Ava DuVernay at SXSW: “King Was a Badass Who’s Been Homogenized.”

“Serving the story” can be an empty Hollywood cliché, but Selma director Ava DuVernay brought the concept alive with passion and insight in her SXSW Film keynote speech Saturday.

DuVernay said that “a certain woman with the initials O.W.” got her into the habit of making lists of things she’s thankful for. The audience at her packed keynote talk seemed grateful—even overwhelmed, at times—just to be there. “Gratitude always centers me,” she said.

Before she was tapped to helm Selma, the former film publicist had directed two low-budget, independent film features: Middle of Nowhere and This Is the Life. Selma had a significantly higher budget—and higher stakes. She allowed that she just had “the most awesome fucking year” but also pointed out that the film offered a few challenges: “This time last year, we weren’t even shooting this film. It didn’t even have a green light. I was the seventh—it’s flattering—director asking to direct the film.”

To do the story justice, she realized, she was going to have to “give attention to [her] intention.” In making earlier films, DuVernay said, she had her eyes on the traditional filmmaking prizes: playing festivals, getting awards, garnering good reviews, and maybe even some good box office returns. For Selma, she realized, she needed to “work inward, not outward”—to work in service of the bigger story and the people involved in civil rights struggles then and now.

“I came to realize that those dreams I was dreaming [for previous films] were too small,” she explained, to rousing applause. “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.” Other challenges—such as the fact that she could not use Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s actual speeches and the script’s female characters were barely present when she came onboard—required the vigilance of that intention. One of the major changes she oversaw was fleshing out the roles of women like Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) and Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey). “Women in their movement never got their due. The intellectual work of women in the movement is always forgotten,” explained DuVernay.

Sadly, DuVernay was not allowed a writing credit on the script, despite significant revisions she made. “It’s not easy to have someone else’s name on your work, but the movie wouldn’t have been made if not,” she said. “Having the story in the world is more important than that stuff.”

When the film opened and started drawing buzz, critical praise, and awards—those marks of filmmaking success that DuVernay had previously wanted so much—she enjoyed the ride. She had “food like I’ve never put in my mouth” at the Legends Ball at Oprah’s (very nice) house with “all the legends, real people from the march.” She took note that Selma was the only current film to have a “100 fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. She was exhilarated to screen Selma for the Obamas at the White House, knowing that the first film to ever screen there was The Birth of a Nation.

Still, she said, “I wasn’t striving, grasping, not proving anything, hustling box office and awards. It was only service.” Shortly thereafter, she says, she had a realization about the Oscars:

“It was a room in LA, a room with very nice people applauding. And it was cool to be sitting there and watching the film nominated for best picture… But the work’s worth is not based on what happened in that room. This does not determine the worth of my work. This was a revelation. None of that was my intention. But if I had put those limits on my intention, I believe none of that would have happened.”

racial stats on the oscars show that the academy is overwhlemingly white and male

A relevant infographic on race and the Oscars, from Lee and Low Books.

DuVernay remained warm, funny, and accessible during the Q&A, during which people recognized each other from Twitter and thanked her and occasionally were so moved and moving that they choked up and cracked up. Asked about why it took so long for the Selma story to be told by a major film, she said,

“Obviously film studios aren’t lining up to make movies about Black protagonists being autonomous and independent and drivers of their lives… King was a badass who’s been homogenized. My job was to reconstruct that. There should be 10 more films about King. It is daunting to approach the epic subject.”

DuVernay is equally pragmatic about the need to bring diverse experiences to wider audiences. “Images affect the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen,” she added. “That has to expand by any means necessary. For women of all races. The key is just to begin.”

by Cynthia K Widner
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