What He (or She, depending on the gender of the speaker) Said is a new feature on the site where I’ll cut through the clutter and merely direct you to a really interesting argument or insight offered elsewhere on the internet.
The Context: Selma director Ava DuVernay is reportedly being courted for two high profile directing gigs, a sci-fi movie called Intelligent Life from Jurassic World co-writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly and an adaptation of the classic sci-fi A Wrinkle in Time. Deadline’s Mike Fleming, Jr., who previously worked at Variety for over two decades, reacted to this news by attempting to place it into the larger context of the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite controversy and conversation about diversity (or lack thereof) in film. As he sees it, we should be focusing more on celebrating the hustle and flow of those non-white filmmakers who get their movies made.
I don’t know if DuVernay will do one, the other, or both of these. Thing is, I worry that the repetitive press narrative about diversity doesn’t give enough credit to what has propelled DuVernay, or Nate Parker, Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan, Gary Gray, Ice Cube, Kevin Hart and others to success in the last 12 months. It’s hustle, betting on oneself and not waiting for a level playing field. The droning narrative from the trades has this “Kumbaya” tone to it, a trendy chorus that will die right after the Oscars. Changing the makeup of Academy voters helps, but you can’t legislate opportunities in showbiz, unfortunately. There are big problems — Oscar host Chris Rock brought up a perspective I hadn’t thought of in Essence when he pointed to all the attention Jennifer Lawrence got for complaining about pay disparity on American Hustle; he said Gabrielle Union, Nia Long and other black actresses would kill for such problems. They get paid a pittance of what Lawrence earns from studios that have told Rock point blank they would prefer white actresses when possible.
Anyway, I was thinking about DuVernay, after returning from a Sundance where the big story was how, after kicking around for a dozen years, Nate Parker stopped waiting for Hollywood to recognize his worth. He tore apart his whole career and devoted himself to The Birth of A Nation. I’m told that movie cost under $10 million and sold for $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, with Parker owning like 51% of the film. He’ll be in the Oscar mix next year (maybe Don Cheadle will too for the Miles Davis movie he struggled with forever). F Gary Gray’s perception was “helmer for hire,” until his auteur turn in Straight Outta Compton. After Warner Bros rejected it, Gray, Cube and Dr Dre gave a powerful pitch to Donna Langley, who didn’t see an urban film with limitations, but a splitting-of-the-atom film about a cultural movement. She also recognized the passion of a mature director ready to seize his moment. Coogler was told no repeatedly by Sly Stallone but kept knocking, and Jordan put a year into developing the physicality that made him such a believable ring hero in Creed. I recall Will Smith telling me he once worked for his father, fixing the refrigerators in supermarkets, and how once, they got under the unit only to find a dead rat stuck to the floor where Smith’s father’s head needed to be. He moved it aside, and got to to work, and Smith said he’d think of this when he needed to be reminded what real work ethic meant. It sure got him far, even if his work in Concussion was ignored by the Academy.
I believe in hustle, and that this part has gotten short shrift in the current conversation. The temptation would be to attribute DuVernay’s good prospects to this recent outcry; after all, she’s female and black. I can tell you, it has zero bearing. Disney exec Tendo Nagenda spent the past half year courting DuVernay after Selma, and president Sean Bailey has a relationship with the director as they both serve on the Sundance Board of Trustees. Here’s why DuVernay is in demand: many studios and filmmakers tried and failed to make an MLK movie. DuVernay, a former publicist who previously had only made a $200,000 feature, directed a critically acclaimed period picture about a seminal moment in American history, at a cost of $20 million. She was resourceful: while other MLK films got hamstrung over the estate of Dr. King and speech copyright, DuVernay changed the words and kept the essence that powered David Oyelowo’s oratories. She did this because she would not have been otherwise able to make the film on budget, which meant it would not have gotten made. Selma grossed more than three times its budget, worldwide, and it won an Oscar. That’s the reason she’ll get to paint on a larger canvas, whether it’s A Wrinkle In Time or Intelligent Life. Or both. Just wanted to celebrate that.