Ageism in Hollywood, the art of lighting Black skin, the immense appeal of television… Some serious ground was covered during Wednesday’s Tribeca chat between “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and A Tribe Called Quest rap pillar Q-Tip. Following a plane delay that threatened to derail the entire presentation, DuVernay made her way to Chelsea’s SVA Theatre to find a captive crowd eager to hear about how a veteran film publicist took a plunge into filmmaking by directing her debut feature, “I Will Follow,” at age 38.
With refreshing candor, sharp wit and a no-nonsense attitude about the Hollywood labyrinth, DuVernay inspired an outpouring of warm, fuzzy praise and “you-inspire-me-to”-type tributes from the audience. Besides Q-Tip’s very public pledge to take up acting again if DuVernay would have him, here are some of the unique insights from their intimate hour-long conversation.
Her motto is to just keep shooting.
Post-“Selma,” DuVernay has repeatedly been advised to consider her next move carefully and she wants none of it. She doesn’t understand the logic to putting everything on hold in order to make calculations about the industry. “My motto is ‘stay shooting,’” she said. “If I could get it tattooed, I would, but my mom said no more tattoos. Since I started shooting, there hasn’t been a period of inactivity. I might not be doing a film, but I’m doing television, a doc, a commercial [and] a video. Constantly shooting is what the goal is.” She pointed to Spike Lee as an inspiration for his prolific and varied output. “He has just kept shooting—kept working, and that makes the muscle strong. You just can’t take it for granted that you have it.”
She finds the blurred lines between film and television wonderful.
Acknowledging that many directors may still be “precious” about the sanctity of film, she enthused that the industry’s paradigms are a-changin’ and explained why she’s kept herself busy with multiple TV projects. “Television is not what it used to be,” she said. “It’s now very much being embraced as an auteur’s medium—everyone from Steve McQueen to David Fincher to Soderbergh and Jill Soloway. Instead of a two-hour film, they make a 13-hour film. That’s how folks are approaching it and that’s how I’m approaching the series [Ed’s Note: ‘Queen Sugar,’ based on a novel by Natalie Baszile and starring Oprah Winfrey] I’m working on for OWN that I start shooting in the summer.”
She’s also thrilled about “For Justice,” a CBS drama pilot she’s spearheading.
“It’s about this elite group of freedom fighters,” she pitches to Q-Tip. “They work for the DOJ and they’re a combination of lawyers and FBI agents. Every week, they solve a different civil rights abuse. So every week, the country would be able to see a case solved about anti-Muslim sentiment, or something around Ferguson or a transgender murder. These elements, under the umbrella of a procedural, you’re actually able to give Middle America or whoever is watching some information about people on the outside, people on the margins. I love the idea of that.”
She believes passion and a good script will go a long way.
When an audience member asked if she knew any of her actors prior to casting them in her first two low-budget features, her answer laid bare the bleak career prospects that unfortunately await a number of actors of color. “The unfortunate thing that’s fortunate for Black filmmakers is that Black actors aren’t working,” she insisted. “If you ask them and you have a piece of material that resonates with them, and they can see it in your eyes that you’re dead serious, they will come, because the complexities in the roles are not there. If you’ve got a good script and it is complex, I say black actors will come, but actors of all stripes will come. They just want to do good work, so just ask.”
She long thought about how to capture Black skin tones on screen.
In response to Q-Tip’s compliment about “Selma’s” beautiful cinematography and his suggestion that “certain people don’t know how to capture African Americans or people of color on film,” DuVernay gave a shout out to her longstanding DOP Bradford Young, explaining how they’ve long been deconstructing notions of the Black body. “There’s a whole scene [in “Selma”] where there’s two dark men, David Oyelowo and Colman Domingo, sitting in dark jail cell and there’s just a little peak of light. That was our first day of shooting,” she recalls. “No joke, the studio ordered extra dailies and colorists to come in, and set money aside to reshoot it. Bradford and I were, like, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to look like.’” The studio eventually understood their photographic experimentation, which is so deeply intertwined with the narrative. “In jails in the mid-sixties in the deep South, there wasn’t any pretty light coming in. How do you make that real? How do you make it dank? Our reference was making it feel like the hull of a slave ship. To do that, you can’t be giving them an extra fill light.”
DuVernay doesn’t deal in compromise.
Asked by Q-Tip if she could adjust her vision to what others demanded, DuVernay didn’t beat around the bush: it’s just not worth it. “The way I make films, it’s too hard to do something you don’t love. There’s just no amount of money! For example, on this [CBS] pilot I’m doing, it’s two in the morning and I’ll be in New York in a snowstorm doing a night exterior. I’ll be thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ The answer is because I need to tell this story. I really feel like there’s something in this piece that I want to say—that I want to bring to television. If the answer had been, ‘Because I need a check,’ no amounts of money [can make you] do something you don’t want to do.”
She’d like to see more filmmakers of color working into their later years.
While she was happy to name-drop a handful of her favorite filmmakers, that list came with a big caveat. “To say you’re a fan of Black filmmakers, unfortunately, is to say that you’re a fan of maybe two or three films. We don’t have a Woody Allen or a Mike Nichols. Our filmmakers are not making films into their old age, with all of the wisdom and experience they’ve garnered, and that’s a truly sad thing. Our greats—Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, Euzhan Palcy—are not making films, right now, because they can’t get the support and resources together to continue having their voices heard, [and] at a time in their lives when there is so much for us to hear.”
She’s not held back by the whole “male-dominated industry” thing.
“I think for me, because I started in another career, I was able to go in this career with a little bit more, ‘Fuck you,’” she describes, referring to her years as a film publicist. “Because I knew I was good at something else, and I’d been in a lot of these male-dominated rooms before, I didn’t really have a fear of saying, ‘No,’ or of just saying, ‘This doesn’t work for me—I’m just going to leave and do it myself.’ I just don’t embrace the whole [male-dominated] thing being a block for me, because I know it’s not possible for you to stop me from making films.”