A Movie to Rescue Martin Luther King Jr. From 'I Have a Dream'

The civil-rights movement has been oversimplified by Hollywood for decades, says the director of Selma.

Paramount Pictures

Ava DuVernay's forthcoming film Selma is the answer to a lot of "if only"s about modern filmmaking. If only more women were hired to direct prestige films. If only more black female directors' voices were heard at all. If only historical dramas didn't play so much like glossy textbooks. DuVernay herself points out another one: If only there were any major motion pictures about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made in the 46 years since his murder.

DuVernay first drew attention as a director on the indie scene back in 2012 with the well-reviewed relationship drama Middle of Nowhere. One of her actors in that movie was David Oyelowo (The Butler, A Most Violent Year), who had been trying to get a Martin Luther King Jr. movie made with The Butler director Lee Daniels. When Daniels dropped out, Oyelowo recommended DuVernay, who took the helm of the $20 million production that will premiere in theaters on Christmas Day.

On Thursday, DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes (Selma was also nominated as Best Drama Film and Best Actor for Oyelowo). She's got a very good chance of being another first when the Oscar nominations are announced next month.

But for Ava DuVernay, the story of Selma is the story—one of many—that hasn't been told about Martin Luther King Jr. Rather than hit the encyclopedia bullet points about King, Selma shows a consummate tactician, savvy about marshaling the civil-rights demonstrators lining up behind him, while at the same time feeling the weight of responsibility for these people's lives. He's a lightning-rod figure in the South and in Washington; a nuisance for Lyndon Johnson but also his salvation; investigated and wire-tapped by the FBI; a wary rival of Malcolm X, his philosophical and tactical opposite; and a husband whose fidelity comes into question. Talking to DuVernay, it becomes clear that these complexities that surround King were of paramount importance in the story of Selma.

Joe Reid: I was at the first New York screening [of Selma]. I remember you saying, either in your intro or after the movie had screened, something about how you don't really love "civil-rights movies"?

Ava DuVernay: Oh gosh, I'm completely allergic to historical dramas. Particularly those around the civil-rights movement. It's not my favorite thing to watch. So often they feel like medicine. Or not even a history lesson, because I really like history. Just … obligatory. And I think it's just because most of the ones I watch, and I won't say all, but the majority of them are just told from a very vanilla, homogenized look at history.

A lot of these historical events are very visceral, they have texture, they have life to them, they were vibrant at their time. By the time they get on film, and so many voices and hands have been on them, trying to be made palatable to the widest audience just drains them of something. For me, they are not my favorite to go see. There are some that I love! There are some that are fantastic. But more often than not, they're a little watered down. And so that really colored my approach to Selma. I really wanted it to be nuanced and feel urgent, and to have some life to it.

Reid: I feel like you can see that in the movie. It feels like it focuses on the interactions between the people, moreso than recreating events.

DuVernay: Yes, good.

Reid: Were there specific voids in the Martin Luther King narrative, as we've seen them on TV and in movies, that you wanted to fill? Were there specific things that you needed to put on film in a way they hadn't been before?

DuVernay: Well nothing has been. There's never been a major motion picture about Dr. King where he's been the center of the story. In 50 years since these events happened, in 47 years since he was murdered, there's never been a major motion picture about King. There've been some telefilms and some lovely stage things, but not a film.  [There's been a] biopic about Jimmy Hoffa and about the lady who makes Tupperware or whatever, but there's never been a biopic about King, or any kind of film with him at the center.

So yeah, to the question of what do you show that hasn't been shown: Nothing's been shown. He's really been reduced to a catch phrase. Four words: "I have a dream." And the man was a radical! He was a visionary. He was brilliant and complicated, he had an ego, and he was unsure. He was a man of faith who wasn't always faithful, and he was a brilliant orator, and he was an intellectual. He was a strategist. He was a preacher; he was his father's son, and he didn't want to be in the family business—his father was a preacher, his grandfather was a preacher. He was married to a woman that was older than him; people don't know that Coretta was older than him. I mean, he was fascinating! And all you know is "I have a dream" and that he was assassinated. So I think that's criminal.

I'm an African American Studies major from UCLA, I knew a lot more about him, I read a lot about him, I studied him. But certainly there was always more to know, and Selma afforded me the opportunity to elongate my view of him, but I'd always felt like he'd been gypped. Yes, he's a street name, and a statue, and a holiday, and a speech. But I mean, my god, to have changed the world and to have no one know who you truly are is criminal, really.

Reid: I think you even saw that in the aftermath of what went down in Ferguson after the non-indictment, and there was the unrest and the protest, and the people who were opposed to that unrest brought up Dr. King and nonviolent protest. And there was a pushback to that, saying “That’s not the full picture. Why are you using this man to quash protest? To quash unrest?” I thought that dovetailed with Selma in interesting ways.

DuVernay: It absolutely does. It all speaks to a lack of knowledge around who he was, what his radical ideas were, and it also just feeds into this really pedestrian thought that there’s one way to approach these problems. I just made a film about Dr. King, yet I don’t think nonviolence is always the only answer. You know? There might be somewhat more aggressive tactics. I’m not saying bomb a place. I’m saying that there are movements all over the world that have done all kinds of things, to dismantle oppressive systems, that aren’t always passive.

I don’t even really see sit-ins and marches as passive. I see them as quite assertive. I see those as emotionally aggressive tactics. I see people putting their lives on the line and being bold and brave. The way we think of the term “nonviolence” as very passive—let someone spit in your face and just walk away, let someone beat you and don’t do anything—that is so surface. These tactics were much more than that. People were putting themselves in harm’s way to invite, to incite violence against them so that they could illustrate the ills of society. They were putting themselves in harm’s way. They were like soldiers who were going to war. It was a way that they were fighting. And that’s not passive. Like we say in the film, that was very strong. I just think that these ideas are not anything that’s been addressed, certainly not in the American school system. Certainly not in any of our conversations around King. It’s “I have a dream,” he believed in peace, and then he died. Like, my God, people. Let’s do better.

Reid: You’ve worked previously with these really fantastic actresses, African American actresses specifically—Gabrielle Union, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, Emyatzay Corinealdi. [Could you] talk about the casting process particularly for the female roles in Selma? Carmen Ejogo, Tessa Thompson ... it seems like there’s a wealth of possibilities out there in terms of having your pick of African American actresses. Which is maybe a double-edged sword because they’re so underserved, but you’re offering these great roles to them.

DuVernay: Yes, well, the script that I got did not have women in them, so it was so important to insert women in their rightful place. There’s nothing to be lauded about putting women in the story, since they’ve always been in the story, so it was just about putting them back where they belonged.

But yeah, from there it is an embarrassment of riches of both black actors and black actresses. There are so many, and there are so few parts. I’ve been lucky to have had roles that our best and brightest have been attracted to, even when I’ve had no money to give them. These are artists who want to make art, and they want to work, and they’re not working hardly enough. Carmen Ejogo is someone who I saw in a telefilm called Lackawanna Blues, based on a play, I don’t know if you saw that …

Reid: I did! I grew up right outside of Lackawanna, so …

DuVernay: Oh wow, that’s very cool. So yeah, I saw her in this telefilm, and I’d never seen her before, and I didn’t see her for a long time after, but I always remembered her name. She had a very small part, but she had an impactful scene in it where she’s wrestling emotionally with someone over her son, and I just thought wow, that woman has chops.

And the thing with Tessa, it wasn’t even Dear White People, I had seen her in a film that another black woman filmmaker [Tina Mabry] had made called Mississippi Damned about five years ago. I saw her in that, and it went on my little mental checklist: She’s great.

And Lorraine Toussaint, who I worked with on Middle of Nowhere, if I could tether myself to her kneecap and just let her drag me around all day I would. And of course Oprah Winfrey, I mean, I think her work in The Butler was stunning. To transform yourself from the woman with the face that the world recognizes to this kind of sassy housewife named Gloria, where you begin to disappear from someone that I’ve seen in my living room every day for 20 years—that is good work. And there’s even a little part [in Selma] that I love, Richie Jean Jackson, who’s a real woman, the woman whose kitchen they all come into, played by Niecy Nash, who I saw on that HBO show called Getting On. She was so good on that show, and she brought that to our film. So like you said, not enough roles for so many great actresses; I’m lucky to say I have my pick of a lot of great people.

Reid: Is that something, going forward now, that you’re working towards? Like, “I want to be the one to do the next great movie for X, Y, and Z actress”?

DuVernay: I don’t know if I think of a particular actress in that place. My interest as an artist is to illuminate the lives of black folks. I definitely am focused on films that illustrate all that we are and all our nuance and all our complicated beauty and mess, and when you’re telling those stories you gotta have black actors.

It’s interesting now that you say that, because I’m feeling myself getting troupe-y, you know? Where you start to really love people, and you want to work with those people again and again. And I know that there are so many people out there. There are stories to tell, but there are so many people who have the chops to do it. I’m starting to think of the people that I worked with on the last three films for the next thing, and it’s like I have to stop myself and think, “You gotta open up, because there are folks out there that can really shine in these parts as well.”