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 Thursday’s Freedom 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 sit-ins 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 California-born 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’s awareness of what she calls “image-making” and “storytelling” drives not only her art but her activism, even on social media: The director made news Tuesday when she initiated the #CelebrateStarWarsVII hashtag on Twitter to counter a #BoycottStarWarsVII trend inspired by the racial diversity of the cast in the upcoming “Star Wars” film.
At a larger level, she is the founder and head of Array, a “re-branding” and expansion of her five-year-old distribution company, AFFRM (African American Film Festival Releasing Movement). Arriving at a time of increased media scrutiny of behind-the-camera homogeneity in Hollywood, Array is dedicated to promoting “independent films by people of color and women filmmakers globally,” according to its website.
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. (Her current projects include a “secret” documentary “very near to my heart” and a TV series for producer Oprah Winfrey.)
DuVernay said that even in this so-called new golden age of television, “the movie industry in Hollywood really leads the conversation, and if all the storytellers are white and all the storytellers are men, you’re only going to get one kind of story. The world looks to America, and it’s very troubling when we give them stories with only one frame of reference. I think forward-thinking people can very clearly see it’s something systemic, something that is inherently in opposition to diverse voices, and I think forward-thinking people are looking to change it.”
National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards
Recipients: Lifelong activist Ruby Bridges-Hall, perhaps best known as the 6-year-old student who integrated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960; Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a Freedom Rider, Woolworth’s counter-sitter and student organizer who helped plan the March on Washington; and Ava DuVernay, filmmaker, director of “Selma,” and founder of Array, an organizaton that promotes diversity in film.
Thursday’s events: 10 a.m. public forum, Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, 369 G.E. Patterson; 6:30 p.m. black-tie awards ceremony and gala, Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and Memphis Cook Convention Center.
Most events are sold-out. For ticket availability and more information, visit civilrightsmuseum.org. ___