‘Selma’s’ Ava DuVernay: Breaking Hollywood’s glass ceiling

January 9, 2015, 10:05 AM UTC

Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” opens nation-wide today, but already she has made history. She is the first black woman ever to be nominated for a Golden Globe for directing — an award that is often a harbinger for Oscars.

DuVernay was not the first choice to direct Paramount Picture’s epic story of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march toward justice. Lee Daniels, of “Precious,” was set to film – but then pulled out to make “The Butler.” It was only then that star David Oyewolo recommended DuVernay, with whom he’d worked before.

She was not the obvious choice, either. A former publicist, she was a director with only one small theatrical feature behind her. She was an African-American woman. And she was joining a modestly budgeted, long-delayed project whose script, for copyright reasons, hadn’t been allowed to use any of King’s actual speeches.

Yet what some moguls might seem as liabilities DuVernay turned into strengths, using her indie training to maximize her resources, telling a black story from a black point of view, making sure that women’s contributions were acknowledged and writing into the script her own passionate pleas for equality (albeit in the King style).

Little of that has been without criticism. Some historians (and aging veterans of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration) have said the film distorts LBJ’s commitment to social progress. Others claim the contributions of whites, particularly Jewish activists, have been pushed aside.

But this was precisely DuVernay’s aim – not to criticize and ignore other people’s work, but to celebrate African-Americans’ own. She wanted to acknowledge activists like Diane Nash, who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey), who has been called the “Rosa Parks” of Selma’s push for voting rights. DuVernay also felt it vital to honor “the caregiver” – the sort of woman who, like Richie Jean Jackson, made sure Martin Luther King and his aides were housed, fed and encouraged.

“If he’s walking out in a wrinkled suit, hasn’t eaten… and he didn’t have a good night’s sleep, then he’s not going to be able to rally everyone in church the next day which means they don’t come,” she told Massaschusetts’ Bay State Banner. “So that does take on a great importance… It was important to not just show women, but the array of roles that we had at the time.”

“Selma” is a story about the fight for equal rights and the many paths people took to get there. Whether its success could mean equal rights for female filmmakers may depend on the different roles and projects they themselves pursue.

A recent study of the top 250 grossing films found that women comprised roughly 6 percent of the directors; the number of female minority filmmakers can barely be measured. The African-American Kasi Lemmons was a trailblazer with “Eve’s Bayou,” in 1997, but the path she cleared was quickly overgrown. Despite Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win for “Hurt Locker” in 2009 – the first and so far only time a woman has won an Academy Award for directing – the numbers of women making major movies have barely budged.

Perhaps further honors for DuVernay, and “Selma,” will help women and minority filmmakers get more of a chance to tell stories in Hollywood, but their success will also depend on the sort of stories they want to tell.

Studios tend to stereotype female and minority filmmakers as only interested in “female” and “minority” stories; as long as Hollywood remains fixated on big-budget action films, artists who are exclusively interested in other subjects will forever be marginalized.

Bigelow most decidedly tells the stories she wants to. Some of them, such as “Blue Steel,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Strange Days,” feature strong female leads. Others – “Point Break,” “The Hurt Locker” – are more male-oriented. But all of them are hers.

Which is the ultimate goal of any filmmaker. Not just to be able to tell one kind of story, but to tell any story you’re moved to tell. To let no one define you but yourself.

“’Selma’ is a story about voice,” DuVernay stated in an early studio press release. “The voice of a great leader; the voice of a community that triumphs despite turmoil; and the voice of a nation striving to grow into a better society. I hope the film reminds us that all voices are valuable and worthy of being heard.”

Now hers has been.

Stephen Whitty is a film critic, author and lecturer, and two-time chair of the New York Film Critics Circle. You can follow him at @Stephen Whitty.

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