First, a bit about Ms. Ava DuVernay...
When I read about DuVernay, all I can think is here is a woman who has Put In The Time. Raised just outside of Compton, she spent her summers in her father's childhood home of Selma. She worked as a journalist covering the O.J. Simpson trial; she started her own PR firm; and, just for fun, she launched the Urban Beauty Collective, a promotional network for more than 10,000 African-American beauty salons and barbershops across the U.S.
In 2005 she started making films. Inspired by personal events, her first narrative feature, I Will Follow, cost $50,000 and was made in 14 days (GOTTA LOVE THAT HUSTLE!), and Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films I've seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one."
I am compelled to point out that Selma was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song (for which it won) at the 87th Academy Awards, but not for Best Director or Best Actor (which was an insult to David Oyelowo's incredible performance as Dr. King).
In 2016, her documentary 13 was the surprise opener for the New York Film Festival, and quickly became a national sensation. She was finally (and rightfully) nominated for Best Documentary Feature, becoming the first black woman to be nominated by the academy as a director in a feature category.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb (although DuVernay made a number of uncredited rewrites to the script, for which she was criticized, accused of trying to "rewrite history" with her own agenda. Her response was: "I am not making a documentary. I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller".)
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Common, LaKeith Stanfield
IMDB Description: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
It would behoove my audience (all 3 of you, hi guys!) to know that I work as a freelance production designer. So before I delve into anything else, I MUST point out the EXCEPTIONAL beauty of this film. It's obviously all under DuVernay's artful eye, but the cinematography by Bradford Young and the production design by Mark Friedberg cannot go unmentioned. I am distantly reminded of Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, in the sense that every frame of this film is carefully curated with the color and composition of an Impressionist oil painting. She reclaims the art of symmetry (new phone Wes Anderson, who dis?) and it makes it something powerful and purposeful: there is beauty and order in this world, and it's worth fighting for.
My only complaint about the movie is that it was forced under the constraints of a PG-13 rating. I wanted to see the folks in Selma get to express the anger and righteous indignation that they did not have the privilege of safely expressing back then, and it felt at times like I visibly see them straining under the more polite and palatable restrictions that PG-13 requires.
Along those lines, there is ONE delicately constructed sentence that refers to Dr. King's philandering, and much of his marital strain is depicted only through heavy sighs and longing glances. It's not that I wanted a gritty and demeaning expose of his uglier side, but I would've liked to see more... vulnerability, I suppose? He never really lets his guard down (I am now convinced that Dr. King was an Enneagram 8, if that means anything to anybody). The closest we get is when he kneels down to pray on the bridge, then turns the party back around, shocking, disappointing, and confusing even his closest followers. He explains later - with a ferocity that's easy to mistake for anger - that he was afraid of them getting hurt again.
But maybe that was the point. Maybe intensity and resiliency were the only ways Dr. King knew how to express vulnerability. Maybe he never even let himself feel those things privately, because he was actively being harassed by the FBI and literally could not let his guard down even in his own home.
Speaking of the PG-13 rating, I must commend DuVernay for expertly walking the line of giving an honest depiction of violence without visually exploiting black bodies. She doesn't shy away from acknowledging the brutality of the violence that occurred, but there is no sensationalizing of it either. To be gratuitous would've done the victims a great disservice, because as an audience we would be compelled to desensitize ourselves to it. Again, I can't help but think of her frames like paintings. She brilliantly manages to capture such ugliness in such a beautiful way. The colors, the atmosphere, the music, the composition: they aren't distractions, they aren't lures; they are part of a larger metaphor. There is beauty and ugliness everywhere.
How else could we look at the opening scene? You know what's coming the moment you see those four beautiful children walking down the stairwell of the 16th Street Baptist Church, but you are compelled not to turn away because the moments leading up to it are, undeniably, beautifully shot. I am haunted by the image of a girl's foot, in her Sunday Best shoes, as she goes tumbling in the blast. We are never exposed to the carnage; we don't need to be. DuVernay shows just enough, and no more.
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Spencer Averick, Ava DuVernay
Starring: Angela Davis, Melina Abdullah, Michelle Alexander, Cory Booker
IMDB Description: An in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation's history of racial inequality.
Once again, I am in AWE of how visually stunning this film was. I am not an enormous documentary buff (although this film might change that), largely because I did not know how beautiful and compelling they could be. There is not production designer listed on IMDB, so I'll just have to thank the cinematographers (Kira Kelly & Hans Charles) for making a documentary compiled of mostly talking head interviews this striking, interesting and gorgeous.
It is simple enough: dress them well, light them beautifully, and set them against bricks, industrial buildings, and a tapestry of lines that visually evokes the aesthetics of the prison industry complex. But goddamn is it effective! I mean seriously, who is responsible for this? The Locations dept?? What gorgeous abandoned train station is Angela Davis even in?? Works of art!!
It would be a crime not to also mention the animation department (Ekin Akalin, Frank Lin, Dan Meehan) for interweaving song lyrics and statistics in a way that was both jarring and mesmerizing, all while juxtaposing them against historical photographs and video footage.
DuVernay didn't have to try very hard to make you feel something; she merely set out the facts as they are, and that is compelling all on its own. But once again, she chose to also make it beautiful and a true work of art.
“We haven’t ended racial caste, but simply redesigned it.” - Michelle Alexander
Special shout to Nancy Regan at the end there, looking high AF while preaching about the "Just Say No" campaign on national television as part of the "War on Crime" (a traditional American euphemism for "blacks.")
I am ultimately struck by how this film will make you Feel Some Shit, but at no point did I feel emotionally manipulated. I felt educated without feeling like an idiot for not already knowing (America has 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners!!!), and I felt the gravity of the situation without feeling so overwhelmed that I needed to shut it off. I wanted to keep watching, and I was hooked on every word.
I'd go so far as to say that even felt a sense of empowerment, for knowing exactly how it all works. It's cliche but it's true: knowledge is a kind of power. I hope they show this film in high schools across the country. I hope some kid in a rural Red State sees it in their sophomore history class and is so affected by it that they come home and make their ignorant Republican parents watch it. And then they tell their friends. And on and on...
If I had one complaint about the film, it was that despite giving an extremely clear call to action - slavery is alive and well, so what are you gonna do about it? - it did not do much in the way of offering any practical solutions. What can I do to help? Do I call a congressman? Do I protest somewhere? I am left feeling an overwhelming sense of despair (despite knowing my privilege as a white woman means that I exist with little to no fear of incarceration).
In spite of this - because of this - I strongly implore anyone who hasn't seen this film to put it at the top of your list. And if my endorsement can't convince you, maybe this clip will:
And the winner is...