Skip to main content

The Sounds, Space And Spirit Of 'Selma': A Director's Take

Ava DuVernay's new film dramatizes a turning point in civil rights history. She says she wanted to "elevate [Selma] from a page in your history book and really just get ... into your DNA."

51:17

Transcript

January 8, 2015

Guest: Ava DuVernay

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new film "Selma" dramatizes a turning point in civil rights history when Martin Luther King came to Selma, Alabama, and helped lead a series of three marches demanding voting rights for black people who were systematically prevented from registering to vote in the South. Those marches led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

My guest Ava DuVernay directed the film and rewrote the original screenplay she was given. Until now, DuVernay was best known for directing a couple of independent films and for founding the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which finds movie theaters for black-themed independent films. Before directing films, she founded a movie marketing and publicity company. She won the best director prize at Sundance in 2012 for her film "Middle Of Nowhere." This Sunday, she's up for a Golden Globe for best director for "Selma." This makes her the first African-American woman to be nominated in that category.

"Selma" is bigger in scope and budget than her previous films. Oprah Winfrey is one of the producers and plays the part of Annie Lee Cooper, a voting rights activist who has prevented from registering several times. In this scene, she's trying again, but she faces what many black people faced in the South at the time - a difficult civics test designed to prevent African-Americans from voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You work for Mr. Dent down at the restaurant, ain't that right?

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Wonder what he'll done say when I tell him one of his gals is down here stirring a fuss.

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) I ain't starting no fuss. I'm just here trying to register to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Recite the Constitution's preamble. Know what a preamble is?

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How many county judges in Alabama?

WINFREY: (As Annie Lee Cooper) Sixty-seven.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Name them.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

GROSS: And that bang that you hear at the end is the sound of Annie Lee Cooper's application to register to vote being stamped denied. Ava Duvernay, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your movie "Selma" starts with Martin Luther King getting dressed for the ceremony at which he will receive the Nobel Peace Prize because of his efforts as a peaceful civil rights activist. Typically in biopics, the rest of the film would be a flashback telling us about the remarkable achievements that led to that point of him receiving the Nobel. But your film keeps moving forward.

And it's just horrible to see that even after he gets the Nobel, black people are being turned away at the polls in the South and beaten by the police if they peacefully protest for the right to vote. And I'd like you to talk about deciding on the structure of the film, you know, deciding to start with this, like, high point of recognition from around the world and then going back into the trenches of where black people still have few rights.

AVA DUVERNAY: Well, that's really exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to show his place on the world stage at that moment, at the beginning of "Selma," you know. At the end of 1964, he accepted the Nobel Prize, and he was lauded by heads of state and royalty. And he came home, and he didn't have an appointment to even see the president in the White House. There was no celebration of that moment here in the ways that I think they thought there would be. They came back home, you know, found themselves back where they were when they left.

And so at that moment, he is, you know, he had options. He could have done any number of things, not the least of which being invited to work with Johnson in some capacity within his administration. But he chose to go back and work with the people and remain with the SCLC and have that independent spirit, that independent voice around his activism which is something that just always fascinated me because at that point, he had been in the movement for a decade and, you know, had been the subject of death threats and an assassination attempt, stabbing. He had been beaten. I mean, he'd been - his family had been terrorized. I mean, it was a good moment where you could've probably stepped out if he was a lesser man, but he didn't. And they went right back into the trenches and right back into Selma. And I think that's fascinating.

GROSS: You also depict the infamous and horrible bombing of a Birmingham church in which young four young girls were killed. I didn't realize that was about to happen when I saw the film.

DUVERNAY: Oh, wow.

GROSS: So I was just shocked when the bomb exploded. You know, it's obviously very upsetting to witness this even though, you know, I knew it happened historically. But I wasn't expecting to witness it on screen at that moment. Can you talk about deciding how to shoot that?

DUVERNAY: Yes. Well, that scene - I mean, the Birmingham bombing of the four little girls happened many, many months before. But it was the catalyst for Diane Nash and Jim Bevel to start to lay out a plan - specific strategy - for the pursuit of voting rights and to start to target a community they might be able to amplify and where they might be able to illustrate the ills that had kept folks from voting and registering. And so when you talk with Diane Nash about it, it was the loss of those four little girls. It was their murder that activated her and thrust them into what would be known as a Selma campaign.

So for me, you know, as a filmmaker, I was just very interested in tipping a hat to those two activists who had made that decision and why. But then also to just really place the audience right front and center emotionally to what it felt like to be black in the Deep South in 1965. You know, we can talk about it. We can say it was hard. We all can agree that it was tragic. But what can I do to just put you there? I'm just inviting people into this time and space - into the spirit of Selma in 1965 - what it was, what it means now and the best way I knew to do that was to shake it up a little bit and place you right in the middle of the action.

GROSS: And - but even, like, you have four girls being blown to pieces. How did you decide what to show and what not to show?

DUVERNAY: Well, I mean, it was approaching it from my point of view as a woman filmmaker. The idea of showing a bombing, showing a blast, showing any kind of detonation might be different from that of, I'll say, a male director who might be more interested - and this is just based on what I've seen for many, many years - might be more interested in the physicality of the blast, the gusto of that violence.

I was much more interested in reverence for the girls. And so it was important for me that you hear their voices. You hear what their concerns are at that moment as four little, black girls walking - actually five little, black girls walking down a staircase in what should be a safe place in their sanctuary, in their church. They're talking about hair. They're talking about Coretta Scott King's hairstyle. They're talking about what little, black girls talk about - getting your hair wet and keeping it pressed and doing all that kind of thing. And you start to come into their world just as they're taken out of the world.

And so from there, what is the next thing to show? Is it shrapnel? Is it fire? For me, it was the fabric of their dresses and their patent-leather shoes, all of the things that remain from the souls that were lost. And so it's always approaching for me - all of the violence in the film - from a place of what is important to me in this scene, what am I trying to say in these frames and challenging myself and the people who work with me and collaborate with me to live up to an honor, the truth of whatever we find.

GROSS: My guest is Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film "Selma." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ava DuVernay, and she directed the new film, "Selma." There were three marches that happened that your film depicts, three marches that attempted to get from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. Only the final march made it there. On the first time that peaceful demonstrators tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, they didn't get far at all. They were attacked in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River. They were attacked by police. That day became known as Bloody Sunday.

And I want to pause here and play a brief first-person account of that march. This is from J.L. Chestnut, who was Selma's first, and for a while, Selma's only black lawyer. He was a witness to this march, and in 1990, he told me he initially didn't agree with the idea of civil disobedience because as a lawyer, he believed you follow the law. And if you want to challenge an unjust law, you do it in the courts, not on the streets. But he eventually was swayed by Martin Luther King and came to believe in civil disobedience. And on the day of the march, he was working for the NAACP. He was still unsure that day whether the march would actually proceed, but he was prepared to do his part as a lawyer. So here's his description of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

J.L. CHESTNUT: I had gone across the river early, across the bridge because would not let lawyers march. You know, you had enough foot soldiers. What we didn't have was enough lawyers. It didn't make sense to have lawyers in jail. So I had gone across the river early and - not knowing whether there would be a march, and they get to a telephone because once a march started, you would have the FBI, the president, everybody fighting over the one telephone.

So I went over there early to tie it up in case there would be a march. And I'd have to describe to the NAACP what was happening because they were paying the bill. And I was over there tying up the telephone, and I looked up towards the bridge. And there was John Lewis, who's now a congressman - John Lewis from Georgia, Atlanta - and his group of marchers coming toward this great line of state troopers and passing them. And I began to describe the scene over the telephone to New York. And then John and the group came face to face with the troopers. And I heard some voice, a state trooper who said, stop. This will be as far as you will be permitted to go. Turn around and go back to your churches.

And then John and the others begin to kneel and pray. And then I heard something that sounded like a tear gas canister hit the pavement. And then there was smoke, bedlam, confusion, blood, tears, cries and there were these big, hefty, possum and swinging billy clubs the size of baseball bats and coming down across the heads of women and children. My eyes were hurting, my head was hurting and New York was screaming over the telephone, what's going on? What's going on? And I tried to pull some women back out of the street, and it was just awful. It was one of the lowest days of my life.

And that day, I lost all faith in America. I lost all faith in white people. I said, my God, black people will never be citizens. We will never be what we ought to be in this land. And what is this? I have gone to Howard University. I'm a lawyer and officer in a white man's court and here are these people, trampling on my folk in the streets, blood everywhere. And they're trampling on the Constitution, and nobody does anything about it because these people are black. And I was just almost in tears.

And two days later, I had to revise and make a new assessment because white people and black people came from all over this nation that watched it on television, and they were thoroughly upset at what they saw. You know, it's easy to send a check down from New York and say, I'm with you. It's something altogether different to come down and lock hands with a black person and say, I'm ready to go to jail. I'm ready to die if necessary. And I saw hundreds and hundreds of people come from all over this land to join with us in this little town of my birth. And I had to look and reassess all over again. And my faith in this nation, my faith in the human race was restored.

GROSS: And that was lawyer J.L. Chestnut on FRESH AIR in 1990. He's describing the first voting rights march that tried to get from Selma to Montgomery. And those voting rights marches are at the center of the new film "Selma," directed by my guest Ava DuVernay. Ava, I'm sure you spoke to a lot of people who gave you first person accounts of what happened on Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. So describe to us what you wanted to show of the police attack on the demonstrators.

DUVERNAY: What an extraordinary account that was.

GROSS: I know. If you wanted to comment on it, go ahead.

DUVERNAY: That's just extraordinary. Yeah. I mean, just his voice - and he conjured it all for me as I was listening to him. And that's what I wanted to do with this is to really breathe some life into the words Bloody Sunday. Most people don't even know the words anymore. They don't understand what it was and what happened there and what was at stake that two by two, they walked over this bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge that's named after the Grand Dragon of the KKK at the time it was built. These citizens, these black citizens have to walk over that bridge every day knowing who it's named after.

And on this day, exactly as the elder says in the testimony of Mr. Chestnut, that they were met by a militarized presence, police aggression, state troopers under the orders of George Wallace. And so my mission was just to put you in the middle of that action. And in reality when we did the research, we found that the press was held back, you know. The press was not on the bridge. So all we have are those firsthand testimonials to tell us what it felt like. Even the very famous newsreel footage is from an angle that's a bit in the distance. And at one point when the tear gas ballooned up, they lost sight of what was going on.

I mean, literally, those marchers were lost in a smoke of tear gas, of the horror of not knowing what was happening to them. And in fact what was happening to them is they were having the life beat out of them. I mean, they were being pushed back by horses, by batons. I had someone tell me that someone had a bullwhip. They were being whipped back across the bridge, and they were literally run. I mean, we tried to show this whole spirit of this time in 120 minutes and what we don't show in the film is that they were actually run all the way back to their churches, back across the bridge through the streets of Selma, back into their churches and that there was a armed posse of just thugs under the orders of Sheriff Jim Clark at that time who were just terrorizing black folk in the street if you were out in the street that day. So it was just ugly, ugly business.

GROSS: You weren't used to staging violent scenes. Your films have been small, independent character films. So how did you stage this demonstration, and would a lot of people get hurt, while at the same time, protecting the actors from getting hurt?

DUVERNAY: Yes. Well, I'm an independent filmmaker and our forte is people in rooms.

(LAUGHTER)

DUVERNAY: So I had no experience with working on bridges with 500 extras and green screen and firearms and horses, and it was a massive production on that bridge and every time we were staging a march. But I just approached it in the same way that I approach any scene. What is the story here? And if you go into an action scene focused on the tear gas and the horses and all of the bells and whistles of the scene, then you miss the heart of the scene because the horses aren't the story and the tear gas is not the story. It's the heart of the matter, the look on the marchers' faces as the horses raced towards them - the horror, the terror, the thought on someone's face that this is it. This is how it will end for me. That feeling is what I went into these scenes with every day, a quest to capture the heart of the moment. And that put me at ease because I know how to do that.

GROSS: Having never directed a scene like that before of violent confrontation, which we know police are attacking peaceful demonstrators, what did you do to make sure no one was going to get hurt?

DUVERNAY: Well, we have our safety on set. I mean, you know, the stunt team, the medics, the standard things that be should be done on any set. But there was also, you know, a question of emotional safety because we were asking people, you know - all of our extras were from this place. I mean, we didn't bring in extras from Hollywood. We didn't bring in extras from Atlanta. We were in Selma, Alabama, staging these scenes. So extras were from the surrounding communities and Selma.

I mean, this history is very much a part of the DNA of that place, and so you're asking white citizens currently living there who may not feel and do not feel the way that we are asking them to feel on screen to yell expletives, to hit their fellow community members, to yell and scream vile things. And you're asking, you know, the black citizens of that place to experience that and take it in. And that was really top of mind for me to make sure that there was a meeting of the minds there, that there was a real understanding of what we were doing and why because that emotional safety was also very important, that we were all clear.

GROSS: What were you looking for in the faces of the black and white extras?

DUVERNAY: I mean, it's fantastic to be honest with you, casting people outside of Los Angeles, you know, lines on the face, looking like real working people. You know, we had just a beautiful array of faces. We were really looking for faces that had life in them. You know, eyes - you know, we were really looking at eyes quite a bit when I would, you know, determine whether an extra was going to be, what scene they would be. And there's some eyes that you just look into them, and you see that they're full of hope. There are other eyes that you look into, and you see they've seen some things and it might be harder and just placing those within it, the tapestry of the extras. There's a woman named Cynthia Stillwell that we worked really closely with who was important to find the right extras casting director. Usually extras casting director's probably someone I never talk about on other films, even though they all do great work. But in this, really, the extras casting director, she cast "Selma," those faces, those people.

GROSS: By the way, you know, you mentioned that the Edmund Pettus Bridge was named after - was it the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan? Has the name of the bridge been changed?

DUVERNAY: No. Nope. It's still the good, old Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was a Confederate general and, yes, KKK Grand Dragon of the time around when it was built. And so regrettably, that is still the name, that bridge.

GROSS: Ava DuVernay, we'll talk more about directing the film "Selma" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film, "Selma," that dramatizes a turning point in civil rights history when Martin Luther King came to Selma, Alabama to lead a series of voting rights marches that collided with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When DuVernay came on as the film's director, she re-wrote the screenplay. When we left off, we were talking about filming what's known as Bloody Sunday, when demonstrators in a peaceful voting rights march were attacked and chased by police.

You know, your film really gets us to think about all that was on Martin Luther King's shoulders. I mean, not only, like, the whole movement, but the lives of the people in it. And, you know, when you're leading a march and deciding to move forward, it's kind of on you in some ways. And so - I mean, there was so much on his shoulders. And he was so young.

DUVERNAY: So young, so young.

GROSS: It's like, the older you get, the younger he gets. (Laughter).

DUVERNAY: That's right (laughter). That's right. That's right. You know...

GROSS: He was 39 when he died.

DUVERNAY: I feel like - 39. I mean, I feel like an young woman, and I'm older than Dr. King was when he died. I mean, he was 36 when he led these marches that we're talking about. I mean, John Lewis was 23 years old. It's incredible, you know, how young they were. The oldest guy hanging around was, like, 40. But as you say, I mean, even with our poster for the film it was important to me and the reason why I love that image that we have on the poster is you stand behind King as you look at the poster. You know, it's a picture of the back of Dr. King. It's head and shoulders, and beyond him, you see a line of state troopers. And you are a marcher. You stand behind him. And, you know, just to think about the weight on his shoulders. I mean, not only was he leading a grassroots movement, you know, you had legislative proceedings that were happening that he was involved with. He was appealing and lobbying to the White House. He had personal concerns that were happening. Coretta was back home, being threatened daily with the children. I mean, that weight - and then the daily threats to his life. But, you know, the thing that really struck me about this time and the research and reading and talking to people, was really that this was the first time that folks died directly on King's watch. You know, Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, these deaths happened in a three-month period under his watch, during, you know, the tactics that he was directing and approving and advocating for. And that - that was a real weight because for the first time, you know - of course there'd been many deaths throughout the movement - but this one was directly related to the very campaign that he was heading, very specifically. And that, you know, is unimaginable pressure and guilt. And we worked - David Oyelowo - I can't believe it's the first time we're saying his name. David Oyelowo, the actor - extraordinary actor - who plays Dr. King so exquisitely, we worked a lot on that guilt, that weight, that fog of death, as we say in the film. And he captures it pretty beautifully.

GROSS: As we've been saying, your film focuses on three voting rights marches that were intended to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. But only the third succeeds in getting to Montgomery. That third march, President Johnson provides federal protection for the marchers. And by the third march, he's introduced the Voting Rights Act. You've been criticized by some people, including Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson administration, for making LBJ into something of a villain. And what Califano and several historians say is that, you know, LBJ was for the Voting Rights Act, but he knew he didn't have the votes to get it passed. So he couldn't really move forward until he knew it would actually get somewhere. And a couple of places have quoted a phone call between LBJ and Martin Luther King that was recorded. So I'm just going to read a quote from that. So Martin Luther King has been saying to the president that, you know, if black people actually get the right to vote in the South, it will be great for Democrats 'cause black people will go to the polls, and they will vote for Democrats.

And President Johnson says, (reading) that's exactly right. I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders, and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination. If you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina - well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of was the president of a school at Tuskegee, or head of the Government department there or something, being denied the right to cast a vote. If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon, the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, that’s not right; that’s not fair. And then, that’ll help us in what we’re going to shove - the legislation - what we're going to shove through in the end.

And Martin Luther King says, (reading) you're exactly right about that.

And LBJ says, (reading) and if we do that, we'll break through. It'll be the greatest breakthrough of anything. Not even excepting the '64 act - the Civil Rights Act - because it will do things that even that '64 act couldn't do.

So what are your comments on the criticisms and those who say that this example, this phone call is an example of how LBJ wanted to pass the Voting Rights Act? He needed Martin Luther King to help him do that. He wasn't opposing King. He wanted to be an ally with King in getting the bill passed.

DUVERNAY: Well, the first point you had said is that people see LBJ as a - that I painted him as a villain, which is not what I was trying to do. If I wanted to paint someone as a villain, particularly LBJ, there's a lot I could do in that regard. I did not have that intention. People cheer for LBJ in the film. He makes a triumphant we shall overcome speech at the end that gets some of the most applause in this film that we've taken around the country at this point. And that's what it was intended to do. So he's not villain-ized - getting a lot of really hate-filled tweets from people saying, you villain-ized him. I was like, have you seen the film? Not yet. OK, well, why don't you check out the film? So I think, you know, in terms of the conversation you read, to me, it's Johnson outlining King's strategy that was already in play. The SCLC strategy, the SNCC strategy - I mean, in the very op-ed that you speak of, Joseph Califano actually writes the words that Selma was LBJ's idea and cites that very phone call that you just read, which is absurd because we know that the black citizens on the ground, that Amelia Boynton, who was a citizen of Selma who had been working around this since the 1930s - the voting rights - with her husband in that county, in Lowndes County, was the very one who invited Dr. King to Selma to illustrate these ills. We know that the whole idea of amplifying and illustrating, you know, a racial oppression was the whole - the whole modus operandi of SCLC and SNCC and CORE for years before this call was made. So the idea that he wasn't simply outlining what was already being done and kind of cosigning on that - but the idea that that call demonstrates that it was he is idea is a head-scratcher. But beyond that, you know, our intention was not to say anything other than these were two great minds who were in a chess match at times. It wasn't a skip through the park that they came to this Voting Rights Act. I mean, the very fact that these citizens had to walk and march twice unprotected, unassisted, to face state troopers with no federal aid - that was a big point of contention. Yes, the president did come on board eventually. Yes, he did eventually order the federal protection. Yes, he did pass the Voting Rights Act. Yes, there were nuances and challenges to - as far as what was happening in Washington that made him have to take pause and kind of play a tactical game with timing. But the bottom line is this is what we show in the film. It was a timing issue. And King was always saying the time is now. The time is not to wait. And that's all we do in the film. I mean, I think this has all been a bit overblown, especially because this film is not about LBJ. This is a film that's about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma. And one of those allies turned out to be, eventually, LBJ.

GROSS: My guest is Ava DuVernay. She directed the new film, "Selma." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about the new film "Selma," which is directed by my guest, Ava DuVernay.

You cast - well, I shouldn't say you cast David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King 'cause he was actually attached to the film before you were signed to it. And I think he was instrumental in getting you on as the director. You had already worked with him in your previous film, "Middle Of Nowhere." He was really determined to play Martin Luther King. He'd wanted to play King for years. What's your understanding about why he was so committed to doing that? And I ask this especially because he's British. And he didn't grow up in America. He didn't grow up with the American civil rights movement or with parents who were a part of the American civil rights movement.

DUVERNAY: No, I mean, he describes it as a calling, that, you know - he says that God told him that he was going to play Dr. Martin Luther King before he died. And, you know, he is a man of faith. And he - this got locked in his spirit. And he would never let it go, through five directors who originally told him, no, you are not King. The first director told him, no, you are not King. The film changing hands year after year... Finally, he gets cast by the previous director who was attached, Lee Daniels. Lee Daniels decides to go and make "The Butler" instead. David found himself an actor who knew he was going to play King without a film, without a director. And so he did what few actors do and more should. He self-determined. He took this thing, and he really is the reason why this film is coming out on Friday. He brought on, lobbied for, cajoled, pushed, pulled, convinced, pitched the producers to the idea of hiring, you know, a woman who had made an independent for $200,000 that he had worked with previously - me. He got that done. I did not pitch. I did not call. By the time I got the call from the producers, they were asking me if I wanted to explore being a part of the project. I mean, that's unheard of. He called Oprah Winfrey and said, hey, I got a project, and actually convinced her to come on board. I mean, those are two major pieces of this puzzle in a project that had been dormant, that he revived so that he could play this part that he knew was his - was meant to be his.

GROSS: Let's hear a clip of David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. And this is a scene where, you know, King has come to Selma to help organize voting rights protests. And in this scene, he's at a church addressing the black residents of Selma about the need to organize.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) As long as I am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command of my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny, for it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma, cheering).

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) Those that have gone before us say, no more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) No more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk. And that is hard.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma, cheering).

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) We will not wait any longer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma, cheering).

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) Give us the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma, cheering) Give us the vote.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King, Jr.) That's right, no more. We're not asking. We're demanding. Give us the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As black residents of Selma, cheering) Give us the vote.

GROSS: That's David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in a scene from "Selma," which is directed by my guest, Ava DuVernay. I have to say, that does not sound like an exact impersonation of Martin Luther King. Personally, I think that's a good thing. It's always difficult, I think, in historical movies or biopics, you know, when you're depicting real people that people know, especially somebody who has been as immortalized as Martin Luther King. We know how he sounds. We know what he looks like. And sometimes, the closer you get to an impersonation, the more it seems like an impersonation, the more imperfect it actually seems. Can you talk about trying to find the line between embodying - like, doing his best to embody King while at the same time not looking like an impersonation?

DUVERNAY: I mean, it wasn't even a line to walk. We just walked away from anything that felt very, very close to King. You know, it was intentional. There was no a mimicry that was ever going to happen. (Laughter) I mean, that was our first order of business, to stay as far away from the two or three things that, you know, really peg King in terms of voice and in the vibrato and some of the quirks of his oratory. And we really focus on the spirit of him. You know, David doesn't look like King. David doesn't sound like King. But he kind of looks and sounds like King. You know what I mean? Like...

GROSS: Yeah, I do. (Laughter).

DUVERNAY: It's in there - you know what I mean? Like, it becomes - it starts to be in there somewhere. This is a a cinematic exploration of this time and this space and spirit of this time. And so you just have to - you know, I won't even say get close but not close enough. I mean, we were actually trying not to be close. We were trying to just be in a range that felt comfortable because the closer you get to what's real, exactly as you said, you know, the more you invite comparison and contrast and all kinds of - you know, very much like all of this that's happening around questions of accuracy. This is not meant to be fact, right? I think it's Faulkner that says something like, we don't want facts; we want truth. And so that's really what we were going for, the truth of the matter, the heart of the matter, the spirit of the matter - and not to be, you know, kind of dealing with approximations and mimics and impersonations.

GROSS: But the thing is, when you're doing a historical film or a biographical film - it's - you're dealing with facts. You're dealing with something that actually happened. And so there's always the question of, you know, what is your responsibility to the facts, to the truth as it happened? I know a film that's not a documentary isn't an act of journalism. But it's still - I always think that historical films still have a responsibility to history. And if you could just address a little bit the kind of landmines involved in doing, you know, any historical film.

DUVERNAY: With any historical film, everyone will not be pleased. And so for me, it was really about bringing in every - every character that you - every named character in "Selma" is a real person. One of the first things I did when I came on board is get away and toss away all the composite characters or folks that - this person represents these three real people because it's easier to just have them named this and make them do this 'cause this is kind of what those three people did. You know, in trying to be truer to the facts but really looking for the truth behind the facts, we really had to say, let's name these people. So we brought in - that was one of the early fears from some - from some camps. There were going to be too many people in the film. But I think there's something beautiful about seeing King with this band of brothers and sisters. It's something important in illustrating that he did not do this alone. And so by bringing in all of the real people, you do open yourself up to the interpretations - the cinematic interpretations that we are creating of these people may not be the actual hard facts of every day of their life and every exact thing that they did. But for me as an artist, it was important for me. It was important to take the risk that they be named. Did John Doar, the assistant attorney general, do a lot more, say a lot more, is he so much more than the two scenes that he's given in the film? Of course. Diane Nash, just one of the architects of this whole movement. She was not in the film before. Was it important to name her and see her and let her live and breathe on screen, even though we don't go into all of the full arc of her character? We made the choice that it was so. And so no, I have 120 minutes to, you know, collapse many details, many people, many facts. And so the way that you do that, the way that I did it is said, I'm not going to get bogged down in all of these facts that I will never be able to please everyone. I will try to get to the truth behind it. What were they trying to do? What were they trying to say? What did they stand for? Because that's the truth, and I'll try to get to that as best we can in the form of a film.

GROSS: My guest is Ava DuVernay, the director of the new film "Selma." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ava Duvernay. She directed the new film "Selma." One of the things you are up against in making "Selma" is that you didn't have the right to use Martin Luther King's speeches. My understanding is that his estate did not grant those rights. Do you know why?

DUVERNAY: We didn't ask for the rights because it's widely known in our industry that those rights belong to another filmmaker. So they're not - they're not available. We worked on a budget of $20 million...

GROSS: Oh, was that it? That this - somebody else, like, another filmmaker owns the rights?

DUVERNAY: Another filmmaker controls those rights. And, yes, we were on a very humble budget. I mean, this film is a $20 million film, as I said. It sounds like a lot, but, you know, in the grand scheme of moviemaking, you know...

GROSS: It's just a lot for you (laughter).

DUVERNAY: It's a lot for me 'cause I usually make, like, films with $2 and a paperclip.

GROSS: Exactly (laughter).

DUVERNAY: But it ain't a lot by Hollywood standards. It's actually quite humble and it's an independent kind of size. I mean, we're nominated for several Independent Spirit awards because we fit in budget-wise with the definition of indie film for that organization. And so, yes, it was small.

GROSS: So you were in the position of having to be Martin Luther King's speechwriter.

DUVERNAY: (Laughter) Yes, the unfortunate position. The - that, you know, who wants to have to rewrite that beautiful, beautiful, you know, gosh, that...

GROSS: How did you approach it?

DUVERNAY: With much terror and much procrastination. At any point that I had to do it, I would take a hike, I would meditate, I would walk, I would eat too much. I was like I don't want to do it, but, you know, it had to be done. And, you know, I would hike and I would listen to King's speeches in my earphones and really just try to - more than the cadence, which, yes, you know, there are couple tricks that he did to really rile people up. He spoke in triplet a lot. He loved to paint pictures in a certain way, but it was really about the content of what he was saying back to this idea of truth and fact.

I couldn't use the facts of the speech. I couldn't use the words. So I had to try to find the truth of what he was saying. And I would ask myself, what is he saying here? What is the idea he's trying to get across? At the end of our film, you know, I had to rewrite this radical idea that he had. This amazing idea that he had picked up on from another scholar that racism is a lie that's been told to white people to divert their attention from the challenges in their own life by the powers that be, that rich white men indoctrinate racism into poor white men to make them look at black people and not at the powerful white men, who might not be helping them as they should - a pretty radical idea. My thought was, you know what? Let's not not have this idea expressed in the film because we can't get the speech.

That idea is big enough, bold enough, interesting enough, complex enough, to be shared and it should be shared. And we just have to find another way to say it 'cause we can't afford those speeches. And we don't have the rights to those speeches. You know, but the idea itself should be heard. And so that was how we approached it and that's how I broke it down. I'd listen to the speech, I'd try to educate myself, challenge myself to understand what he was telling me, what he was telling us and then I just tried to tell that in a different way.

GROSS: You know, we've discussed the process of you writing "Selma." You took over the film after several other directors had been attached to it. And you rewrote the screenplay, but your name isn't credited. And I'm going to just ask you to briefly explain that so our listeners understand.

DUVERNAY: It's just a Hollywood contract (laughter) nothing for anyone to worry about (laughter). It's just a contract, you know? The original screenwriter had a contract that said that he could retain sole credit if he wanted to. It's up to him as to whether or not he wanted to share the credit or not. I did work on the script. I asked for the credit. He exercised his option to retain sole credit. And so his name is on the film as the writer, and that's it. It's just those are the events as they happened, but for me, you know, my intention was to share the story. And my intention was to tell the story in a very specific way, and I've done that. So I'm satisfied and I wish everyone well.

GROSS: Where do you go next? Do you want to - I mean, you're going to have a lot more clout now as a film director.

DUVERNAY: You think?

GROSS: I do (laughter).

DUVERNAY: I don't know. I'm not sure.

GROSS: But - so do you want to go back to, like, the small character film and go back to the indie world or enter, like, the larger Hollywood world? Any ideas yet?

DUVERNAY: I don't know if I'm going to have more clout. I mean, there's really no precedent for someone like me gaining clout in the space that I'm in, so...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait - when you say someone like you in the space that you're in, what do you mean?

DUVERNAY: A black woman directing films in Hollywood (laughter).

GROSS: OK.

DUVERNAY: You know, no precedent for there being a black woman director who's gained any clout. Black woman directors that make amazing, beautiful things - yes, I can name 50. Black women directors that have obtained that kind of clout to be able to kind of answer that question from a place of the privilege of having lots of options - I'm not so sure. We'll see. It'd be nice, but regardless, I'm going to keep on telling my stories. I'd be absolutely happy to go back and make a smaller picture.

I never want to be, you know, my choices to be dictated by budget. That's one of the reasons why I take so much pride in being able to make films for $2 and a paperclip. And because I can always get my hands on $2 and a paperclip, I never have to ask for permission for that. And so I don't know what the next step is going to be, but I know I'll be doing what I was doing for the six years before this moment - constantly making something. You can call me at any time and ask me what I am doing. I'd tell you I'm making this right now. It's about momentum for me. It's about just that artistic energy and constantly having my hands on a project. So I don't know what it'll be, but it'll be something.

GROSS: Ava DuVernay, thank you so much for talking with us.

DUVERNAY: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having me back.

GROSS: Ava DuVernay directed the new film "Selma." She's nominated for a Golden Globe for best film director. The ceremony is Sunday. To hear an extra in which she talks about how having Oprah Winfrey on board as a producer supersized the film in a good way, go to soundcloud.com/freshair. That's soundcloud.com/freshair. I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with music that was recorded during the march from Selma to Montgomery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCH)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Tell Mayor Smitherman, we shall not be moved, oh Lord. Tell Mayor Smitherman, we shall not be moved. Just like a tree that's planted by the water, oh, we shall not be moved. All the state troopers, we shall not be moved, oh Lord. All the state troopers, we shall not be moved...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

07:28

'Luster' Combines Nicely Tailored Prose With A Stinging Sense Of Humor

Raven Leilani's novel centers on a young woman with a free-range libido who dreams of being a painter. Luster is a crackling debut about sex, art and the inescapable workings of race.

43:07

'Ghosting The News' Author Says Local Journalism 'Freefall' Is Accelerating

More than 2,000 newspapers have shut down in recent years, and some regions have become news deserts. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan says the collapse of local news undermines democracy.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue