"I'm interested in compiling a body of work that says one thing: that black life matters." With that, Selma director Ava DuVernay held a most fascinating court yesterday with Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American history. The event took place at the Museum of the American Indian as part of a symposium titled History Rebellion Reconciliation.
She was fascinating in her straightforwardness - "the writer that eventually got the credit for my [Selma] script" - humor - listening to her describe directing the scene in which Martin and Coretta confront his extra-marital affair - and kindness - she wanted to get all the questions in even though time was running over.
The debate over the history of Selma came up often. She talked about listening to Johnson tapes, and Dr. Bunch said that despite the high-profile attacks, most historians agree with how Selma painted Johnson's role. "The lens for which we survey these things should be up for grabs," DuVernay said. She did flinch when the first questioner - an African American man - asked her where the white civil rights heroes were in her film. She told Dr. Bunch to take that one.
She is about as unpretentious as they come. When a woman asked her what she is doing to foster more black women in the field, she said that besides having some support groups she can't do anything. It takes hard work, rewriting in the middle of the night and a general commitment. She also said that she will not defend herself as an artist again.
She spoke about going from a $20,000 budget for Middle of Nowhere to a $20 million budget for Selma. DuVernay laughed when telling about filming indies and the things that you can get around - like permits - to save money. But with Selma it all had to be by the book and thus $20 million can - and did - go very fast.
DuVernay said that after Selma she received every civil rights script in the world on her desk. "Here's the first black fireman in Pennsylvania..." It's not what she wants to do, although she has pitched a pilot show to CBS starring Phylicia Rashad and Anika Noni Rose. It's about a Department of Justice group that takes on civil rights fights. "Probably doesn't sound like something CBS will pick up," she said.
They showed long clips of her earlier films, I Will Follow, and a Venus Williams doc she did for ESPN. Middle of Nowhere is another great film people should see. In truth, they could have kept going with the clips and people would have been okay. They were riveting. (Selma's were not as riveting because they could only show chopped up footage instead of scenes.)
She finished - after a handsome questioner told her how "fine" she is - by saying that she wil go home to LA to finish writing a new series. It sounded like a serious story, but "I gotta throw in a love story and some hot men," she joked. :You know how that goes."
I think everyone in the auditorium would have followed - on Facebook and in reality - DuVernay anywhere after this wonderful session.