‘Selma’ di­rec­tor Ava DuVer­nay one of 3 cho­sen for Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum honor

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page - 901-529-2394 By John Bei­fuss bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­

The slave nar­ra­tives of Fred­er­ick Douglass, the “I Have a Dream” speech of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Black Lives Mat­ter” meme of to­day’s pro­test­ers all tes­tify to the power of words in the strug­gle for so­cial jus­tice in Amer­ica.

So it’s no sur­prise that many past win­ners of the an­nual Free­dom Award of the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum have been gifted speak­ers, or­a­tors, politi­cians, writ­ers and even vo­cal per­form­ers: Bishop Des­mond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Bono of U2 and so on.

But images — Em­mett Till’s man­gled face, Rosa Parks un­der ar­rest, Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion work­ers wear­ing “I Am a Man” signs — have had just as much im­pact as words in in­spir­ing hu­man rights recog­ni­tion. So it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that this year’s group of Free­dom Award re­cip­i­ents in­cludes a woman known as an im­age-maker: Ava DuVer­nay, di­rec­tor of “Selma,” the 2014 civil rights drama that was a nom­i­nee for the Academy Award for Best Pic­ture.

“The images that we con­sume re­ally nour­ish what we think about each other and feed what we feel about each other,” said DuVer­nay, 42, who is mak­ing her first visit to Mem­phis for to­day’s Free­dom

“The images that we con­sume re­ally nour­ish what we think about each other and feed what we feel about each other. So much of what we think about each other comes through the images we see in the sto­ries that we

are told.”

Awards cer­e­mony at Down­town’s Can­non Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. “So much of what we think about each other comes through the images we see in the sto­ries that we are told.”

DuVer­nay is one of three hon­orees for this year’s Free­dom Awards. The oth­ers in­clude Joan Trumpauer Mul­hol­land, who as a stu­dent ac­tivist par­tic­i­pated in Free­dom Rides, lunch-counter sitins and other key 1960s events, and Ruby Bridges-Hall, whose life­time of ac­tivism be­gan in 1960, when she was the 6-year-old stu­dent who in­te­grated the New Or­leans pub­lic school sys­tem.

“This year we have an all-women slate of award-win­ners, and I re­ally think they epit­o­mize the roles that women have played in civil rights, up to and in­clud­ing to­day,” said Terri Lee Free­man, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum.

Free­man said hon­or­ing DuVer­nay was par­tic­u­larly timely be­cause 2015 marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the fa­mous vot­ing rights marches por­trayed in “Selma,” a movie that ar­rived as politi­cians were seek­ing to re­strict ac­cess to polls with photo ID re­quire­ments and other laws that crit­ics say are in­tended to de­crease mi­nor­ity turnout.

The di­rec­tor of four fea­ture films since 2008, the Cal­i­for­ni­aborn DuVer­nay is a rel­a­tively young award win­ner, but “I think as we move for­ward with the Free­dom Awards, we have to look at what is hap­pen­ing now, be­cause many of those names we grew up with and are more fa­mil­iar with are no longer with us,” Free­man said. “We need to honor those con­tin­u­ing to move for­ward the mis­sion of free­dom-fight­ing.”

DuVer­nay, who ma­jored in English and African-Amer­i­can stud­ies at UCLA, said she was “very sur­prised and very hon­ored” to be cho­sen for a Free­dom Award. She said she was look­ing for­ward to vis­it­ing the “hal­lowed ground” of the Civil Rights Mu­seum, former site of the Lor­raine Mo­tel, where King was killed on April 4, 1968. For “Selma,” she said, in which David Oyelowo por­trayed King, “I stud­ied King’s life ex­ten­sively. It was very im­por­tant to know who he was be­fore that mo­ment, and who he be­came af­ter that mo­ment, to give his life con­text. His time in Mem­phis was very in­stru­men­tal, very im­por­tant to craft­ing that nar­ra­tive.”

As an im­age-maker, DuVer­nay, with her long, sig­na­ture dread­locks, presents a strik­ing im­age her­self. She is on the cover of the Oc­to­ber is­sue of Elle mag­a­zine, for a story on “Women in Hol­ly­wood,” and she even was im­mor­tal­ized as a Bar­bie doll, seated in a di­rec­tor’s chair, in a Mat­tel line de­voted to six real-life “Sheroes.”

But such recog­ni­tion is small, she said, com­pared to the in­flu­ence of a movie industry in which only two of the di­rec­tors of last year’s top 100 high­est-gross­ing films — the films “that reached the pin­na­cle of dis­tri­bu­tion” — were women (namely, DuVer­nay, with “Selma,” and An­gelina Jolie, with “Un­bro­ken”).

“Be­lieve me, it gives me no joy to be in that small stack,” said DuVer­nay, who writes and pro­duces in ad­di­tion to di­rect­ing.


Ava DuVer­nay, di­rec­tor of “Selma,” will ac­cept a Free­dom Award to­day along­side two other hon­orees, Joan Trumpauer Mul­hol­land and Ruby Bridges-Hall.

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