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Having Our Say with Ava DuVernay

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This past Wednesday, the Pan African Studies department at Cal State L.A. held its annual community dinner/forum that boasted more than a bit of star power in its keynote speaker, "Selma" director and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. It was certainly the impending appearance of DuVernay that accounted for the packed parking lot near Luckman Theatre, where she was scheduled to appear after the main event in the student union. In the end, DuVernay, though a great and lively complement to the event, was not its center. A graduate in African-American studies herself (across town at UCLA), she came off not as a newly minted celebrity but as a modern expression of a larger, longer tradition of black struggle for self-determination in the arts that's still very much in process. DuVernay was quick to acknowledge that. She quickly dismissed the notion perpetuated by some in the media that she is a racial pioneer, going in cinema where black women have never gone before. "It's like the media never heard of Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Euzhan Palcy, even Maya Angelou," she said to enthusiastic applause. "I call that the phenomena of 'false firsts.'"

Still, the ground that DuVernay has broken is considerable. In seven years she's gone from cobbling together a documentary about The Good Life, a tiny, now-defunct health-food spot on Crenshaw Boulevard that fostered an amazing hip-hop scene, to directing a major film that nabbed several Academy Award nominations never nabbed before by a black woman. In between those projects she made "Middle of Nowhere," a Sundance Festival favorite that managed to make very personal the abstract crisis of mass incarceration of black folk -- from the point of view not of the prisoner, but of the woman that prisoner leaves behind in the real world.

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As the movie's title suggests, the main crisis is more existential than statistical. It examines a more subtle aspect of black reality rarely explored in movies at all, a gap that DuVernay is happy and eager to fill. She said she considers herself lucky to have gotten the chance to do "Selma" -- she was not the movie's first director -- and shared with the mostly student audience how appalled she was to read earlier versions of the film's script that focused on Martin Luther King's extramarital sex life. Though she said she had no interest in making him a saint, the fixation by male directors on King's peccadilloes felt wrong to her. Or at the very least, limited. For her part, DuVernay said she was far more interested in Coretta Scott King's reaction to her husband's affairs, and what those affairs meant to the marriage. In the movie, that spare but intimate scene between King and his wife was later noted by more than a few critics as powerful evidence of DuVernay's unique -- and much-needed -- impulse to plumb the emotional depth of black characters, even iconic ones. Especially iconic ones.

Throughout her remarks, which were half of an onstage conversation with Pan African Studies Professor Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbar, DuVernay cheerily downplayed her own significance; with her long braids, infectious energy and dry wit -- she has great comic timing -- she often seemed like one of the students. They cheered raucously at her triumphant announcement that she had "blown up Twitter" that day in a social media campaign to promote AFFIRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), a black arts collective DuVernay founded to help distribute black movies (distribution being historically one of the chief roadblocks for black and other marginalized filmmakers). There were too many audience questions to fit the time frame, though one stood out: A little girl barely tall enough to reach the mic deadpanned, "Why did you make 'Selma?'" The audience was amused, but DuVernay clearly considered the question, perhaps in a way she hadn't considered it before. Considering familiar things from different angles, after all, is what she does. She answered the girl -- and the rest of us -- that the story of the voting rights struggle in Selma was something she wanted to tell because although it has been documented exhaustively it had not been told fully before, not with her particular lens. Her parting advice to would-be artists was to be driven by their ideas and determination to tell a story, rather than feel inhibited by a lack of experience or expertise. Break that tradition of deficit thinking and follow your imagination. Even when you can't see end of a project -- and you often can't -- DuVernay says it's necessary to "just start." She did.

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