“I’ve had the fucking most awesome year,” Ava DuVernay admitted in her keynote speech at this year’s SXSW festival. “I can’t even describe it.”
The “Selma” director displayed admirable honesty at the event, as when she answered a question from the audience about why it took 50 years for the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic march in Alabama to finally end up on the big screen. “Obviously the studios aren’t lining up to make films about black protagonists,” she said. “Or about freedom and dignity as it pertains to black people and people of color being the drivers of their own lives.”
DuVernay also revealed that she was Paramount’s seventh choice to helm her Oscar-nominated biopic. But much of her speech was effusively optimistic, too. She recalled the humble thinking process with which she approached the project: “I went into that film with one thought, singular and clear: Serve this story. You have to. It wasn’t made with any sort of achievement in mind.” That didn’t preclude putting her own stamp on the narrative of the march, in part by restoring female activists to their rightful place in history. “The women of the movement never got their due,” she said.
That focus on the bigger picture helped her get over her Oscar snub. “It was a room in LA,” she said of the Academy Awards ceremony. “Not anything but a room in LA with very nice people dressed up. It’s very cool, but my work’s worth is not based on what happens in or around that room. This cannot be the basis of what we do. That for me was a revelation.”
She also recalled suffering a panic attack on the night “Selma” had its world premiere at AFI Fest a month before its Christmas release date. “I went to the bathroom,” she said. “I vomited, I cried. [I thought], they are going to put me in director’s jail. I was freaking myself out.” But, of course, she received a standing ovation after that screening.
When “Selma” initially opened in limited release, DuVernay and star David Oyelowo visited five theaters in the LA region to watch the movie with audiences. “That brought me more joy than I think I experienced on everything that happened,” she said.
“If your dream only includes you, it’s too small,” she observed in one of the speech’s grander moments.
Since “Selma,” DuVernay has announced three projects: an untitled romance starring Oyelowo set against Hurricane Katrina; the TV series “Queen Sugar,” co-created with Oprah Winfrey for OWN; and the CBS drama “For Justice,” with Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad.
Of the latter, DuVernay said, “It’s about an elite unit of the FBI that investigates civil rights abuses and what does civil rights look like in 2015? So each week they have different cases, whether it’s a transgender murder, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-Semitic sentiment. The first episode that I’m directing is kind of a Ferguson-like case. … My intention is to put out something that just gives a different view of American life than what we see on the front pages and to do that on the biggest, most middle-America network that I could find.”
“But I want to explore all kinds of things,” affirmed DuVernay about her future, adding, “I’m a big Octavia Butler fan, so if somebody gave me the rights to ‘Kindred,’ I would make that hot. I’m just putting that out there.”