Director Ava DuVernay

The award-winning director of Selma shares on the importance of keeping Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy alive.

After starting her entertainment career as a publicist, Ava DuVernay made a name for herself in the world of indie filmmaking. Her feature directorial debut was the critically acclaimed 2008 hip-hop documentary, This is The Life. She also wrote, produced and directed the film, I Will Follow, and directed and produced several network music documentaries. The UCLA grad was the first African American to win Sundance's best director award (for her 2012 film, Middle of Nowhere), and in 2013 she directed an episode of the hit TV series, SCANDAL. Her latest film, Selma, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1965 civil rights march, has garnered many accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, we welcome the award-winning director of the movie, “Selma”, Ava DuVernay. The film, of course, tells the story of one of the seminal moments in American history which led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The movie has generated a great deal of controversy over its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson and his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with director of “Selma”, Ava DuVernay, coming up right now.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Ava DuVernay back to this program, this time for the movie, “Selma”, which she, of course, directed. The film chronicles the three-month period in 1965 leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Before we start our conversation with Ms. DuVernay, a look at a scene from “Selma”.


Tavis: I want to just first say congratulations.

Ava DuVernay: Thank you.

Tavis: I want to just start right there. Congratulations.

DuVernay: Thank you.

Tavis: You know my regard for Dr. King. I’ve said so many times I regard him personally as the greatest American we have perhaps ever produced. Certainly he’s–I could debate you on that, but certainly I think there’s no debate about the fact that he is America’s leading democratic–small d–leading democratic public intellectual.

So just the fact that you got this done with all the drama that went into making this happen, I want to say congratulations for just getting it done. It’s a huge accomplishment.

DuVernay: I will take that, and I appreciate it.

Tavis: So since you’re the director, I’m just a lowly PBS talk show, so I’m going to let you decide whether or not you want to deal with this drama now or you want to deal with it at the end.

DuVernay: What?

Tavis: The controversy. Want to get it out the way now or you want to do it at the end? Your choice.

DuVernay: Do it now.

Tavis: Let’s do it now. What do you make–I’m sick of it, frankly. But what do you make of the controversy about Lyndon Johnson, how he’s depicted? Your thoughts?

DuVernay: I think it’s an unfortunate distraction. I think it’s a small but very loud minority of people. When people come out of “Selma”, they feel good about Johnson. I would think people would like that who are custodians of his legacy.

Most people who think about Johnson, many people, think about Vietnam. They think about his, you know, record of segregationist votes early in his career as a politician.

In our film, people cheer for him at the end. Somehow in there, the tone of one or two scenes has riled up people whose job it is to maintain a certain image of him, and that was not my job.

So I feel it’s unfortunate that that minority has really overtaken the beauty of a film that does so much more than talk about really anything to do with Johnson, to the point where it’s the first thing that I have to be asked any time I sit down with anyone thoughtful. They feel like they have to speak to that.

So, like I said, it’s an unfortunate distraction and, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve said my piece about it.

Tavis: This is not the first film that has been subject to this. I think it was “Zero Dark Thirty” and a number of other films who, you know, this has happened to. I think of “The Hurricane” with Denzel. You get a movie out and this kind of stuff happens. How much of a distraction is it for you when you’re trying to focus on a story that hadn’t been told?

DuVernay: It was. It was a distraction for a while there. It was a couple days where it really got me down and shame on me for letting that, you know, kind of steal my joy.

Tavis: But you’re human. You are human.

DuVernay: I am human, I am human. Got me down for a little while just because I know what my intention was. I know what my intention was, and that was not my intention. And I know what the intention of that rhetoric was. So for a while, I got caught up in it and caught up in it in my own mind, in my own heart, but that time has passed. So it is what it is.

Tavis: One last question and I’ll move on. I’m asking this because, for those of us who’ve known you for a long time, you were a big-time publicist in this town.

DuVernay: I wasn’t a big-time publicist. I did it…

Tavis: Don’t get me–I’ll embarrass you now. I’ll list the folks who you brought on this show…

DuVernay: A few people.

Tavis: And they’re A-list actors. So you were a big-time publicist, all right? Anyway, that was your life before you got into what you do so wonderfully well now. What is the takeaway for you from what you had to deal with around this controversy?

DuVernay: Hmm, interesting.

Tavis: What’s the takeaway? Because you’re going to be directing many more pictures in the years to come. What’s the takeaway as a director now, the person in charge of the project?

DuVernay: You know what? I think that’s an interesting question that I haven’t been asked. I was trying to just be a director. I’m not going to get into this publicity-wise. I’m not going to think about the strategies around, how to answer this.

I’m going to be like every other director and just sit back. You know, I acquired these skills for a reason, skill set for a reason. These are gifts that I’ve been given through experience and through doing it for a lot of other people.

You know, I should make sure that I don’t kind of try to categorize what I do. All of what I am should be brought to the films, so I wish that I would have spoken out sooner because I think not doing that let this get into a big friggin’ circus.

Everyone has a right to their opinion, but at the point when you’re just saying things that are just off-sides, like the film should be ruled out. No one should see it or hear the voices that have put it out, the point that you’re just getting into, you know, kind of manipulative rhetoric, and I allowed it to happen for too long.

So my lesson is it’s okay for me to still have a publicity mind as I try to sort of shepherd these films out into the world, and I won’t make that mistake again.

Tavis: Good. Now let me completely flip it ’cause the good news is that you still had a wonderful opening weekend. I saw the rollout initially in L.A. and New York, and I want you to know that I went to see this twice, paid for it. Y’all sent me a screener, but I still…

DuVernay: Paid for it!

Tavis: I paid for it, not once. You heard me say twice I paid for it, and took folk with me ’cause I wanted to make sure that my money got in there.

DuVernay: Thank you.

Tavis: But I say that only because I saw the slow rollout in New York and L.A. before the end of the year, goes wide in early January. And this is Inside Baseball talk, this is Inside Hollywood talk. That per-screen average was massive. I mean, it had a significant–people went to see this thing over the weekend. You had to be pleased with…

DuVernay: On Christmas?

Tavis: Yeah. I mean, even in January, the per-screen average was big. You had to be pleased with that.

DuVernay: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, look. It’s a film about Martin Luther King, Jr., probably not the first thing you’re trying to go see on a Friday night. You’re with your girl, you’re trying to go–you know, you just got off work, you got a little money in your pocket. Should we go see that civil rights movie or should we go see Liam Neeson like shoot some people?

So the bottom line is [laugh], you know, it’s not escapist entertainment. It’s a full adults drama. It’s historical in nature, it speaks to, you know, contemporary issues that we’re all grappling with, it’s not escapist. I think it’s enjoyable, I think it’s entertaining, it’s emotional.

People have, you know, come out of the film feeling transported into the time. But certainly, it’s not the easy choice. So in light of that, those kinds of films do certain numbers and we’re right in line with those numbers. So that was a good thing.

Tavis: Let me ask you–I admit the question might be impolitic and it might even be impossible, but I want to ask anyway ’cause you hit on something for me. I’ve been in these conversations with friends of mine or people I know or don’t know for the last few days since the movie came out.

And that is whether or not it’s worth it. Whether or not it’s worth it for you and all the other folk who put the energy and effort to fight to get this done if Black people in particular aren’t interested in seeing something that isn’t escapist.

Put another way, if for whatever reasons–I don’t know. I said to myself the other day, I’m gonna have to do a conversation with somebody one day about why it appears to me that Black people in particular–this is not a movie for Black only. I want to be clear. This is an American story here.

But I wonder why Black people particularly just love comedies and can’t seem to find our way into stories even when they’re stories that herald our contribution, particularly when we always say, “They don’t show us in our full light. They don’t show the complexity of our character”, and you put something out like this and it does well, but it ain’t ride-along money.

As you made the joke, it ain’t taking three. I’ve seen that three times now, twice. It ain’t taking three money, but I wonder if you have thoughts about whether or not it’s worth all the energy and effort to do that, number one, and whether or not you have thoughts about why it is that maybe we just lived this and we don’t want to see this again. I don’t know.

DuVernay: Well, you know the answer, of course, it’s worth it. And, you know, this film about Selma is over-indexing with African Americans. “The Butler” over-indexed with African Americans. So I think, you know, the bottom line is people regard movies as escapism, as a means of entertainment and escape.

So across the board for historical dramas, “Lincoln” is not making as much as–okay, well, “Lincoln” is Spielberg, so that might be, you know [laugh]. But “The Hurt Locker” is not making as much as, you know, as, as…

Tavis: “Star Wars”.

DuVernay: Exactly.

Tavis: Yeah, I got you, yeah.

DuVernay: So that’s not just a Black issue. That’s just, you know, what do you want to do on a Friday night? Some people don’t want to think. Some people just want to relax and they deserve to do that. So, you know, that applies to us.

But in terms of, you know, “The Butler”, of “Fruitvale Station”, of our film “Selma”, they over-index with African Americans. I think, you know, we have many thoughtful people who have gone to see the film and people have been surprised that they liked it.

But, yeah, you do hear that refrain, oh, I don’t wanna be sad. Why do they always have to–I was talking to somebody saying why do they always have to, you know, show us the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King?

I was like, brother, ain’t been no movie ever, major motion picture released in theaters, with Martin Luther King at the center. So what film would you be speaking of? You know what I mean?

I means, it’s just this, I don’t know. I don’t know where that comes from. But I think this film is different. I mean, I’ve said before as we’ve been taking this film out, I really don’t like historical dramas.

I’m one of those people who I’m just like, you know what? These are not my favorite things ’cause there’s this patina of respectability on it. There’s this distance. It’s like everyone’s a hero, that’s untouchable. They don’t feel like real people. They’re cardboard cut-outs. They’re not living and breathing.

So our goal with this was just to get underneath it, give it a little sizzle, give it a little texture, make them feel like real human beings who did great things, which is what they were. They weren’t Avatars walking around. They were real brothers and sisters from the south who just, you know, risked.

So I think, with that, I hope that people that might feel allergic to those kinds of films may find something more than they think they will do.

Tavis: I’m fascinated, Ava, by your explanation now because it sounds to me like you could have talked yourself out of doing it, given what you’ve just laid out now about your aversion to historical dramas. And I happen to know, as others do, the backstory of getting this project done. You were not the first director assigned to it…

DuVernay: Or the second, third, fourth or fifth.

Tavis: Precisely. And the question was, can a sister who’s only spent 10 cents on her last two movies…

DuVernay: Right. Why are we giving her $20 million…

Tavis: Right. Give her $20 million…

DuVernay: Indeed.

Tavis: Exactly. So you could have talked yourself out of this. And for all the reasons you’ve just laid out, you did it anyway. So why?

DuVernay: It’s King.

Tavis: Yeah.

DuVernay: It’s King, you know. I mean, it was irresistible. I mean, I sat on this couch, I believe, the last time I was here, I was talking about my activist stance around contemporary images of Black people in film and why do always have to be seen in hindsight and why do we always have to be in comedies? And then I go and make a civil rights, historical documentary [laugh].

But you know what? It was King, you know. An African American Studies major from UCLA, movement history, real movement history, not the top key facts and the I Have A Dream and the Mountaintop speech and then he died and he believed in peace version, but the real down and dirty radical version of what went on there is fascinating, and that I hadn’t seen and that I thought I had a take on it and I gave it a try.

Tavis: So the most beautiful part of this whole story so far–and I’ll come back to the film in particular in just a second. When I saw this story circulating on the internet about these folk who just decided to start buying tickets for kids to see this movie for free…

DuVernay: Black folk?

Tavis: Black folk who put money up across the country.

DuVernay: For kids of all colors. It started with one man who had seen the film, rich brother. He started calling his friends and, within three days, they had created a fund for New York City’s seventh, eighth and nine graders of all colors, these Black business leaders, of all colors put their money together to provide 27,000 tickets for kids in New York.

All you had to do is walk up to a participating theater–and there are like 19 participating theaters–with your report card or your ID. And the kid, if you’re in seventh, eighth or ninth grade, could see the film for free.

Just this morning, Paramount announced–this is unprecedented. This has never happened. Paramount announced Black leaders in eight other cities, Philly, San Francisco, Boston, Nashville, did it again. Separate leaders created a fund so that kids in their town can see this film for free.

That’s how much people who are in the leading sectors of business who are African American have a deep understanding of the impact of the story, the impact of seeing what this history really means, the impact of knowing that we’re in a continuum, that what’s happening now with unrest and progressive action ain’t new, that it’s important for people to know where it comes from.

It’s astounding, it’s been completely smothered by this other fabricated controversy, and this thing is a jaw-dropping, beautiful, one of the many initiatives that have popped up around this film.

So for me, box office, yes. We have to talk about it, you know. Faux controversies, we have to talk about it. That’s no disrespect to the people who disagree. I just don’t appreciate the rhetoric around the disagreement.

It was heightened and ratcheted up to a place that was just disrespectful for the people whose story this is. But the bottom line is, there’s all these other beautiful things blossoming around the film. In a year from now, we’re not going to be thinking about anything but the film.

Film is forever. This is a film geek talking. We’re still watching films that were made 100 years ago. If I asked you or an Oscar watcher right now, who won Best Supporting Actor three years ago? You cannot tell me. If I ask you to list all of the awards that “Dead Poets Society” won, you can’t tell me.

But these are the films. The films live on, right? So that’s what I’ve come to really realize and embrace and I’m glad that the film has gone through this because it’s been a great learning lesson for me is to let that stuff fall away and focus on the work.

Tavis: So you’re right. If you ask me who won Best Supporting Actor three years ago…

DuVernay: Can you do it?

Tavis: I couldn’t tell you.

DuVernay: Two years ago?

Tavis: No, I couldn’t tell you.

DuVernay: Last year?

Tavis: Couldn’t tell you last year.

DuVernay: Come on!

Tavis: But I could tell you the first Black woman ever nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Director.

DuVernay: [Laugh] That was a setup. That was a setup!

Tavis: You like that? Did you like that? You like how I did that? How I just kind of weaved that in there?

DuVernay: That was a setup, okay.

Tavis: So I raise that to ask how–this movie’s about the south, of course, or a moment in the south that brought voting rights to all of us. As they say in the south, this is high cotton, Ava. This is high cotton [laugh]. How are you navigating this whole award season and all of the–I mean, how you handling it?

DuVernay: High cotton. All good. It’s fine. No, I think that is the great thing about the publicity background is when I’m on a red carpet, I’m not feeling myself. You know what I mean?

I’m not thinking. I’m actually looking at all of my friends, other publicists rushing around trying to see. Wow, they got a lot of crews here. Oh, they got that crew in. Oh, great, they sent a satellite truck. Like I’m just in that mode.

Tavis: But you do look good on red carpet, though.

DuVernay: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. I try my best. But, yeah, so I don’t take those things into my heart like a lot of my clients in the past do. I’ve seen people wrecked over this stuff, I mean, wrecked.

You know, we were at the Golden Globes and we were nominated for four things and we won one thing and everyone’s like, “So sorry.” What are you talking about? We are in here! We are here! We are happy. So, you know, it’s fun. That’s all it is is fun.

Tavis: Yeah. I saw Common and John Legend, both guests on this program, you know, take to the stage. It’s a beautiful song, glorious. It’s a beautiful song.

DuVernay: Prince gave them the song.

Tavis: Yeah, Prince just rolled out…

DuVernay: It was the actual…

Tavis: I saw that.

DuVernay: The actual man who we call Prince.

Tavis: This is Prince who rolled out, that gave–yeah, I saw that [laugh]. So I only raise that to ask how fortunate, and given my own underpinnings, I’ll go a step further and say blessed–how blessed do you feel to have been surrounded by the cast that you were–I mean, the cast is just pretty remarkable.

DuVernay: Just when you said that, I felt if I really thought about it too much, I’d weep. These people are so special. The community that’s been created around this, I mean, we really love each other. We all talk, the visit with one another, they support one another, they brunch together, they travel to see one another.

I mean, the experience of, you know, Colman Domingo and Omar Dorsey and Andre Holland and Niecy Nash and John Lavelle and David and Common and our crew, Bradford Young, our beautiful Black cinematographer, and Spencer Averick…

Tavis: He is amazing.

DuVernay: Amazing.

Tavis: I’ve never seen anybody make Black folk look so good.

DuVernay: He’s the one.

Tavis: Hey, can you come over and help me out [laugh]? Just on a consulting basis. Can you make me look a little better in this HD? I mean, he did an amazing–I mean, everybody looked amazing, yeah.

DuVernay: He’s amazing. Jason Moran and Ruth Carter and Mark Friedberg. I mean, just a beautiful collaboration, Mark, Paul Garnes, a great group of people who’ve come together around this subject matter and we’ve stayed together.

And I think that kind of energy, that kind of emotional connection imbeds itself in the image in some way. That’s why it’s so important for me when I’m directing to create an atmosphere of just comfort and love and respect.

You know, I used to be crew. I used to be a publicist. I used to stand on these sets and be ignored. People walked past and, when they have to talk to you, they’re grouchy ’cause they don’t want to stop and people griping at each other. I just always said I don’t want anyone to feel that way on my sets.

So we worked very hard to create an atmosphere where everyone–the way that David is treated is the same way that the grip is treated. You know what I mean? The gaffer’s treated is the same way that Oprah Winfrey is treated. Well, maybe Oprah Winfrey gets a little…

Tavis: A little more love, yeah [laugh].

DuVernay: Just a little. But, you know, like I said, I think it imbeds itself in the image and I think you can watch a film–I know that I can watch a film and tell when they were having a good time, tell when there was a good spirit on it.

Tavis: I’m listening to you talk about Oprah and everybody else and all the other things that went into making this. How did you not feel intimidated? I know you said earlier it was King, and I get that. I mean, I’ve written a book. I love him, so I get that. But how did you not feel intimidated by all of this?

DuVernay: I just stripped away the King part [laugh].

Tavis: That’s a lot to strip away.

DuVernay: Yeah, well, my father…

Tavis: You strip Oprah away, you strip King away, you strip…

DuVernay: You got to. It’s a coping mechanism. But essentially when you’re making a film, you’re making a film about people and characters and they have to be relatable and they have to have connection to audience.

So, yes, it is King. And, yes, we had to–you know, I constructed the story a way that was about movement history and the top points of it that I felt went deeper than the usual top points, just what I regard, you know, as my take on liberation theories, what that is. So making sure that that was in there, a very base kind of foundational.

Does it do everything? Is it bottom up theory? Is it top down theory? The debates on how long Diane Nash is onscreen. Look, she’s onscreen. She wasn’t there before we got there. So all of that, just making sure it was in there. But ultimately, once I did that, I had to move it aside and just focus on characters.

Also, my father’s from Lowndes County, Alabama. The film is called “Selma”, so I wasn’t a filmmaker coming in that had to learn what that place was like. I know what the deep south is like, so I was able to just let that be my entry point. I felt very in-pocket making the film. I felt ready to make it.

Tavis: I was talking to somebody recently and I was making a joke with them, talking to a Brit. I was making a joke about all the Black Brits who’ve taken all the good jobs [laugh].

DuVernay: Yeah…

Tavis: They took the jobs in “12 Years A Slave”, they’re in “Selma”, they’re in everything. But I must say, this brother David did an admirable job as MLK.

DuVernay: Yeah, he did. I mean, when you think about portraying King…

Tavis: That’s heady stuff. High cotton, see? You’re back to the high cotton.

DuVernay: High cotton stuff. I’ve no idea how to use that in context. But, yes, I mean, that’s intimidating, it’s huge, it’s the lore and legacy of King, the cadence, the voice, the mannerisms. All that stuff is very challenging to tackle.

I mean, he’s the first Black man to play a king on the Royal Shakespeare Company stage. I mean, he’s an accomplished brother, but this was, you know, tough to dive into and he did it and did it well.

Tavis: Yeah. So I asked you earlier in this conversation–my time is about up. I asked you earlier what your takeaway was from this film. So before you did this, you didn’t want to do historical drama. Now you have. So like what direction, having done this, does this push you?

DuVernay: The future.

Tavis: Well, I know that [laugh].

DuVernay: I’m gonna do space. I’m gonna do space.

Tavis: Oh, you meant the real future like…

DuVernay: Space, the real future.

Tavis: Oh, I got you.

DuVernay: Space.

Tavis: You’re going to space.

DuVernay: I’ve done present, I’ve done past…

Tavis: Are there Black folk in space?

DuVernay: I want to explore.

Tavis: Are we in the future?

DuVernay: This is the question [laugh]. We must find out.

Tavis: Yeah, are we? We had Uhura. She was in–you know, there was one of us way back when.

DuVernay: Yes, many decades ago. But, yeah, no, I’m not sure. It’s a beautiful time just to be in this space where I can actually have some flexibility and some options, which is, you know, not often afforded to us. So I’m just living in the moment.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you’re in the moment. That’s the best place to be. Only place you can be, quite frankly.

DuVernay: That’s true.

Tavis: So I don’t need to tell you this. “Selma” is in theaters everywhere now. And as this award season continues, you’re gonna want to see everything before we get to the big night. So I highly recommend it.

It’s wonderfully done and I close where I began this conversation by just saying to Ava congratulations ’cause what it takes to get these stories told, it’s yeoman’s work and I consider it righteous work to get the story told. So I bow to you and congratulate you on a job well done.

DuVernay: Thank you.

Tavis: I’m always happy to have you back on this program.

DuVernay: Thank you, brother. Appreciate it.

Tavis: Ava DuVernay, the director of the movie, “Selma”. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: January 23, 2015 at 5:15 pm