Ava DuVernay’s Big Budget Debut Tells a New Story About Martin Luther King Jr.

The director marches into a momentous past with <em>Selma</em>

“I’m allergic to historical dramas,” says Ava DuVernay. It’s a surprising pronouncement, given that she just directed Selma, a film about the bloody 1965 civil rights protests led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama. The project had been drifting around for years with various directors attached (Spike Lee and Stephen Frears among them) before it reached DuVernay. She felt an instant connection: A Compton native, she has family in Lowndes County, where much of the action is set.

Determined not to reduce King “to a speech and a statue,” she rewrote the screenplay to focus less on the politics and more on the people, picking up a cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr., Giovanni Ribisi, and Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson.

After running her own PR firm and directing two small but well-received indie features, DuVernay was ready to go big. Her last movie, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, cost all of $200,000 to make. On this film, set for release on December 25, she had a hundred times that. “I thought I’d have everything I wanted,” she says, “but $20 million for a drama with marches and thousands of people is not a lot of money.” And not just any drama; it’s a story line that DuVernay sees stretching to the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. “The parallels are uncanny,” she says. “The same issues are echoing through history in a way that’s really alarming. Ferguson is not new, and Selma is not old.”

Three films with DuVernay in the director’s chair:

Middle of Nowhere
The slow-burn story about a couple coping with incarceration earned DuVernay a directing prize at Sundance.

I Will Follow
Shot in only 15 days, this character study presents a day in the life of a woman grieving for her deceased aunt.

This Is the Life
Jurassic 5 and Medusa anchor a documentary about the L.A. alternative hip-hop scene of the ’90s.