How does a writer/director address social issues in a superhero series? Through normalization, Ava DuVernay says.
“We’re doing really muscular things as it relates to race and gender and class but we’re doing it by playing it normal,” she says.
In “Naomi,” DuVernay’s new series on the CW, a 16-year-old black girl discovers she has powers that could affect those around her. She has an open view of sexuality, too, and an aversion to labels.
“The more you can portray images without underlining them, highlighting them and putting a star next to them, that shows a different kind of hero, right?” DuVernay says. “We start to make that normal and it’s a radical, revolutionary thing.”
Kaci Walfall, who plays Naomi, says that normalization affords her the opportunity to ground the character in reality. “I do genuinely ask myself, ‘What would I do if I found out I had powers?’ Would I be, maybe, not joyful? What would I do? How would I feel?”
Because she doesn’t know the extent of her abilities, Naomi will learn just as viewers do. That, Walfall says, has allowed her to ease into the role, “which is really helpful as an actor. How I embody the powers in Episode 2 is going to be different than how I embody the powers in Episode 11. As the series goes on, she’s figuring out things and she gets better and better every episode.”
DuVernay, who is best known for heavier fare like “Selma” and “13th,” says she was immediately taken with Walfall’s work ethic and professionalism. “But then you sit down with her and you’re like, ‘Oh, I really like you as a person.’”
Not only was Walfall ready to take on the responsibility, she demonstrated she was going to care about the series “every single second,” DuVernay says. “I felt lucky. It’s the way I felt when I found Storm Reid in ‘Wrinkle in Time,’ with Jaden Michael for ‘Colin in Black & White,” the way I felt about all the boys in ‘When They See Us.’ When it all comes together – the talent and the personhood – you get luck and magic happens.”
While some have questioned why DuVernay would want to do a superhero series, she says it’s totally in keeping with her own parameters: “I do what interests me. A documentary on the prison industrial complex interests me and a DC comic about a Black girl who loves Superman and becomes like him interests me as well.
“For so long, folks have been in pigeonholes – ‘Oh, you make prestige films, so you stay there.’ Or, ‘You make comic book films, so you can’t do a doc.’ And I just really seized the moment. I dedicated a couple of years to say, ‘I’m going to try everything that I want to do.’”