda like I said at the top, deconstructing this speech and a holiday, because we know these things, but that’s not enough, it’s not the full story.
Smokey: Bradford, talk about the aesthetic of this film. This really continues from the films you’re both responsible for like “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere.” There’s such a texture and such a beauty and such a sense of being there in the South and the images of Blackness. Talk about how you achieved that.
Bradford: I started trying to make movies when I was 17, and I was under the tutelage of Haile Gerima for most of my life and actually moved back to DC about a year ago to be closer to him. I spent the greater part of my life trying to wrap my head around what you guys are talking about. It’s going to be a life-long journey for me, and hopefully my son will take it up and move forward with it as well. For me, this is the story I feel I studied long to make, you know? With that many brothers and sisters in one room, whatever expertise I had before was definitely challenged here, and from my perspective this is a very perfect gesture toward that and I feel [me and Ava] try to work hard to be truthful to the moment more than anything. Like I said, I feel like I’ve been rehearsing for this. This was the most challenging shoot for me photographically and after the photography, so dealing with the story and entering the color grade and trying to be representative of the things that we thought would look like this in real life. I know Ava knocked it out of the park in terms of story, and that whatever you see up there is us really trying to workshop ideas and keep patching away at it.
Smokey: We must talk about some of the performances. We’ll start with David Oyelowo. How did he manage to take that man that we’ve only seen as a poster or as a sound bite so often, but he gave him such a spirit and part of his own personal story?
Ava: David Oyelowo … is a Nigerian brother by way of the UK. He’s the first Black actor to play a king i the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. A very accomplished actor who came to the United States in 2008 and always had a sense that he wanted to play Dr. King and so he delved into this in the same way that Bradford and I did, both feet and head, and swam in it almost every single day. Beyond the cosmetic appearance – the 30 pounds, the shaping of the hair, the timbre of the voice and all of that, he was doing real real deep spiritual work to align himself with King. He lived in it, I mean he would go to the food truck and order like Dr. King: “Hey, can I have a rib?” (laughs) We didn’t have to call him Dr. King, we called him David, but he was carrying King with him through that whole three months, and there were some cast members who didn’t even know he was British until they saw him at the premiere party (laughs). He transforms himself and committed to this character in such an exquisite way, he’s a beautiful human being and he deserves to have the platform where he takes every scene and just kills it and shows what he can do and I love him for that.
Adepero Oduye: I am left feeling very moved and also very angry. I feel like my anger with a lot of these issues we have in this country stops me as an artist, and I was wondering if you felt that before you actually shot this film, how did you deal with that, how did those emotions come up? I mean, you’re there and you have a job to do and a film to shoot, but what are the things you do before production to get past these moments?
Bradford: Such a good question. How do I say this? This is all I’ve got. All I have is this, if I lose this, my wife’s a midwife, I’ll assist her with that or something (laughs). As a young Black man and as a Black man with a family, this is how I keep myself from going to jail. I’m not going to let them [detractors] undermine this and every bit of energy I put into this is to assure that we’re collectively not being undermined. I know it seems utopian in the sense that it’s just a movie, but for the lot of us who are continually shut out, especially because I’m a cinematographer of color, I don’t see myself, so for me, I use this as a space for me to keep myself sober, a space for me to be a logical healthy citizen. As much of a contiguous relationship as I have with this country, as my uncle would say, I respect Marcus Garvey, but I ain’t going back to Africa with him. I’m gonna get mine right here. This for me is what keeps me sober…They can come into my space in so many different ways, but they can’t come into this space that I’ve created for myself here.
On November 16, there was a special “Selma” screening at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco followed by a Q&A where Director/Executive Producer, Ava DuVernay, Producers Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, and Actor David Oyelowo (who plays Martin Luther King) participated. The Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films release will hit select theaters on Christmas Day and opens wide on January 9, 2015.