Last night, The Wrap dangled an exclusive that Marvel Studios is eyeing “Selma” director Ava DuVernay to helm either “Captain Marvel” or “Black Panther.”
“Marvel has had discussions with DuVernay about taking the reins of one of its marquee comic book properties and while the studio is considering other directors, there is mutual interest in having her join the MCU,” Jeff Sneider reported.
“Black Panther,” which stars Chadwick Boseman, is slated for a July 2018 release and “Captain Marvel,” which would be Marvel’s first movie about a female superhero, comes out November 2018.
Here’s why this warrants an entire Freightliner’s worth of skepticism-filled side-eye.
It makes Marvel look good
This looks like a strategically timed leak, given the fact that the news emerged the same day the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission demanding an investigation into gender discrimination against female directors. The ACLU also sent letters to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.
Even if Marvel’s pursuit of DuVernay falls apart — and there are a bunch of reasons why it probably will (more on that later) — it makes Marvel look good at a time when it’s become the poster child for illustrations of gender bias.
There’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of available Black Widow merchandise versus that for the male Avengers, which prompted Mark Ruffalo to issue a public plea to Marvel to release more.
After the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” feminists on Twitter assailed writer/director and Marvel’s resident feminist Joss Whedon for perceived shortcomings in Black Widow’s characterization in the movie. Whedon ended up ditching Twitter, but he said it was so that he could concentrate on writing, not that he was driven away.
A female auteur has never directed a Marvel movie. Patty Jenkins was hired to direct “Thor: The Dark World.” She and Marvel didn’t see eye-to-eye, and Jenkins left and is now directing “Wonder Woman” at Warner Bros., where she replaced Michelle MacLaren.
But this is about more than just Marvel. It’s emblematic of a crisis within the industry that’s drawing more scrutiny, and which bubbled over with this ACLU letter and the response to it from the Directors Guild of America. DGA is blaming studios for the lack of working women directors.
An internal debate within the DGA
No one really seems to be taking responsibility for this problem even though everyone knows it exists.
Here’s the DGA’s response to the ACLU’s letter, via Deadline:
The lack of network and studio action to hire more women and minority directors is deplorable. The DGA has been a long-standing advocate pressuring the industry to do the right thing, which is to change their hiring practices and hire more women and minority directors.
The ACLU has made no effort to contact the DGA concerning the issues raised in its letters. The ACLU’s assertions reflect this lack of investigation as to the Guild, and ignore its efforts to combat discrimination against women directors and to promote the employment of women directors.
There are few issues to which the DGA is more committed than improving employment opportunities for women and minority directors, it is time for change.
The DGA, currently helmed by Paris Barclay, has an agreement with studios to operate in “good faith” to increase the ranks of women and minority directors. But “good faith” has no teeth and no mechanism of accountability or enforcement. The DGA’s diversity committee, which is charged with representing racial minorities (who are also woefully underrepresented), has been toying with the idea of proposing something similar to the NFL’s Rooney rule so that women and ethnic minority directors can at least get meetings. Right now, that’s not happening.
Writing for Women Directors in Hollywood last month, Maria Giese argued that the male-dominated DGA had an inherent conflict of interest when it came to advocating for diverse hiring. “The DGA must no longer stand as the primary entity enforcing lawful employment opportunity for its women members,” she wrote. “This union, run by its vast-majority male director membership, is in an intrinsic conflict-of-interest in advancing women. More jobs for women mean fewer jobs for men, so it’s no surprise that the Guild sharply opposes our every effort to receive our lawful equal employment opportunity rights.”
At Women and Hollywood, Melissa Silverstein echoed that sentiment in a piece advocating for women to be considered as a separate minority from ethnic minorities, who are now lumped into one classification in the DGA’s collective bargaining agreement. “The DGA has shown time and again that they are not too concerned about increasing opportunities for women,” Silverstein said. “They talk a good talk, but the action is not there. Yes, there are a bunch of women who are incredibly successful, but they are the outliers, not the majority.”
Giese’s and Silverstein’s pieces expose long-standing fault lines within the organization that mirror those of the early 20th century fight for suffrage. White men currently dominate the number of director positions while white women and men of color are fighting for opportunities, with women of color either erased, or caught somewhere in the middle.
So, with all this going on, tapping DuVernay to helm a highly visible project that’s bound to generate conversation, and possibly some good press for Marvel seems ideal, right? Except for one not-so-small detail.
Superhero movies are not Ava’s style
DuVernay would be an interesting choice for Marvel. To date, the biggest budget she’s ever worked with was for “Selma,” which cost $20 million to make — a pittance in comparison to the $200 million Marvel spent on “Iron Man.” Keep in mind, that’s before Robert Downey Jr. renegotiated his contract.
“I’m an independent filmmaker and our forte is people in rooms,” she told WHYY’s Terry Gross. Later she joked, “It’s a lot for me ’cause I usually make, like, films with $2 and a paperclip.”
Obviously, she’s demonstrated an ability to scale up, but DuVernay has a very specific wheelhouse — small, character-driven projects that shine a light into the interior lives of black women — and she still brought that sensibility with her to “Selma.” Here’s how she described her approach to filming scenes on the Edmund Pettus bridge to Gross:
I had no experience with working on bridges with 500 extras and green screen and firearms and horses, and it was a massive production on that bridge and every time we were staging a march. But I just approached it in the same way that I approach any scene. What is the story here? And if you go into an action scene focused on the tear gas and the horses and all of the bells and whistles of the scene, then you miss the heart of the scene because the horses aren’t the story and the tear gas is not the story. It’s the heart of the matter, the look on the marchers’ faces as the horses raced towards them – the horror, the terror, the thought on someone’s face that this is it. This is how it will end for me. That feeling is what I went into these scenes with every day, a quest to capture the heart of the moment. And that put me at ease because I know how to do that.
Try to imagine how that would be manifested in a superhero film, where so much of the emphasis is on grandiose fight scenes that are brought to life by Marvel’s preferred cadre of second units. The second units have remained static for the most part, which is why Marvel fight scenes carry an air of the familiar even as directors of the films change.
That’s not to say that DuVernay wouldn’t consider stretching and doing something else. (Look, when Marvel calls you take the meeting. You just do.) It’s that a giant, commercial superhero movie that’s completely antithetical to every piece of work she’s done so far seems … highly unlikely.
Currently, DuVernay is adapting “Queen Sugar,” Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, into a dramatic series for OWN, which she will also produce and direct. Production is scheduled to begin at the end of the summer in Louisiana.
There’s one other piece of this puzzle worth considering, however. In less than a year, Ava DuVernay as a symbolic entity has eclipsed Ava DuVernay the individual in some ways. As the first black female to be nominated for a best director Golden Globe and to win the best director prize at Sundance, she represents a great deal to a lot of people. It’s easy to project hopes and dreams onto her, even ones that are ill-fitting or far-fetched. One only need examine the overwhelming reaction of gleeful enthusiasm to the Barbie doll created in her image to see that.
As DuVernay gains clout in Hollywood, it means she’s been able to direct more attention to the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), the collective she founded in 2011 to support black independent filmmakers seeking distribution. AFFRM recently kicked off a new membership campaign and fundraising efforts this month, which DuVernay has been vigorously promoting.
What if she were able to leverage involvement in a Marvel production to further the goals of AFFRM, and its distribution arm, Array Releasing? The audiences and goals are different enough that it could hardly be considered a conflict of interest for Marvel.
Sounds like she has a lot to think about.