Comm 137 Spring 2016
During class, we focused a lot on Selma and we discussed the behind-the-scenes controversy between writer Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay, who was brought on board to direct the film after a 9-year legal struggle to get the film off the shelf. Paul Webb had put in a lot of time and energy into learning about the movement and writing the script, but DuVernay argued that he was “creating a story that did not respect the black experience”. He had to do a ton of research to create the script, but she didn’t because it’s a story that was already deeply embedded in her roots. Therefore, she chose to rewrite the script because it didn’t reflect her truth. She had to make the film from the view of the black experience in order to make it accurate. She ended up recalibrating the focus from LBJ and made Dr. King central to the narrative without citing his speeches. In an article by The New Yorker, the author writes, “film is a collaborative art, and filmmakers with strong visions often reshape the material they’re given. But in the case of “Selma,” the changes matter, because DuVernay’s depiction of L.B.J. and his relationship with King has become a source of controversy…”. This is a line that black women filmmakers tread within the industry; Ava didn’t want outside influences dictating her art, but she had to take industry reactionism into consideration. Apart from reactionism, filmmakers seek validation, and that in itself is an obstacle filled with choices. In the end, Paul Webb chose not to share screenplay credit with DuVernay as they had originally discussed. Ava told The Wrap that she was disappointed because she “never thought someone would put their name on something they didn’t write…”. Since there was way to challenge his decision or pursue legal action, she chose to stay above the politics and controversy in order to keep the focus on the film.
It’s important for industry reactionism to be challenged in not only feature films, but smaller projects as well. Making positive strides, whether they be big or small, will slowly break the barriers of what is expected from a director based on their race. The four short dramas in Siren Spirits are all directed by women of color and all explore heavy themes that touch on family and race relations. White Men Are Cracking Up by Ngozi Onwurah, is a murder mystery that explores the legacies of British colonialism and the exoticization of black women. Memsahib Rita by Pratibha Parmar touches on the various forms of emotional and physical violence within racism. “Get Me to the Crematorium on Time” by Dani Williamson is a tragic love story about a woman who loses her husband of twenty years and ends up in a mental hospital over grief. She is convinced that she needs to escape from the mental hospital to get to the crematorium and say her final goodbyes to her husband. And lastly, Bideshi by Frances-Anne Solomon is a story about a Bengali man who is in a coma and finds his soul to be stuck in a dark tunnel near death. Resolving his conflict with his daughter is the only way to liberate his spirit. I believe that these shorts are fearless and they don’t leave room for outside influences to sugar coat the stories that are being told. These female directors exemplify the strong will that is needed in order to stop someone from dictating your art. For example, Memsahib Rita ruthlessly depicts the simultaneous effects on Shanti by the memory of her white mother and racist taunts of white youths. The bravery in these films are admirable and the underlying factor of honesty is what successfully challenges industry reactionism.