How Common Convinced Ava DuVernay to Use His Uplifting Song for Civil Rights Doc '13th'

Courtesy of Netflix; David Livingston/Getty Images
Common's last collaboration with '13th' director Ava DuVernay won him and John Legend a best song Oscar.

At President Obama's birthday party in August, the Oscar-winning songwriter seized the opportunity to pitch the director his song "A Letter to the Free," which heralds "America's moment to come to Jesus" on race issues.

At President Obama's birthday party in August, Common ran into director Ava DuVernay. He seized the opportunity to pitch his song "A Letter to the Free" for her documentary 13th by rapping the first verse into her ear. "She was listening, but with the president and the first lady standing 7 feet away, she was trying to pay attention to them, too," he laughs. You might think Common wouldn't need to pitch DuVernay at all in light of their most recent project together — he co-wrote Selma's "Glory," which scored the film's only Oscar win. But he had to prove himself again.

" 'I don't want people to say we tried the same collaboration again,' " Common recalls DuVernay saying. "I was like, 'Ava, David Oyelowo's been in two of your films. …' After she sat with the song, she loved it. This film can change culture, especially when it's shown in places of education. My biggest desire is to be a part of work that has that kind of impact." The lyrics herald "America's moment to come to Jesus" — racially. Is that moment a little further off, post-election? "We're having a come-to-Jesus moment [now] because we've seen something happen that no one ever thought would. We've got to think about the complexities within our country. I'm not inhuman. I woke up the day after the election with a heavy heart. But I'm still a believer. It's what Frederick Douglass said: 'Without struggle, there is no progress.' "

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.