'Selma' and the woman who should have made history: Ava DuVernay | EW.com
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Movies | Oscars 2016

'Selma' and the woman who should have made history: Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay

(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Ava DuVernay knew last month she wasn’t going to be nominated for an Oscar.

She knew it before the controversy began over how President Lyndon B. Johnson is depicted in her movie, Selma, and before screening copies failed to reach Academy members until late in December, hobbling the film’s awards hopes. She knew it before the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, and Producers Guild awards all declined to nominate the movie in any category. Despite widespread critical praise for her film, DuVernay predicted that she would not be the first black woman to land a directing nod.

“It would be lovely,” she told EW over lunch in L.A. on Dec. 18. “When it happens to whomever it happens to, it will certainly have meaning.” But it would not be her. “This is not me being humble, either,” she said. “It’s math.”

While all 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote on who wins an Oscar, the nominations are determined only by Academy members in the appropriate profession. Actors nominate actors. Directors nominate directors. The directors’ branch of the Academy is, quite literally, a boys’ club. According to a 2012 study by the Los Angeles Times, the directors’ branch is 91 percent male, and 90 percent white. That alone wouldn’t prevent a DuVernay nomination, of course, but her lack of personal and professional connections with those directors would, she thought. “I know not one person in my branch,” she said.

Minutes after the Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 15, news sites and comment boards exploded with anger and accusations of racism. Selma had secured just two nominations—Best Picture and Best Original Song. DuVernay had been shut out, as had her star, David Oyelowo, who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the film—an oversight that gives this year’s Oscars the dubious distinction of having the first all-white group of acting nominees since 1998.

“Oh, my, did we miss it this year,” says actress Alfre Woodard, a longtime Academy member, and a vocal supporter of the film. “But people can vote for whatever they want, and half of the things I voted for weren’t recognized. I’m used to that,” she says with a laugh. “I live in America—and I’m a woman of color.”

But the real reasons behind the Selma snubs are more complex than race alone. They speak to the entrenched nature of Hollywood politics, the intricacies of Oscar campaign strategies, and the simple power of perception to define a filmmaker’s place in history.

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Image Credit: Atsushi Nishijima

DuVernay, a 42-year old Los Angeles native, began her career as a publicist, working on films such as Spy Kids and Dreamgirls before making the almost-unprecedented segue into directing. Her 2012 film, Middle of Nowhere, about a woman who puts her life on hold while her husband is in prison, won the Best Director prize at the Sundance Film Festival. But over the years she had concluded that female and minority filmmakers were often held to a higher standard. Directors as varied as Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), and Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) each had successful early films, only to see their careers stall. Unlike male directors, they seldom got second and third chances.

As production on Selma, her 1960s civil rights drama, began in Atlanta last year, DuVernay was determined to keep a promise to herself. “It was important to me that my voice, my vision, stayed intact,” she says. “Because if this movie failed, then it did so based on what I truly liked rather than on some compromise someone got me to make. I would have never forgiven myself because I knew there was not going to be another chance.”

So she fought for what was hers, and it worked. What we see on screen in Selma is entirely her vision. “So much of it is real,” says Congressman John Lewis, who marched with Dr. King. “The first time I went to see it, I cried to be reminded of what happened on Bloody Sunday.”

That refusal to yield created one of the best films of the year, but on the Oscar-campaign trail it would prove to be a double-edged sword.

In Selma, President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) is reluctant to make the Voting Rights Act, which protected voting rights for minorities, a top priority. That interpretation came under fire from LBJ historians, who asserted that the president had been eager to lead on the issue. Many biopic Oscar contenders come up against charges like this. “We saw it with Lincoln and we are seeing it with Selma,” says Lewis. “People took some liberties, but it’s art.”

Usually, a careful statement from the filmmaker can mitigate the damage. But DuVernay fought back. Citing a New Yorker story, which reported that Johnson asked King to wait on civil rights, she tweeted, “Notion that Selma was LBJ’s idea is jaw dropping and offensive to [civil rights groups] and black citizens who made it so.”

It’s impossible to know what thousands of Academy members are each thinking when they ink their ballots, but through interviews with voters, most of whom spoke to EW on condition of anonymity, it seems this response came off as strident and defensive. “[The filmmakers] misrepresented history with the way LBJ was presented,” says a member of the actors’ branch. “They had an obligation to present it correctly and they didn’t.”

Underneath that assessment is a Gordian knot of a question: Would Academy voters have felt the same way if the filmmaker had been, say, Steven Spielberg? Or if the film were about a reluctant Franklin D. Roosevelt being dragged into WWII by Winston Churchill?

Race continues to be a thorny issue for the Academy. “We are committed to do our part to ensure diversity in the industry,” Cheryl Boone-Isaacs, the Academy’s current and first black president told the New York Times. “We are making great strides, and I personally wish it was moving quicker, but I think the commitment is there and we will continue to make progress.” As of 2012, according to the Los Angeles Times, voters were 94 percent white, and 77 percent male. Still, in the last 15 years that membership has awarded more nonwhite actors and films about people of color (e.g., Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave) than in previous 60 years combined. When it comes to racial issues, they like to think they’re the good guys. Confronting them on that topic can backfire. “The Academy loves to be liberal,” says one member. “But they like to be nice and comfortably liberal.”

Just as when Zero Dark Thirty smashed into real-world events that snuffed out its Oscar hopes, Selma marched into theaters just as the country was swirling in racial tension. In November, after Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., DuVernay joined other black filmmakers in protest, asking her 58,000 Twitter followers to boycott all retail stores on the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday. And last month in New York, after a grand jury declined to charge the officer who had caused the death of Eric Garner using a chokehold, she and her cast gathered on the front steps of the New York Public Library, without the knowledge of studio publicists, dressed in “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts.

Journalists consistently—and accurately—drew a line between the film and current events. Oddly, this seemed to rankle some Academy voters, as if DuVernay, the media, and the film’s campaign were all saying: If you don’t vote for Selma, you’re not taking a stand against this outrage. “It’s almost like because she is African-American, we should have made her one of the nominees,” says one member. “I think that’s racist. Look at what we did last year with 12 Years.”

It’s also possible, it must be said, that DuVernay was overlooked for a far less interesting reason, one that has nothing to do with race or gender or politics: Maybe the Academy just didn’t think she was one of the five best directors of 2014. If true, she’d be in great company: David Fincher (Gone Girl), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) didn’t make the cut this year either. “Think about all the brilliant directors who have never gotten an Oscar or been nominated,” Woodard says. “We just need to all stay real about it and keep watching this woman.”

DuVernay’s ambition now is to take the momentum from Selma and build a sustained career. She’s just not quite sure how. “I’ve never been in this place before,” she told EW in December. “There is no precedent for it and there is no black woman I can call and ask.” So she has relied on the closest person to her situation: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), the sole woman to win an Oscar for directing, who advised her, after moderating a Selma screening Q&A with DuVernay, to stay focused and keep following her own path. “I’m trying to be clear and follow my own footsteps because there is no black woman’s footsteps to follow,” she says.

With luck, she’ll lay them down for the women behind her.

For more on the Oscar race—plus our expert Grammy Award predictions—pick up this week’s issue of EW, on stands Friday.