My new girl crush is undoubtedly Ava DuVernay. She is such an inspiration to me as an aspiring film director myself and every time I see an interview with her or hear her speak its completely uplifting.
But what kind of fan would I be without actually seeing her work. Ava has directed a handful of features and a selection of TV episodes and shorts, most notably the recent release A Wrinkle in Time. She is also the showruner on OWN’s Queen Sugar, the TV show she has populated with female directors.
All round, Ava DuVernay has broken down boundaries for not only women but women of colour in the film industry and so to kick off my viewing for Woman Director Awareness Month I decided to watch her 2014 directorial release Selma.
Left: Movie Still Right: Historical Photo
*This Blog post will most likely contain Spoilers*
The film begins the fantastic David Oyelowa, who plays Martin Luther King Jnr, practicing a speech in the mirror. This and the following scenes are calm. We see Martin receive a Nobel prize, four girls of colour are dressed up and chatting as they walk down a staircase. You feel safe. Then all of sudden the staircase explodes. Things go into slow motion. The following sequence is a blurred red dust cloud where you can only just make out the figure of one of the girls falling. The audience has been lulled into a false sense of security. This will not be a calm movie.
Based entirely on fact, Selma’s story follows the campaign by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to obtain voting rights for people of colour. Even with the Civil Rights Act in 1964 desegregating the south, discrimination was still very rampant in certain areas. The town of Selma becomes the host of the protest and, even after a few harrowing attempts resulting in violence from the opposition, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers pressed forward on an epic march from Selma to Montgomery. It took a few attempts and much negotiation but eventually their efforts culminated in President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The thing that stood out most to me when watching this film is that I didn’t know this story. I had heard of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, I knew that he was a speaker for black rights and against violence, but I didn’t really know what he did. What DuVernay brings to this movie is a perspective that is not often seen in the spotlight. A story told by someone who has the right to tell this story and so it felt real.
Part of this was the one she chose to frame certain characters. The struggle to fight for what you believe in, even though there is the risk that people might die was a tension that ran through the entirety of the film. Death was a fog that settled over the characters and their actions so there were a lot of interesting shots that played with negative space.
One speech that Martin Luther King gives at the funeral of a boy who was killed in the protests is framed with him in the very bottom right hand corner, the rest of the frame left with a blurred background. The negative space gave room for his words to be cast out into the auditorium and also let them hang in the air. The creating that tension or that emotion that they would if you were in that room listening to him talk.
DuVernay also has shots that linger on the back of peoples heads and in this way the mounting tension of a decision or a consequence of a decision gets directly associated with that character as we the audience start to assume the worst. Shots like these we associate normally with thrillers or horror films. But in a film like this the monster creeping up behind them becomes more metaphorical than physical.
There is also fantastic use of slow-motion to heighten the impact of the violent and tragic parts of the protesting. The violence of the opposition, the clear discrimination is all blatantly the more obvious when as one person is slammed to the ground the camera focuses on their face and the world slows down.
All round this film provided me with a new perspective. It was story I had not seen told and one that definitely deserved to be told and even more so by someone like Ava DuVernay. The filmmaking was beautiful to watch and I have all the more respect for this woman and her work than I did before (if that is even possible). Do yourself a favour and watch Selma.