Delivering the keynote speech at the festival, DuVernay said she had an epiphany while attending this year’s Oscars ceremony, where Selma received two nominations including best picture, but was snubbed in categories like acting and directing.
“It was a room in L.A.,” DuVernay said in her keynote speech at SXSW on Saturday morning. “It’s not anything but a big room with very nice people dressed up. It’s very cool. But my work’s worth is not about what happens in, around or for that room.”
The talented writer/director talked about her journey making Selma, revealing she was Paramount’s seventh choice to direct the drama about the 1965 civil rights marches. When asked by a member of the audience why it took so long for Hollywood to tell King’s story, DuVernay was very transparent.
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“The studios aren’t lining up to make films about Black protagonists; Black people being autonomous and independent.” DuVernay said. But she later stressed that it was important for diverse filmmakers to find ways to get their stories told (“go do the work”).
The making of Selma has been a life-altering experience for DuVernay. Over the past year, DuVernay has screened her film at the White House 100 years after The Birth of a Nation played there, and dined with the Obamas. “I think it might have been because I was rolling with Oprah,” she said. “I’ve had the f—ing most awesome year,” said DuVernay. “I can’t even describe it.”
She recalled having a panic attack on the night that her movie premiered at the AFI Fest last November. “I went to the bathroom,” DuVernay said. “I vomited, I cried. [I thought], they are going to put me in director’s jail. I was freaking myself out.” But then she stood in front of the theater and received a rapturous standing ovation, and realized they were clapping for her film.
DuVernay recalled that on Christmas Day, when Selma opened in limited release, she and David Oyelowo (who plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) drove to five theaters in Los Angeles to watch audiences watching the film. “That brought me more joy than I think I experienced on everything that happened,” DuVernay said.
She also flashed her trademark wit when she described how Prada flew in two seamstresses from Italy for one of her awards show appearances, “to get these hips right in the dress.”
DuVernay discussed how after reading the script, she expressed surprise when the producer indicated that they couldn’t afford the rights to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches. “What do you mean?” she asked them. “He’s Dr. King. He’s about the speeches.”
Wisely, DuVernay changed the focus to adding more women characters to bolster the story. “The women of the movement never got their due,” she said. She also discussed how the experience of making Selma has helped her mature as a filmmaker. DuVernay said that she found herself focusing on “wrong measures of success” – like box office grosses and recognition. She discovered while making Selma to focus all her energy on “servicing” the story.
“If your dream is only about you, it’s too small,” she said.