As a former publicist and marketing executive, Ava DuVernay has seen her share of bad behavior on movie sets. So when the time came for her to direct her own films, she insisted that things ran differently.
“The publicist on (‘Selma’) was treated like an effin’ queen,” she says. “I probably overcompensated a little bit for the way that I was treated a lot of times, but I just didn’t want anybody feeling that.”
With the release of “Selma,” her drama about Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1965 voting-rights marches he led through Alabama, the 42-year-old DuVernay is at once living the dream and setting a remarkable precedent. In an industry that bestows few honors on black filmmakers, female filmmakers or publicists-turned-filmmakers, many are predicting her to make history three times over by receiving an Oscar nomination for best director.
Whether that happens or not, “Selma,” with its culturally resonant depiction of racial turmoil and mass protest, represents a major leap forward. Featuring vivid historical re-creations, harrowing scenes of violence and a cast of hundreds (including Oprah Winfrey, who produced), the $20 million production cost a hundred times more than DuVernay’s 2012 breakthrough feature, “Middle of Nowhere,” which won her a directing prize at Sundance. Yet that film’s hushed intimacy and attention to character also shine through in “Selma” — the first theatrical feature ever made about King’s life, and one that pointedly refuses to reduce him to a symbol.
“What was most important to me was that everyone be real,” says DuVernay. “No one here had any interest in (King) being a statue or a speech or a holiday or a catchphrase. … He was a human being. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things, just like any of us could do.”