As someone who writes about culture, I’m subject to an often-overwhelming barrage of press releases. So it’s rare that a notice actually gets me to read past the subject line, much less to jump up with enthusiasm. Such was the news from Participant Media today that the company will be working with Ava DuVernay to make her follow-up to her Oscar-nominated movie “Selma.” The movie will be “a sweeping love story and complex murder mystery during the time of Hurricane Katrina” that may star “Selma” lead David Oyelowo.
That DuVernay has her next project lined up, financed and almost ready to go so quickly is a delight–and something of a relief.
The fierce debate about the historical accuracy of DuVernay’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson in “Selma,” which was kicked off (or at least given a boost) in the pages of this paper didn’t seem to extend to other movies in contention this Oscar season. In particular, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” got a rather dramatic pass on the sort of scrutiny that led some to say that “Selma” should be disqualified from awards contention. And the historical accuracy debate foreclosed any discussion of the actual artistry of “Selma,” including DuVernay’s striking staging of violence and the occasionally-clunky dialogue in its scenes with movement leaders.
DuVernay may have suspected that she would not receive a nomination for Best Director for “Selma,” even before the furor began. But from the outside, it was hard not to be concerned that the controversy would damage not just whatever chances “Selma” had to compete for major awards, but DuVernay’s burgeoning career. It would have been an awfully compromised victory if DuVernay continued to make movies but was saddled with the requirements that she maintain a documentary-like level of accuracy in fictional films and that she show exceptional deference to the historical memory of white men.
Manohla Dargis spoke to my hopes rather than my fears earlier this month when she insisted that: “Ms. DuVernay is one of the few female directors to make the leap into the major studio world,” . “While it’s disappointing that she wasn’t nominated, she made a great movie and is going to keep directing without the permission of the mainstream old guard.”
“Going to keep directing” is half the equation. “Without the permission of the mainstream old guard” is just as important though. It might have been a mixed victory to see DuVernay follow up “Selma” with a project that required her to conform to a franchise’s house style or to the vetoes that can accompany a giant budget.
“I have grown leery of the notion that the logical ‘next step’ for talented filmmakers who show off their abilities is to jump aboard a mega-budget franchise property,” Scott Mendelson wrote of DuVernay’s new project and the calls for her to direct a Marvel or DC blockbuster. “The constant cries that ‘Actor A should be in a Marvel movie!’ or ‘This director would be great for that franchise sequel!’ has created a situation where the would-be end game for talented directors isn’t so much getting the capital and financial backing to make their own personal commercial projects but rather getting sucked into the world of tent pole franchise filmmaking in the hopes that the final product will bear some stamp of individuality. It would seem that you’re not really a big deal until you’re involved in a comic book superhero movie.”
Instead, DuVernay is writing, producing and directing her next project. In the press release announcing the movie, Jonathan King, Participant’s EVP who will be executive producing the project, emphasized the “social and environmental” aspects of Hurricane Katrina. These are very, very early days, but it sounds like this will be very much an Ava DuVernay movie. It would have been a real loss if criticism of “Selma” or a version of success that co-opted DuVernay for someone else’s purposes took opportunities to make such movies away from her, and denied us her voice.