Though the Best Picture race ultimately came down to “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” it’s hard to think of a 2014 film that had more impact than Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” From the way it galvanized a (divisive) conversation about history and storytelling to how its Oscar snubs led to the Twitter phenomenon #OscarsSoWhite, the film loomed large as one of the best, most important and most controversial films of the year.
Months later, listening to DuVernay speak to a full house at SXSW (video posted above) was simply gratifying. And it’s not because she basked in the glowing reviews “Selma” received, nor because she put her film’s history critics in their place. Rather, the theme of her speech could be swiftly described as “let it all go.” In this personal, beautifully-constructed speech from the “Selma” director, we picked out the seven best things we learned about her and the film, from everything that led to it to everything that came after.
Pay attention to your intention — and look beyond yourself.
Anyone who’s followed Ava DuVernay’s career as a filmmaker knows that she’s been extremely successful. As she recounts in the speech, her first narrative, “I Will Follow,” thrived with critics and galvanized DuVernay’s distribution collective, Affirm. Her second film, “Middle of Nowhere,” made it to Sundance as the director envisioned, won an award and again gained acclaim. But DuVernay explains that these shouldn’t be the goals of an artist: “I wasn’t making great strides as a human being and as an artist … While I achieved [my goals], I never felt lighter — I never felt better.” Going from accomplishment to accomplishment, she says, won’t enlarge your heart, nor will it help you find balance. Rather, the goals of artists — of human beings — need to magnify in scope. “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.”
Justin Simien, director of “Dear White People,” put into words what DuVernay could not.
Justin Simien, the acclaimed director of “Dear White People,” put into words an idea DuVernay had struggled to articulate for quite some time: “It’s a hell of a thing to get everything you wanted.” Said with “melancholy and sadness,” as DuVernay remembers, Simien’s statement pointed to the curious lack of fulfillment DuVernay felt after completing both “I Will Follow” and “Middle of Nowhere” and achieving what she set out to achieve. It’s one thing to get what you want, she explains. But it’s far more gratifying to “set aside [your] ego for something larger,” which she did for “Selma.”
If there’s one thing “Selma” taught DuVernay, it’s that the principal goal must be to serve the story.
When getting the chance to meet civil rights giants like John Lewis or Amelia Boynton, you sort of have to check yourself at the door. That’s exactly what DuVernay did with “Selma,” a film she repeatedly describes as larger than herself. With the task of paying tribute to, and honoring, not only activists but people like her father, the man she “loves the very most” in her life, there was only one approach she could take: serve the story. “On opening day… I wasn’t tracking the box office, I wasn’t reading our 100 percent fresh reviews on Rotten Tomatoes,” she proclaims, cheekily. “I wasn’t thinking about our Golden Globe nominations — none of that. Things I would have been obsessed with before.” Despite her noted attachment to the Internet (as a former publicist), the process of “Selma” allowed the material sense of accomplishment to wash away.
David Oyelowo is a huge nerd.
Her words, not mine! Yes, both DuVernay and Oyelowo, indescribably giddy and anxious about their opening in Los Angeles, jumped in the car and headed to all five theaters screening the film. She recounts the experience with total joy, watching people watch her film. Her speech is framed around maintaining attention on intention, and here more than in any other excerpt, DuVernay illustrated the power of that notion. To not worry about anything but how the audience would react and feel, she says, was the ultimate, and most gratifying, experience.
DuVernay was seventh-in-line to direct “Selma.”
Keep in mind, she says this immediately after gushing to her audience, “I had the most awesome fucking year!” She’s not complaining here, just laughing off the process with a shrug. As she recounts with a smirk, it went along the lines of “Look, lady, you want to give it a try?” But she took the job, flattering an offer as it was, and contemplated whether or not she could do Martin Luther King, Jr. justice. But then her bosses dropped another hammer: “Oh, yes, by the way, you can’t use the real speeches!” Daunting a task as she was handed, she sacrificed writing credit and headed down to Selma to get to work.
Before its world premiere at AFI, DuVernay vomited, cried and was on no sleep.
“Selma” wrapped filming in July, and DuVernay and her team were tasked with making a movie out of their footage by November. “For you filmmakers out there,” she laments, “not really enough time.” So though she managed to do it, the fear and anxiety of how it turned out, with the entire post-production process taking just a few months, was a little overwhelming. “I thought they were going to put me in director’s jail,” she admits. But she emerged from the bathroom, ready to swallow whatever reaction would come her way. And, taken aback even now, she describes the reaction: “They stood up.”
The Oscars? It’s just a room in L.A.
The whirlwind experience of awards season, for DuVernay, ended with a necessary recognition of reality. From the flashy New York premiere at the very theater she once dreamed of screening her own film one day, to the thrill of showing the film to activists at Oprah’s house — where, apparently, the food is better and the grass is greener than anywhere else — to, finally, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the enthusiasm around “Selma” was simply deafening. But her big moment came when she realizes that the Oscars are, simply, “a room in L.A.” “It’s cool, it’s very cool,” she says of the Academy’s recognition. “But my work’s worth is not based on what happens in, around, for or about that room.”
READ MORE: Ava DuVernay Explains What Makes ‘Selma’ Different From Other Civil Rights Movies