The movie Selma represents a major victory for director Ava DuVernay, and not just on artistic terms. As I watched the film's recreation of the Bloody Sunday of 1965 reach its aggressively brutal height, I did something I've rarely done before: I cried, quietly, in response to events onscreen.
The film, which focuses specifically on Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 march across rural Alabama to secure black voting rights, is important on several, critical levels. First, it's the only feature-length film ever made about King specifically, according to Time. It marries a fictional portrayal with a real sense of history: In one of the film's penultimate scenes, as the protestors are finally permitted to cross Edmond Pettus Bridge to exit Selma, DuVernay shifts into real media footage from the march.
It's a bittersweet moment, as the faces of smiling children are replaced with white men raising their middle fingers to the camera, and serves as a harsh reminder that King's campaign was one in a larger series of uphill battles. Of course, that pathos is reiterated at the end of the film, with words onscreen describing King's murder in 1968.
Second, Selma also represents a huge success on the part of DuVernay, who joins the ranks of few women predecessors in Hollywood. Even since Kathryn Bigelow became the first female director to win an Oscar, in 2010 for The Hurt Locker, there's been little (if any) change in the industry's grossly distorted gender ratios: According to The New York Times, only 19 women (or 7.6 percent) directed in the top 250 grossing features released in 2014.
Women in film are repeatedly denied opportunities to act and direct, and when they do succeed, they often find their projects belittled by their colleagues. (See Aaron Sorkin, who said in a leaked email exchange with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that men have a "higher bar to clear" than women when it comes to winning awards, The Daily Beast reported.)
As Cathy Schulman, the president of advocacy group Women in Film, told the Times, "My success rate is horrific in getting the movies with female directors made." The reason is simple and terribly depressing: She can't get the money. Foreign sales companies, she continued, want little to do with projects that involve women at the helm.
In fact, producers effectively gave up on Selma after director Lee Daniels dropped out, and before the film was ultimately picked up by PathÃ©; it took even longer for a major studio (Paramount) to come aboard. Selma's final $20 million production budget is nothing to sneeze at, though that pales in comparison to the budgets of male-directed blockbusters last year. (Think: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, etc.)
Even so, DuVernay's aptitude for developing projects with little financial support brought Selma to life: It's now a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture, reeling in a gross $317,000 on its opening day, where it showed at just 19 theaters in select markets, according to Indiewire. The film opens to all audiences this weekend, and Forbes' Scott Mendelson estimates that it will bring in close to $56 million in domestic ticket sales.
DuVernay herself is a Golden Globe nominee for Best Director--a first for a black woman. However, the film has since been snubbed by the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild. The Oscar nominations will be announced on January 15th, so stay tuned.
Although the film has its weaknesses, including its flawed depiction of a villainous President Lyndon B. Johnson, Selma does justice to the complexity of King's character: His relationship with Coretta Scott King is troubled, his followers deeply divided on how to approach their voting rights, and his resolve at times wavers in response to threats from the white majority.
In a predominately men's world, DuVernay has not only accomplished a major Hollywood production: She's also realized, for the first time on screen, the life and leadership of one of history's most important figures. And while Hollywood is certainly far from achieving gender equality, Selma has made an important (indeed, historic) impression on that tough, albeit penetrable, glass ceiling for women in business.