Most movies choose their moments. Then there are those rare moments that seem to choose their movies.
The film “Selma,” about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the historic marches he led from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in 1965, has been eight years in the making, having been started, stopped, stalled and started again for any number of reasons. Finally, in 2013, at the instigation of the film’s star, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay was hired to direct a film that, once it hit the big screen, would be the first major motion picture to depict King and the civil rights movement he led.
DuVernay, 42, wrapped filming July 4. Just days later, Eric Garner died after being held in a chokehold by a New York City police officer; in August, Michael Brown was shot by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., touching off protests that swelled last month when a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson for shooting the unarmed 18-year-old. In early December, a grand jury in New York made a similar decision not to indict in the Garner case.
“Selma” has landed with uncanny timeliness within the swirl of these events, the protests regarding Brown and Garner — as well as Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by a police officer Nov. 22 — eerily resonating with the scenes in the film depicting the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and the violent suppression of activists as they gathered to march in order to secure voting rights.
On Thursday, “Selma” came to Washington, where its premiere at the Newseum was followed by a Q&A session with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who took part in the original demonstrations and has a small role in the movie. The day produced yet another cultural touchstone, the form of hacked movie studio e-mails that threw into sharp relief the uphill battle faced by films such as “Selma” in a white-dominated industry.
On Friday, DuVernay and Oyelowo reflected on what the actor called the “divine timing” of the arrival of “Selma.” As part of a generation of independent filmmakers determined to make movies with or without studio permission, DuVernay and Oyelowo often sounded like political strategists themselves, discussing the obstacles, struggles and perceptions they face as artists mirroring the wider social debate that has been sparked over the past several months.
“Last night was really interesting,” Oyelowo, 38, said of the Newseum event. “The thing that I walked away with is, what is the answer today? What is the question today? What is the ask today?”
Noting the spontaneous demonstrations that have erupted throughout the country since the Ferguson decision, DuVernay added: “I just feel like we have to have at least — if it’s not one group leading it or one person leading it — at least one ask. I don’t even like ‘ask.’ One demand. One thing that we are all, in different ways, striving for. I feel like we’re close to it. I feel like it’s happening organically, which will be interesting. Can this sustain itself, can it be consistent without following one guy?”
In many ways, Oyelowo and DuVernay find themselves at a similar turning point as black artists. Last year marked something of a high point in cinematic depictions of people of color: Not only did the Steve McQueen-directed “12 Years a Slave” win the Oscar for best picture, but such films as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Baggage Claim” and “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain” created diversity across a range of genres, budgets and aesthetic languages.
This year, “Selma,” which opens on Christmas, will join films such as “Belle,” “Beyond the Lights,” “Dear White People,” “Top Five” and the documentaries “Through a Lens Darkly” and “Evolution of a Criminal” in what appears to be a similarly flourishing year for films by and about black people that, while firmly rooted in their makers’ perspectives, transcend racial pigeonholes.
Moments after Oyelowo worried that post-Ferguson energy would dissipate over the holidays, DuVernay expressed similar misgivings about the current “renaissance” in black film. “It’s all still so tentative, there’s not a cumulative effect yet,” she observed. “It’s always year by year, film by film.”
It’s understandable that DuVernay is sensitive to exceptionalism: In 2012, she became the first African American woman to win best director at the Sundance Film Festival, for the drama “Middle of Nowhere,” co-starring Oyelowo. On Thursday morning, just hours before arriving at the Newseum, she learned that she had become the first African American woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for best direction. (Oyelowo was also nominated for best actor in a drama, and “Selma” was nominated for best dramatic picture.)
Although DuVernay is part of a generation of directors that includes McQueen, Ryan Coogler, Dee Rees, Tanya Hamilton, Justin Simien and Amma Asante, she still exists in a system that traditionally allowed room for “the one” when it came to non-white, non-male filmmakers. “Every year I’m like, will there be another one next year?” DuVernay said. “I’m looking at what got into Sundance, and I’m like, ‘Ugh, there’s no “Fruitvale,” or “Dear White People” or that “Middle of Nowhere” or that “Pariah,” that one breakout thing — and what does that mean?’ . . . It’s positive, what’s happening, but you fear the fall-off.”
“We’re very aware that every Sundance announcement that doesn’t have something that continues the narrative is a danger point,” said Oyelowo, who stays in regular touch with such cohorts as Nate Parker, Chadwick Boseman and Michael P. Jordan. “I genuinely feel that I’m part of a generation of actors who are very aware of that, and we’re doing everything we can to keep a continuum going.
“It’s about linking arms and knowing that we cannot buy into this idea of ‘there can only be one,’ ” he continued. “Hollywood’s going to try to do that to Ava now, and isolate her. She’s now the priestess, the prophet, the poster child, and what happens when you’re isolated is that you can get picked off. What needs to work is that she is now [supported]. So that if for whatever reason she engages in an artistic endeavor that isn’t ‘Selma,’ it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the career.”
As if the cultural moment that “Selma” has been thrust into wasn’t vivid enough, the political realities for filmmakers of color came into even sharper focus Thursday. DuVernay began the day being nominated for a Golden Globe and ended it with the warmly received screening at the Newseum. Then, in her hotel room, she read hacked e-mails in which a Sony Pictures executive and an independent producer made racially disparaging jokes about President Obama’s movie tastes.
“It was a gift to me, I think,” DuVernay said reflectively. “Something about reading that on the day of these nominations, getting off the stage with John Lewis, the standing ovations, all these things that have been happening, to get back and say, Okay, this is what some folks really think. . . . [It] was empowering to me, got me really clear, got me really focused. So I’m grateful.”
Said Oyelowo: “I can’t speak to individuals at Sony, because at the end of the day their privacy was violated. But one thing that you might take away from it is that we’re not crazy. We’re not crazy when we go into these situations and feel like, ‘Why is this such a struggle?’ Why is it that we know that, with Ava having done what she has just done, undeniably, with ‘Selma,’ the same avalanche of opportunities are not going to come her way that would do if she was white and male? It’s just the way it is. And we now have systems in place whereby we’re not going to wait around, but that’s just a truism.”