Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of Ava DuVernay.
Ava DuVernay does not possess a romantic view of filmmaking or the film industry. The former publicist admits to never having considered filmmaking as a career growing up and did not make her first short film “until” her early 30s. In the ten years since, she’s helmed a bevy of projects including impressive and underrated dramatic indie features like Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow, documentaries on subjects ranging from hip-hop to Venus Williams, numerous shorts, and even an episode of Scandal. And as the director of the magnificent Selma, she’s reached a level of recognition that’s rarely permitted to women filmmakers of color, even despite the Academy’s embarrassing Best Director snub.
Selma has created a platform of renewed attention toward DuVernay’s earlier narrative features, recently made available on disc and streaming. These films together paint the picture of a confident, incisive, and elegant filmmaking style never satisfied to reside in any prescribed box that so often relegates the work of African American filmmakers.
Listening to and reading DuVernay speak in interviews, it’s clear that filmmaking was never an inevitable path. Thus, none of her films are a missed opportunity. She works from deep understanding and insight as to what films have done with her subjects of interest before, and thereby pursues complex, underrepresented perspectives and stories as a result, from the wife of a convict to the on-the-ground strategies of a Civil Rights leader.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from FSR’s filmmaker of the year.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Ava DuVernay
1. Build New Ways of Doing Things
Michael T. Martin: “You’re… an African American woman, in an industry dominated by men ‐ primarily white men. How do you navigate this terrain?”
Ava DuVernay: “There was a time when I was knocking on doors and concerned with being recognized in dominant culture. I’ve found a space where the terrain is different, where I’m embraced by people like me, and where I’m building new ways of doing things, as opposed to trying to insert myself in a place that might not be welcoming. So, I’m concerned with my own house. If people want to visit from other houses, that’s great. It was something about turning my back on those desires and concentrating on what was in front of me and what was really beautiful, and organic within my own community and culture that started to ignite interest from the outside in.”
DuVernay’s full interview with Black Camera is available for free via JSTOR.
2. Understand What Film Does to Visibility and Representation
Representation is important. But it’s easy to think of the importance of representation in terms of abstract notions of combating stereotype and one-dimensionality. Yet representation continues to have a powerful, direct effect on perceptions of difference. You cannot assume what your audience has or hasn’t seen, or does or doesn’t know. DuVernay shows acute awareness of this even as she is constantly surprised by it, as occurred with a screening of Selma in which an audience member admitted to her no prior knowledge of what “MLK” meant beyond store sales.
3. Use Film Violence as a Mode of Identification
“Each time we show violence in [Selma], there’s at least one setup, one shot that we slow down by tripling the frames. We slow it down to make you watch it ‐ it’s like the peak moment of the violence. You have to really be with the person who’s been assaulted.”
Received wisdom dictates that stylizing violence makes a spectacle of violence ‐ that gritty, real-time depictions are stylistically “honest” and “responsible” depictions of violence. But any filmic depiction of violence involves a stylistic choice, a mode of representing action that can have a variety of different affects. For Selma, DuVernay used violence as a mode for identification, an opportunity for the audience to reckon with the images onscreen, and a way to make visceral and immediate the not-so-distant histories that such images depict.
4. Use Actors (Not Necessarily “Names”) Decisively
In her recent interview with The Atlantic (linked below), DuVernay talks about how under-utilized black actors are in filmmaking, and how hungry such performers are for good roles.
While her films, then, offer a platform for multi-dimensional characters embodied by black performers, DuVernay also understands the unique opportunity this affords in terms of allowing audiences to intimately know a character as a character rather than through their star image or celebrity. It’s not simply about finding the right performer for the role ‐ consider how audiences might perceive the figure onscreen, and how prior or off-screen knowledge of a performer shapes one’s view of a film. Emayatzy Corinealdi’s and Lourraine Toussaint’s performances in Middle of Nowhere attest to this, as does Salli Richardson-Whitfield’s leading turn in I Will Follow. And don’t only marvel at David Oyelowo’s performance in Selma; observe what DuVernay accomplished with her ensemble.
5. Avoid Easy, Received Notions of History
“I don’t even really see sit-ins and marches as passive. I see them as quite assertive. I see those as emotionally aggressive tactics. I see people putting their lives on the line and being bold and brave. The way we think of the term ‘nonviolence’ as very passive ‐ let someone spit in your face and just walk away, let someone beat you and don’t do anything ‐ that is so surface.
“These tactics were much more than that. People were putting themselves in harm’s way to invite, to incite violence against them so that they could illustrate the ills of society. They were putting themselves in harm’s way. They were like soldiers who were going to war. It was a way that they were fighting. And that’s not passive. Like we say in the film, that was very strong. I just think that these ideas are not anything that’s been addressed, certainly not in the American school system. Certainly not in any of our conversations around King. It’s ‘I have a dream,’ he believed in peace, and then he died. Like, my God, people. Let’s do better.”
Make history visceral and relevant, not the stale history lesson we too often accept as the norm.
6. Understand How to Negotiate Attention
“I saw a lot of unhappy people, and I worked with a lot of big names, and I worked with a lot of folks that were just coming up in the industry as actors and directors and having problems negotiating attention. I think for me, just my publicity background has given me a knowledge of what that attention really means and how it was generated. My job was to generate attention, right? So I know what that is. It’s not about me. It’s something that is created or something that happens organically, and it doesn’t mean much beyond that moment. … And so it’s like, I’m thankful for my life in publicity. It gave me a late start. I’m not a whippersnapper out of film school. I made a midlife change to another career, but I definitely know that the things I learned from being a publicist in the industry is helping me enjoy this moment now.”
Attention is ephemeral, sometimes arbitrary, and rarely about the person to whom attention is given. DuVernay’s prior experience in another part of the industry has given her a pragmatic patience and realism that more starry-eyed filmmakers are often lacking in. Understand how fleeting attention can be and how it isn’t a value system. But more importantly, understand what can be done with the attention and what opportunities it can bring in terms of highlighting rare examples of filmmaking.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
It’s hard to think of a more honest, no-bullshit approach toward choosing and approaching material than, “It starts with satisfying me.”