August Wilson’s Uncompromising Vision “For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” | The New Republic

August Wilson’s Uncompromising Vision for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

It has taken decades for his Century Cycle plays to reach the screen—but not for lack of interest.

ADGER COWANS/GETTY
American playwright August Wilson (1945–2005), in New York in 2000

August Wilson had a magnificent ear. His supreme gift as a playwright was for transforming African American vernacular into crystalline poetry onstage. His sense for language was also evident in how he chose to be known. Growing up in the largely Black, poor, and working-class Hill District of Pittsburgh, dreaming of the sort of literary glory enjoyed by his idols Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, the young man must have known that “Frederick Kittel Jr., Great Black Writer” somehow didn’t have the right ring to it. At the age of 20, he rejected being the namesake of his father, a white, German-born, alcoholic baker who was, the playwright would later recall, “a sporadic presence” in his life. “August” was originally his middle name. “Wilson” was the maiden name of his Black mother, Daisy. Put the two together, and you had a moniker exuding steadfast wisdom, a name with gravitas, a name commensurate with its owner’s audacious ambition.

In the early 1980s, August Wilson embarked on a theatrical decathlon of his own design, aiming to write 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, that would reflect African American culture “in all its richness and fullness.” The time frames of the plays did not unfold chronologically. Take, for example, three of Wilson’s best: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in 1927) was followed by Fences (set in 1957), which was followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (set in 1911). Collectively, the 10 plays would be called both the Pittsburgh Cycle and, perhaps more aptly since one of the works is set in Chicago, the American Century Cycle. Between 1982 and 2005, Wilson worked steadily, averaging a play every two and a half years. The tenth and final play in the Cycle, Radio Golf, premiered five days before his sixtieth birthday. Mission accomplished, he died of liver cancer six months later.

The plays are remarkable in both the depth of their historical exploration and their breadth of tone. The most emotionally wrenching are the two that take place earliest in the century. For many of the characters in Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, slavery is a living memory and the Middle Passage an ancestral trauma that returns in nightmarish visions that, horrific as they are, can lead to a redemptive “washing of the soul.” Meanwhile, two of the plays set later in time border on satire in their caustic wit. In both Two Trains Running (set in 1969) and Radio Golf (set in 1997), Black folks strive to make it in America’s capitalist game only to find that, for them, the rules are subject to constant color-coded changes.

Wilson was showered with accolades, among them two Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony, two Drama Desk, and six New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. Even in his lifetime, the literary establishment was carving out his space on the Mount Rushmore of American Dramatists, alongside the monumental figures of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. Toni Morrison, in her foreword to the published text of The Piano Lesson (set in the 1930s), praised the epic grandeur of Wilson’s oeuvre and his genius for evoking the beauty of Black American speech—even while acknowledging “respectful reservations” that some critics had expressed about some of his plays: “their length (too much), a plethora of deus ex machina devices (ghosts; characters who live for centuries; sudden, senseless death) and sermonizing instead of storytelling.”

It is rarely noted today, but, in the last decade of his life, Wilson came to be seen—in the eyes of America’s theater establishment—as something a bit more fierce and troubling than a benign Broadway griot conjuring the history of his people onstage. In June 1996, at the peak of his fame and influence, Wilson gave a speech titled “The Ground On Which I Stand” that shocked and appalled prominent arbiters of the dramatic arts in America. Proudly proclaiming himself a “race man,” Wilson offered a blistering critique of “cultural imperialism” in the theater world and made a bold, blunt call for Black self-determination in the arts. Nine years later, in Radio Golf, Wilson would ridicule ambitious African Americans of the Clinton era who surrendered their principles for “a seat at the table” with high-status whites. With this speech, Wilson, who had been welcomed and fêted more enthusiastically than any other Black playwright, effectively knocked the table over. In his foreword to the text of Jitney (set in 1977), the always-iconoclastic Ishmael Reed wrote that Wilson wanted to distance himself “from the neo-cons and neo-liberals who had claimed him as a member of their ranks.” As a character in an August Wilson play might put it: Them white folks thought he was they boy. But he wasn’t studying them.

Wilson’s insistence that African Americans “have control over our own culture and its products” explains why it has taken several decades for any of his plays to make the journey from stage to screen. A compelling film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom premiered on Netflix in December, arriving four years after a superb adaptation of Fences. Both films showcase illustrious Black talent in front of and behind the cameras. A generation ago, Wilson’s demand for Black artistic independence led some to call him a “separatist”; his stance was considered at best unrealistic. Today, he seems more like a visionary.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I sensed that a lot of older white theatergoers I spoke with felt a bit virtuous about attending August Wilson plays. They would say, “I loved The Piano Lesson” with the same sort of self-regard as the dad in Get Out when he declares he would vote for Obama a third time if he could. Seeing an August Wilson play wasn’t just a great night out at the theater—it was an edifying anthropological excursion.

“Don’t never let nobody tell you there ain’t no good white people,” the former slave Solly says in Gem of the Ocean. But good white people are hard to find anywhere in the Century Cycle. In a cumulative dramatis personae numbering in the 70s, I counted a grand total of four white characters onstage, and all of these are men with dubious motives. Of the countless offstage white characters mentioned, they are overwhelmingly cheats, murderers, and rapists, or, as is the case in Jitney, in which a young white woman falsely accuses her Black boyfriend of rape, deadly liars. The widespread white villainy in the plays either did not register with Wilson’s white admirers or did not trouble them. After all, he wasn’t writing about people like them, was he?

At some point in every one of the 10 plays, Black characters engage in a debate that could be boiled down to Personal Agency vs. Systemic Racism. Are they masters of their own destiny or eternally limited in their aspirations by the legacy of slavery? Sometimes the conflict is roiling within a single character. In Two Trains Running, a restaurant manager named Memphis rails against Black Power activists “talking about freedom, justice and equality and don’t know what it mean. You born free. It’s up to you to maintain it.” Yet this same character had to flee the South when a gang of white men wanted to take over land he had bought and paid for. “Got home and they had set fire to my crop,” Memphis recalls. “To get to my house I’d have to walk through fire. I wasn’t ready to do that.”
It’s possible that the “neo-cons and neo-liberals” that Ishmael Reed invoked did not absorb the complexity and ambiguity of the debates among Wilson’s characters when they claimed the playwright as “a member of their ranks.” But for Black Americans, even success is often stigmatized. In March 1996, August Wilson sat at the wooden table in the dark void of the Charlie Rose Show set. “Some have said,” the host drawled unctuously, “that, in a sense, your success keeps other Black playwrights in the shadows,” as if it were somehow Wilson’s fault that he had been anointed the Chosen One by the theater establishment. Wilson looked dismayed by the suggestion and said, “I don’t understand the logic behind that.” Three months later, he would offer a more full-throated response on the situation of Black dramatists in America.

“I am what is known … as a ‘race man,’” August Wilson declared in his keynote address to the Theatrical Communications Group national conference at Princeton University, in June 1996. “That is simply that I believe that race matters—that it is the largest, most identifiable, most important part of our personality.” This pronouncement came after he had, earlier in the speech, cited among his influences, “Marcus Garvey and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” two names that Wilson certainly knew would raise the hairs on many an American neck.

He then turned to his métier. “If you do not know, I will tell you,” Wilson said. “Black theater in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital … it just isn’t funded.” In the theater world, financial resources were “reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate white culture.” As a remedy, he called for the creation and funding of institutions that would be dedicated exclusively to African American works: “We need theaters to develop our playwrights. We need those misguided financial resources to be put to better use. Without theaters we cannot develop our talents.… We need some theaters.”

Wilson went on to criticize the sort of white theatergoers who flocked to his plays, saying “the subscription audience holds theaters hostage to the mediocrity of its tastes, and impedes the further development of an audience for the work that we do.” He added: “While intentional or not, it serves to keep Blacks out of the theater. A subscription audience becomes not a support system but makes the patrons members of a club to which the theater serves as a clubhouse.” Finally, for good measure, Wilson slammed reviewers, most of whom had lavished praise on his work. “A stagnant body of critics,” he said, “operating from the critical criteria of 40 years ago, makes for a stagnant theater without the fresh and abiding influence of contemporary ideas.… The critic who can recognize a German neo-Romantic influence should also be able to recognize an American influence from the blues or Black church rituals.”

The speech was instantly controversial. Perhaps no one was more offended by it than Robert Brustein, then director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard and drama critic for, ahem, The New Republic. In “The Ground On Which I Stand,” Wilson called out Brustein for suggesting that theatrical institutions were lowering their aesthetic standards in their zeal to produce more culturally diverse works. Wilson stated that “works by minority artists may lead to a raising of standards and a raising of the levels of excellence, but Mr. Brustein cannot allow that possibility.”

Brustein and Wilson went at it in a series of written exchanges in American Theatre magazine. Criticizing the playwright for employing “the language of self-segregation,” Brustein said, “I fear Wilson is displaying a failure of memory—I hesitate to say a failure of gratitude” for the support his work had received in the theater world. Wilson responded: “To suggest that I owe a debt of gratitude to the theaters that have done my work is to suggest my plays are without sufficient merit to warrant their production other than as an act of benevolence.”

The Brustein brouhaha culminated in a public debate at New York’s Town Hall in January 1997, an event that the chattering classes greeted with an excitement usually reserved for Ali-Frazier prizefights. The moderator, Anna Deveare Smith, had to ask for order in the crowd after Brustein mocked Wilson for considering himself “African” and said that the playwright had “probably the best mind of the seventeenth century.” Wilson replied: “These are some of the most outrageous things I’ve ever heard.” After that, the evening got really contentious. You can listen to excerpts of the debate on YouTube.

“The Ground On Which I Stand” was most widely attacked for the opposition August Wilson expressed in it to nontraditional or color-blind casting. “To mount an all-Black production of Death of a Salesman,” he declared, “or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”

Wilson did not mention that he had, in fact, written a brilliant African American retort to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece. It’s called Fences, and the parallels between the two plays are fascinating. Instead of Miller’s lowly Willy Loman, Wilson presented a Black Everyman, the sanitation worker Troy Maxson. Willy is unfaithful to his wife and has a difficult relationship with his athlete son. Ditto for Troy. Both plays end with bittersweet eulogies. And both plays were immediately appreciated, each winning both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. But Troy Maxson’s American journey is profoundly different from Willy Loman’s, his travails inextricably intertwined with his race. And Loman and Maxson have strikingly opposite views on life. Take, as just one juicy example, Willy’s obsession with being “well-liked.” He tells his sons: “Be liked and you will never want.” By contrast, Troy advises his son: “Don’t you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”

When Paramount Pictures approached Wilson about buying the film rights to Fences, the playwright had a fundamental request, one he used as the title for an op-ed piece he published in The New York Times in 1990: “I Want a Black Director.” As Wilson recounted in the article, his wish was “greeted by blank, vacant stares and the pious shaking of heads as if in response to my unfortunate naiveté.” Wilson even turned down “a well-known, highly respected” white filmmaker. “White directors are not qualified for the job,” he insisted. “The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of Black Americans.” August Wilson stuck to his guns. And when he died 15 years later, none of his plays had been turned into movies.

Today, Wilson’s decision to hold out is reaping luscious fruit. In 2010, Denzel Washington starred in a Broadway revival of Fences, bringing a febrile energy to the role of Troy Maxson, reimagining James Earl Jones’s original, more somber, and seemingly definitive portrayal. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, approached Washington about a film adaptation. At last, Wilson would get his Black director. Arguably the all-time biggest Black star of stage and screen, Washington had won his first Oscar for playing a runaway slave turned Union soldier in Glory and had incarnated Malcolm X. He had portrayed not only action heroes but also (Hooray for nontraditional casting!) Richard III. The film version of Fences that he starred in and directed is a master class in “opening up” a piece of theater. With clever changes of settings and dynamic camera work and editing, Washington made the stagiest of dramas thrillingly cinematic. He also respected the cultural integrity of Wilson’s work. The playwright’s estate has entrusted him to produce film versions of all 10 plays in the Century Cycle.

The second film adaptation, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, features Viola Davis in a bravura performance as the title character, “the Mother of the Blues.” Davis has become the preeminent interpreter of Wilson’s women. She won her first Tony Award for playing the fiery Tonya in King Hedley II (set in 1985) and nabbed a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal of Troy’s wife, Rose, the most soulful of the wounded warriors in the Maxson family battleground, in Fences. In addition to her towering talent, Viola has the most expressive pair of eyes in American cinema since that other dazzling Davis: Bette.

Wilson’s demand for Black artistic independence led some to call him a “separatist.” Today, he seems more like a visionary.

Most of the film’s action takes place in a Chicago recording studio on a sweltering day in 1927. Ma Rainey and her four-man band are scheduled to record several tracks, including the song that Wilson took as the title of his play. As in all of Wilson’s Cycle, the script is bursting with sublime language: boasting and jiving, tall tales and philosophical debates, angry clashes and painful confessions, all rendered with an uncanny eloquence that is uniquely African American. Wilson garners tremendous suspense from the power struggle between Ma Rainey and the two white men who are ostensibly in charge of the recording session. Throughout the long, hot afternoon, the blues singer wages a battle for both her artistic integrity and her personal dignity. “They don’t care nothing about me,” she says of her manager and the record company chief. “All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them.”
Chadwick Boseman as Levee, Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, and Colman Domingo as Cutler, in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

DAVID LEE/NETFLIX

The leaders of the Ma Rainey creative team embody August Wilson’s vision of Black self-determination in the arts. The film’s director, George C. Wolfe, began his long and distinguished theatrical career with the piquant satire The Colored Museum and the musical drama Jelly’s Last Jam, about jazzman Jelly Roll Morton. The screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, was a frequent Wilson collaborator. While remaining faithful to Wilson’s text, they have added a prologue and an epilogue to the film version that only enhance the power of the work. The casting of Glynn Turman as the pianist Toledo will warm the hearts of Black film lovers who have revered the actor since his role in the 1975 classic Cooley High. Finally, after portraying such Black icons as Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and the superhero T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman capped his career with a scorching performance as the trumpeter Levee, his last appearance on-screen before his tragic death at 43.

By insisting on a Black director for a movie adaptation, August Wilson proved himself to be as much of a badass as his Ma Rainey, who knows that, aside from her talent, her greatest power as an artist is the power to say “no,” and to keep on saying it, until she gets exactly what she wants. As producer of the Century Cycle, Washington has approached an array of acclaimed Black directors, including Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, to helm future adaptations.

Thanks to the movies, people worldwide will get to discover August Wilson’s extraordinary poetry, grounded in the intensity of his listening to his Black elders in Pittsburgh. In his introduction to Seven Guitars (set in 1948), he paid tribute to his mother, Daisy, saying that the everyday content of her life was “worthy of art.” During that heated Town Hall debate in 1997, an audience member asked August Wilson about his mixed racial heritage, in effect, raising the specter of Frederick Kittel Sr. The playwright’s response was swift and to the point: “My father was German. What about it? … The cultural environment of my life is Black. I make the self-definition of myself as a Black man, and that’s all anyone needs to know.”

Source: August Wilson’s Uncompromising Vision “For Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” | The New Republic

Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance – BBC News

Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillanceMartin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance

CloseShortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr led the march on Washington in 1963, FBI agents were ordered to start following the famed civil rights leader.The extent of the surveillance shocked documentary maker Sam Pollard so much he decided to start digging. He managed to uncover FBI documents, sourced secret White House phone calls, and found long-forgotten footage of King at the peak of his career. With interviews from King’s contemporaries Clarence Jones and Andrew Young and former FBI agents, MLK/FBI paints a picture which, as Pollard tells the BBC’s Alex Stanger, mirrors today’s reality.

Watch preview here:  https://www.bbc.com/news/av-embeds/55620286/vpid/p093xfl2“>

Source: Martin Luther King Jr: New documentary on FBI surveillance – BBC News

Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series sheds light on the horrors of wrongful incarceration

“The time that we lost, we can’t get that back,” Kevin Richardson told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview along with the group. “We lost our youth, our youthful years.”Their stories are profiled in the upcoming Netflix series “When They See Us,” a four-episode drama which was directed and co-written by Ava DuVernay. The limited series chronicles the journeys of the five men over the course of 25 years through their trials to their release from prison.“I always go back to whose story am I telling and is this choice helping to tell their story, in the most dynamic way, the most truthful way, for them,”

DuVernay told Holt.DuVernay, known for directing social justice films like “Selma” and big budget movies like “A Wrinkle in Time,” felt it was critical to tell the story of how false confessions landed the five teenagers in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Source: Ava DuVernay’s new Netflix series sheds light on the horrors of wrongful incarceration

‘When They See Us’ Shows a Case’s Impact on U.S. Policy – The Atlantic

When They See Us is primarily focused on the racist logic of the policing, court, and prison systems that cost the five defendants their childhood. The series also profoundly illuminates some inherent problems in American criminal justice from a range of perspectives. Viewers get an intimate glimpse of mothers, fathers, and siblings fighting for the freedom of their loved ones; law-enforcement authorities classifying these same boys as “animals”; and protesters on both sides holding signs, declaring “it’s not open season on women” or the real rapist in court today is the New York police and the D.A.

Ultimately, the hysteria surrounding the Central Park Jogger case gave rise to new language about black-youth crime, and to new laws that caused more children to stand trial as adults than at any other time in American history.

When They See Us gets the audience closer to understanding why juvenile and adult prison populations exploded through the 1990s, and how the United States became home to the largest incarceration system in the world.

Source: ‘When They See Us’ Shows a Case’s Impact on U.S. Policy – The Atlantic

Read: Ava DuVernay does true crime differently in ‘When They See Us’

“A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim”

“A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim” continues with the new music video to the soundtrack of the same name as part of a national project to encourage Black people to learn how and enjoy swimming. 
 
With the aim of encouraging as many people in the community to swim by addressing the stereotypes and dispelling the myths, the project highlights Black competitive swimmers and some of their achievements in this music video. Why is this important ? It is a safety consideration for all children. Ensure that your children learn to swim.
 
We need Swimming Role Models to highlight the importance of swimming in our community. Hopefully the 45+ Black competitive swimmers featured in this extended music video will do just that.
swimming2In 2015, three  African American swimmers, Simone Manuel, LIA NEAL & Natalie Hinds made history by taking the 3 top places (coming respectively 1-2-3) in the 100-yard freestyle at NCAA championships.

If you don’t swim why? If you never learned, why? Many Black children during Jim Crow all through the South had no access to either a pool, beach, lake or river for recreational swimming.

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham is proud to be part of this project.
The national project is led by Ed Accura @ed_accura. Contact him if you would like to get involved in your community.

How the dream of cheap streaming television became a pricey, complicated mess – The Washington Post

“But there is no real debate about the outcome: The dreams of cord cutters are largely unfulfilled. A transition that some hoped would provide more choice, lower prices and more simplicity instead has delivered frustrating levels of complexity. There still may be more choice, but each choice comes with price tags that, taken together, may well approach the cable bills of old.“It’s not going to come for free,” said Michael Powell, president of trade group NCTA, representing pay television and broadband providers. “People want to watch their ‘True Detective,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Mad Men,’ and that stuff costs a fortune.”

Source: How the dream of cheap streaming television became a pricey, complicated mess – The Washington Post

The Psalm of Howard Thurman

ABOUT ABOUT THE FILM

The Psalm of Howard Thurman is the first feature-length documentary film on the life and wisdom of one of the world’s greatest spiritual treasures, Howard Thurman (1899-1981).

The film introduces audiences to Thurman’s uplifting story, his transcendent  yet grounded presence, and his important voice for our times. The film aspires to be a psalm,a lyrical work of beauty and truth, and a creative utterance that moves, touches and inspires.

ABOUT HOWARD THURMAN

A JOURNEY OF HEART, MIND AND SOUL

Thurman attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida. He later completed studies at Morehouse College, Atlanta in 1923 and the Rochester Theological Seminary, New York in 1926. In 1929, after serving his first pastorship in Oberlin, Ohio, Thurman returned to Atlanta to serve as Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. Thurman felt that it was his immediate responsibility to inspire and encourage students in their individual quests for the truth.”

In 1935,  while a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Thurman and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, led a pilgrimage of African Americans to Ceylon, Burma and India and met with Mahatma Gandhi. As a result of this trip, he formulated, a generation before Martin Luther King Jr., a non-violent approach to social change in America. This “love-ethic” informed one of Thurman’s best known works, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book which later influenced King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

 At the close of the 1935 pilgrimage, looking down into Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass, Thurman experienced a vision of a church that would be open to “seekers of all colors and creeds.” He was compelled to see if “experiences of spiritual unity among peoples could be more compelling than the experiences which divide them.”

Hoard and Sue Bailey Thurman

India, 1935

Howard Thurman Birth Home, Daytona, Florida, USA

HOWARD THURMAN was born in Daytona, Florida in 1899. Early on, he developed a kinship with nature and a “hunger of the heart”–a curiosity into the meaning of life. He found refuge during times of loneliness and trepidation in an old oak tree in his back yard. It was while young Howard stood with his back placed firmly against the tree that he first felt the unity of all living things and engaged in what he would later call, “the religious experience.”

 As a young boy Thurman was raised by a strong and affirming grandmother. She was a former slave who had a profound influence on what would become an essential part of Thurman’s thought–that if theology is to have any validity, it must justly deal with one’s life situation and must affirm one’s worth as a child of God.

FILMMAKERS

MEET THE ARTISTS BEHIND THE FILM

“Arleigh Prelow is the right person to create a documentary about Dr. Thurman. She has the spiritual sensibility to understand his life and convey who he was in a truthful and meaningful way.”

 

– Sue Bailey Thurman (before her death in 1996)

ARLEIGH PRELOW, PRODUCER/ DIRECTOR

 Emmy winning composer Joel Goodman has scored over 100 films and television programs that have received 4 Oscar nominations, 15 Emmy awards and over 25 Emmy nominations.

JOEL GOODMAN

COMPOSER

BIO

BIO

GALLERY

INTERVIEWS WITH ARLEIGH PRELOW, PRODUCER/DIRECTOR

 THE SPIRIT AND WORK OF HOWARD THURMAN LIVES ON

PEDRO CESCA FALCI

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, HOWARD THURMAN CENTER BOSTON UNIVERSITY

THE HOWARD THURMAN CENTER FOR COMMON GROUND

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

KATHERINE KENNEDY

DIRECTOR, HOWARD THURMAN CENTER

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

 

Source: The Psalm of Howard Thurman

We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’ φ Rollingstone Magazine

We Shall Overcome: Ava DuVernay on Making ‘Selma’

The groundbreaking director talks about downplaying LBJ, honoring MLK’s legacy and why you should always have Oprah on your film sets

Ava DuVernay
Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount
Ava DuVernay on the set of ‘Selma.’

BY | January 5, 2015

As a filmmaker, you put the film out there, and you just want it to be okay,” says director Ava DuVernay. “You don’t want to let people down; you don’t want to embarrass yourself.” She’s done much better than that with Selma, a dramatization of the 1965 protests in Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; the movie, considered to be a leading Oscar contender, has already received four Golden Globe nominations. Peter Travers said in his rave review in Rolling Stone that DuVernay “blows the dust off history to find its beating heart.”

DuVernay, 42 years old, grew up in Compton, but spent summers in Alabama. A film publicist before she shifted careers to directing, she had actually signed up to do publicity for an earlier version of Selma. The screenplay had bounced around for over five years, attached to directors such as Lee Daniels. “It was looked at as an unmakeable movie,” says executive producer Paul Garnes. But British actor David Oyelowo — who had appeared in DuVernay’s Sundance award-winner Middle of Nowhere — very much wanted to play King, and unbeknownst to DuVernay, was lobbying for her with an international team of producers. Despite a resumé that was limited to two microbudget features, a half-dozen documentaries, and an episode of Scandal, she got the job, and a $20 million budget.

Ava

Ava on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

Our conversation with DuVernay in a vegan Mexican restaurant in Hollywood happened three days before Joseph A. Califano, Jr., a former Lyndon B. Johnson aide, wrote a Washington Post op-ed complaining not only that Selma gave Johnson (played by Tom Wilkinson) short shrift, but that the president had come up with the idea for the protests himself. As it happens, earlier versions of the script focused on the relationship between King and the commander-in-chief, and how their joint efforts led to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She discussed why she had chosen to place less emphasis on Johnson, her casting philosophy and why it helps to have Oprah on your film set.

Let’s talk about reducing LBJ’s role in the events you depict in the film.
Every filmmaker imbues a movie with their own point of view. The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.

This is a dramatization of the events. But what’s important for me as a student of this time in history is to not deify what the president did. Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we’re talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy — he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart. Does it make it any worse or any better? I don’t think so. History is history and he did do it eventually. But there was some process to it that was important to show.

Many presidents couldn’t have done it.
Absolutely. Or wouldn’t have even if they could.

I thought Tim Roth’s performance as George Wallace was very nuanced, when it would have been easy to play him as Snidely Whiplash.
I wanted to try to make everyone as human as possible. That trap that I see so many non-black filmmakers do with black characters, where everything is surface and stereotypical…I didn’t want to be the black filmmaker that does that with the white characters. Tim has talked about every actor has to love the character that they’re playing in some way, and in the time that we’re talking about, there’s not a lot to love in Wallace if you believe in justice and dignity. But he found a videotape or an article of his son talking about him, and so he was able to tap into the father doing what he thought was right.

I WASN’T INTERESTED IN MAKING A WHITE-SAVIOR MOVIE; I WAS INTERESTED IN MAKING A MOVIE CENTERED ON THE PEOPLE OF SELMA.

Whether it was Roth or Tom Wilkinson — or Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Root and Alessandro Nivola — all these characters represented a real diversity of thought about this issue from the white perspective, from the dominant culture. I wanted to create an array of folks who all thought about it in a different way because white thought wasn’t a monolith at that time, just as black thought wasn’t a monolith.

What was your philosophy when you were casting?
To work with people who fascinate me. Oprah being in the cast allowed me to have flexibility because she is such a big name. Her fame and her power created space for me to be able to hire Stephan James, a 19-year-old from Canada, for John Lewis instead of the hot young guy who was just in The Fast and the Furious,or whatever. I was able to pick and choose cool people.

What was it like having Oprah on the set?
Her first day of shooting was the day that Maya Angelou died. I had just driven up to the set in Marietta when I got a call on my cell phone from Andrew Young, the real Andrew Young: “Sister Maya has passed on.” And all I could think of was Oprah was on her way to the set. I immediately called her and said don’t come, we’ll do it another day. Tight schedule, a 32-day shoot, not a lot of room to move things around — but we’ll figure it out. She said, “No, I can do this, it’s okay.” She had the same trailer as everyone else. I spoke with her briefly, and I should’ve stayed, but I had to go out back to the set: I had 200 extras out there. So I called Tyler Perry, he sneaked onto the set, they had their moment, and she came out ready to go. I’m grateful to him; most people see us as very different filmmakers, but in that moment we were united around Oprah.

Ava DuVernay

Ava and Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount)

How did your old job as a publicist prepare you to do this?
To make a film?

As opposed to eating guacamole, yes.
[Laughs] Just being able to talk to people. I used to coordinate and develop and execute really big campaigns for studios with a lot of moving parts. But the main thing is just articulating what’s in your head, which we overestimate that people can do — how do you get that out in a way that’s clear and un-muddled with the intention of producing a result?

What was the hardest scene to shoot, emotionally?
When Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered in the cafe. At that time there was no Mike Brown murder, there was no Eric Garner murder — but there were so many others that are just ambient. It’s part of the atmosphere as a black person growing up in this country: You know that’s it’s happening somewhere on that very day. And a month later Mike Brown was killed. [Cinematographer] Bradford Young, [editor] Spencer Averick, and I, we designed that scene in a really specific way. It was really important that we have all that stuff worked out in advance because I knew it was going to be a rough, emotional day. This wasn’t a day for improvisation.

King’s tactics imply that his supporters are going to have to get hurt: Nonviolence doesn’t work unless the other side overreacts.
Being passive doesn’t mean sitting there and getting hit for the sake of getting hit. And it wasn’t all faith-based, either. There were some very practical reasons why it was used. You talk to most people about King now and they only know “I Have a Dream,” and that he believed in peace and then he died. Really? That’swhat he’s been reduced to? And we’ve allowed it to happen. And if there is anything that Selma does, it reinvigorates the narrative around him to be more full-bodied and more truthful about what his tactics were.

Are you religious yourself?
No, not religious. But I love God.

Can you talk about the aesthetics of violence of Selma? When the church blows up and kills those four little girls, it’s harrowing, but it’s also filmed in a beautiful way. How do those two things work together?
I don’t know if my intention was to make it beautiful. How do you film four little girls being blown apart? There’s a way to do it with a certain reverence and respect for who they were. That’s why it was important for me that you hear their voices before it happens.

There’s a sinking feeling in that scene — I counted five little girls, so I was hoping maybe it wasn’t going to happen.
There were five girls and one lived. And I put in a boy, to misdirect you on purpose. The violence throughout the film follows the same pattern. I resisted the idea of just it being a physical blow. That spectacle has been done: All we do in this industry is blow people up. But how does the hit feel and what does the face do after? What happens to that broken body and what happens to the people that have to tend to that broken body? It’s important to have the morgue scene after Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, to show the mother and slow down on her face, to slow down the girls, to slow down Annie Lee Cooper when the men put their hands on her and take her down. It was about having a reverence for that was the idea behind it instead of, say, making it beautiful. You’re saying: This is worth taking a closer look at. Everybody stop and pay your respects to this.

Can you pinpoint a moment of joy that happened while you were making this movie?
So many things come to mind, but there was a day that we were filming in Richie Jean Jackson’s house, doing that scene when they all walk into the kitchen. We’re at this house in Atlanta, we had shut down the street. That was the day that Tim Roth and Giovanni Ribisi were coming for their hair and makeup tests. They have to come to see me, ’cause I can’t get away. So they come to the set, and I thought, “Look at all my guys, they’re all together — the White House guys, Wallace, the black guys.” Those characters never cross, right? The chance to see them all together was so fun. Then a black SUV starts coming up the street, going around cones. Our assistant directors and our production assistants are running down, saying, don’t go, they’re shooting. The door opens and out comes Oprah. She’s not supposed to be there; we thought she wasn’t even in the state that day! She starts walking towards me and I just run up to her and give her a big old hug. It was like a house party in the street.

Ava

A surprise visit from Oprah on the set of ‘Selma.’ (Photo: Instagram/@directher)

How was it having people like the actual Andrew Young on the set?
So cool. And it easily could not have been if they were grouchy curmudgeons. But there’s still a spark about them. These are our greatest minds, our greatest radicals. Time has not done them in. If you look John Lewis in the eye and he’s talkin’ to you about something, you’re like “Uh huh, let’s go do it!” When I sat down with them, I was really clear that we weren’t asking for anybody’s permission.

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But this [film] is not called “King”; this is Selma. This was as much the story about the band of brothers and sisters that were around him as it was King’s story. There haven’t been great pains taken to show that he was a leader among leaders — all of them could’ve probably done it. Why him? He could talk the best. He was an orator who was able to synthesize all these ideas in a way that spoke to the masses and also that spoke to people in power. But they were there and they were the masterminds behind it. I tried to show the strategy, the tactics, the arguments. That’s how history is made, not by consensus, but by people freakin’ battling it out, right? That’s how change happens.


Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/ava-duvernay-on-making-selma-20150105#ixzz3OLB5tbyP
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Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Michael K. Williams ‘Goes Down the Rabbit Hole’ on ‘Boardwalk Empire’

‘Wire’ actor also starring in ’12 Years a Slave,’ MGMT video

 
 
 
 
Michael K. Williams as Chalky White on ‘Boardwalk Empire’
 
Macall B. Polay/HBO
September 27, 2013 2:40 PM ET

Michael K. Williams won us over with The Wire, playing the indefatigable stick-em-up-boy Omar, the Robin Hood of the streets. On Boardwalk Empirenow in its fourth season, he’s Chalky White, the voice and bootlegger of the black community in the Nucky Thompson’s (Steve Buscemi) Atlantic City. Rolling Stone spoke with Williams about going down the rabbit hole with Chalky this season, appearing in MGMT’s latest video for “Cool Song No. 2” as a witch doctor with a sweet ride and stalking Steve McQueen in New Orleans to get a part in 12 Years a Slave. 

This feels like a big season for Chalky White on Boardwalk. It sort of feels like a big season for African-Americans in general on the show.

It’s definitely a huge season for Chalky White. It’s a huge season for me personally. I’ve never been this involved in a big storyline in anything that I’ve done. 

You say you’re more involved with the season. How so?
There are things that were promised to Chalky from Nucky Thompson that came through. Nucky told him that he would grant him his wish and give him his club on the boardwalk, so that happened. So you have a black man in 1924 with a major club on the boardwalk of Atlantic City – that’s huge. And most of the storyline this year takes place from that club. All of the problems that occur happen from that club opening up and how Chalky deals with it. He makes a lot of bad choices, primarily over a woman. And we just pretty much watch him go down the rabbit hole. 

How do you understand the struggle between Chalky White and Valentin Narcisse? 
The relationship between Dr. Narcisse and Chalky is a very intense, very real relationship in the black community. You have the educated, fair-skinned Negro, you know, going up against the dark-skinned, un-academically educated Negro, and the friction of the light skin and dark skin, educated versus the non-educated. There’s a friction there, you know, on many different levels. The house Negro versus the field Negro.

What was really important to you in creating this character? 
The main thing I wanted to do was I wanted him not to feel like Omar. That was number one. The second thing I wanted to do was to not make him appear as just an angry black man. There are things that Chalky experienced that I have no understanding of. I don’t know what it’s like to see my father hang from a tree, or to be illiterate in America. I don’t know what that feels like. So I wanted to bring dignity to him, in spite of all his flaws, and I wanted people to understand why he does the things that he does. And last but not least, I wanted to pay homage to my ancestors, to anybody who’s alive today, any black men that are alive today.

I was just watching your MGMT video, “Cool Song No. 2.” What sort of direction did you get for that? 
The character I play, his best friend, is dying from the very thing that he sells. So it’s a take on addiction. What they used was this plant, and apparently there’s somewhere – I believe in the Philippines – where people get this rare disorder where their skin turns into tree bark and ultimately takes over their body. The character I play in this video was the cultivator of a particular tree that was killing one of his best friends. When he realized there was nothing else to do, he figured that he would let his friend die with dignity, and he took him to that house where they manufactured the stuff and just let him live out the rest of his days in happiness and bliss. And in doing so, he contracted the disease also. So it’s like a take on addiction and things of that nature.

Did you know the band’s music going into it?

I’m a huge fan of MGMT, and I love this director, Isaiah Seret. I’d never met him before, but I love the work he did on a Raphael Saadiq video called “Good Man,” which starred Chad Coleman, who is one of my Wire brothers. 

You hang out with your other Wire brothers? 
Absolutely. We’re very close. I consider us a family. Everybody from Sonja Sohn to Felicia Pearson to Jamie Hector to Andre Royo . . . Wendell Pierce, Domenick Lombardozzi, you know, we’re a very close-knit family.

You’re also in 12 Years a Slave. What was that set like? 
That was another huge experience for me. Something along the lines of what it felt like for Boardwalk. That’s another period piece dealing with my ancestral energy, once again, during the time when I have no idea what it must’ve been like to live in America, to be alive in that time. So it was a huge time-travel, and I got to really get a glimpse of what my ancestors would’ve gone through so that I could be here today. It was very humbling.

Did you know Steve McQueen before you made the film?
I knew of him. I was a huge fan of his work from Hunger and Shame, but I had never met prior to this film.

Did you audition for it in the traditional way?
It wasn’t quite the traditional path. I guess you could say I stalked him a bit? I waited outside of his casting office in New Orleans in the pouring rain for, like, an hour, because I heard he was in town, and I ran up on him, kind of Omar style, and I think he was a little taken aback. I was afraid I’d actually screwed up my chance of being in the project with that stuff that I pulled. But then about 45 minutes or so later, his assistant gave me a call and said “Steve McQueen wants to take you to dinner,” and I sat down with him and Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. We sat all down and had dinner, and he pretty much made me the offer right there at the dinner table. 

What made you really want the part?
Any opportunity to tell a story like that – any opportunity to tell African-American history, something of that nature, of that caliber, I will jump through leaps and bounds to get. Because it’s based on a true story, it’s American history, it’s about my culture and my ancestors, and it’s not just a typical film. It’s a story that I can get in my heart as something to take seriously. I think 12 Years a Slave is that caliber. Any actor would’ve been proud to be in Schindler’s List, and I feel the same way about our film. This actually happened, and it’s going to teach people how far we’ve come as a nation. 

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/michael-k-williams-goes-down-the-rabbit-hole-on-boardwalk-empire-20130927#ixzz2gOsdiWYt 
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“Living Legendz” Telling OUR STORY, RECORDING OUR PATH” l Filmmaker, Nicholle La Vann

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham

WITNESSES FROM THE BRIDGE Series

 

      Filmmaker, Nicholle La Vann

 “Living Legendz” Telling OUR STORY, RECORDING OUR PATH”

 March 30, 2013      10pm ET  LIVE and CALL-In

    “WITNESSES FROM THE BRIDGE”

                      “They came to Change a Nation and Lift Up A People”

                                   The Women of the Black Power Movement

 ABOUT ” Living Legendz” and Award-Winning Filmmaker, Nicholle La Vann

 FREEDOM and JUSTICE WARRIOR

“Living Legendz” is documentary that highlights the lives of Abiodun Oyewole, Dr. Leonard Jeffries and Jamal Joseph and their contributions to their community and culture.

“Living Legendz”  The documentary series explores the lives of African and Latino American icons. So much of Black and Latino history has been lost or not documented leaving others to tell our stories.

The filmmaker, Nicholle La Vann, says, ” It is my responsibility to be that keeper of our history and provide a platform where their lives and accomplishments can be heard.”

La Vann is a an award winning filmmaker with a Master of Fine Arts from the City University of New York in Media Arts Production. As an artist of visual culture, Nicholle is interested in the intersection between the digital environment and media social issues. As a video artist, she focuses on the impact of injustice and youth development while integrating related factors such as poverty. Nicholle’s interest continues to be in the area of facilitating dialogues between people. Which mean challenging existing assumptions as well as searching for new ways of addressing current issues.  La Vann continues to give back through teaching documentary workshops in New York City and Toronto and screenings that provide feedback discussions with audiences.

She is a warrior storyteller with a modern day weapon. Recording the best of our aspirations in the 21st Century.

She notes that, “Too much emphasis has been put on our appearance and not enough on our mindset.  It is my goal to inspire audiences of all races with a special interest on my own. The amount of knowledge that children learn in school is not always accurate nor true, depending on where the source comes from.”

Living Legendz is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. Contributions for the purposes of Living Legendz must be made payable to Fractured Atlas and are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.

Your contributions in support of this project are appreciated.

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/living-legendz

about Filmdress Filmz

 Filmstress Filmz is a creative multimedia production company specializing in social marketing.  We work with an array of agencies, corporations and non-profit organizations, and government agencies to build and educate cause marketing campaigns through a wide range of video productions. Our  work includes Public Service Announcements (PSAs), documentary shorts, music videos and internet streaming video.  Our projects address social issues rarely heard in mainstream media. We offer broadcast quality media for television, community screenings, fundraisers, presentations, conferences, film festivals and workshops. 

Join us in this conversation with Filmmater, Nicholle La Van about  this important recording of our history and storyteller, a  contemporary warrior in Black History.

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For More Information: http://www.ourcommongroundtalk.wordpress.com

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