No pun intended, the Selma director assured a packed audience at the SVA Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea, at the start of a freewheeling conversation with the Tribe Called Quest co-founder, rapper and actor. The event was a late addition to the Tribeca Film Fest’s series of interviews with filmmakers. The two of them covered some now-familiar ground, including the writer-director’s start in film publicity and directing her first feature film at age 38: “I started making my own films in my own space and in my own way.”
DuVernay spoke to the virtues of constant work, which she said she’d learned from Spike Lee. “Post-Selma, agents were like, ‘Take your time with your next choice’…but if you are living your dream, which I am, and the windows are open and the doors are wide open, why stop?” She added that in addition to the studio and indie routes for film making, television was now offering directors more opportunities than ever for long-form narrative storytelling.
“Great great filmmakers are making television and telling great stories,” she said. “Instead of a two-hour film, they’re making a 13-hour film. That’s how I’ve approached the series that I’m working on for OWN that I start shooting in the summer.” (She’s writing, directing and exec producing a drama based on Natalie Baszile’s novel “Queen Sugar” that will star Oprah Winfrey.) Working on episodic shows, as she’s also done with Shonda Rhimes, “you are working on someone else’s vision,” DurVernay said, “which is interesting. I’m walking onto their world and it’s their vision. Creating shows is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s like film super-sized.”
When Q-Tip asked about filming for movies and television, DuVernay paid tribute to her Selma DP Bradford Young. “He is a genius when it comes to the photographic image, particularly the cinematic image, particularly around how we capture our tonality and skin tone and all that,” she said. “That was a specific conversation we had ad nauseam, every day. We were playing with the idea of how black people would look in a dark room. When I go into my house at night, the light’s not on, what does that look like? So often, folks are afraid to put darker hues against darker backdrops because, you know, it’s just going to be teeth and eyes? That’s not necessarily the case — and sometimes it is the case, and that’s beautiful.
“This was the fourth project we’d worked on together so with Selma it was so deeply embedded in a love of our people, in the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the idea of black body, and deconstructing that. We were very rigorous with our use of close-up, with our use of profile, the use of just a bit of light on a profile.” She referenced a scene in the film in which David Oyelowo and Colman Domingo sitting in a dark jail cell, with “just a little peek of light.
“That was our first day of shooting,” she recalled — also meaning the first day of sending takes to studio execs, who instantly ordered up “extra dailies, colors to go in, had money set aside to reshoot, and me and Brad were like, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to look like.’ The image of two dark men sitting in a dark space was so startling and rare that they wanted the extra dailies and color just to see, ‘Is there information there? Like, If we want to turn it up, Can we?’
“The idea of translating that kind of photographic experimentation with how that really relates to the narrative,” DuVernay said, “at that point in jails, in the mid-sixties, in the Deep South, you know, wasn’t no pretty light coming down. It was dank. That’s what we were trying to do.”
Recalling recent events in which unarmed black men have been killed by police officers, Q-Tip wondered how much those incidents had affected her filming of Selma.
“It’s not new, it’s only now being captured and amplified for a national audience,” DuVernay responded. “As black people we know that this is an ongoing thing. So, bring that into every thought about how we’re going to construct Selma was definitely at the forefront But it wasn’t directly connected to any of these cases right now.”