When Ava DuVernay was announced a keynote speaker at the SXSW Film Festival, it was hard not to see it as a slight (or possibly more than slight) F.U. to the Academy. For a festival that prides itself on its alternative status and keeping shit weird, it was a natural move to take in the biggest snub of last year’s film releases and claim her for their own. During her speech, DuVernay (who has had “an awesome fucking year”) obviously talked at length about Selma. She spoke about her first two films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, and how with those she was almost singularly focused on her goals of distribution and Sundance, respectively. But with Selma, her intentions expanded to include so much more. She realized she couldn’t make a great film by focusing inward, saying, “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.” So now she had a different goal: to “serve this story.”
[Selma] wasn’t made with any sort of achievement in mind. It was an experience and an offering. The experience that we all had in making it was the most nourishing thing I’ve ever experienced. It’s something I’ll treasure forever. The offering was for others to see and take from it what they will or not. The fact that it was made hand in hand with artists about these badass activists was the achievement.So you know what she didn’t care about? The Oscars.
And I didn’t come to it because I was so enlightened at that point. I wasn’t and still am not enlightened. It was simply all I could muster in the fact of the momentous task of being charged with telling this story. Serve the story. That’s all I thought about.
The realization at the Oscars that blew my mind— which was the big deal for me out of the whole journey— that it was a room in L.A. That it’s not anything but a big room in L.A. with very nice people dressed up and applauding. And it’s cool— it’s very cool. But my work’s worth is not based on what happens in, around, and for that room. At this point in my career, three films in, to just have that lifted off— this is not what I’m striving for… This cannot be the basis of what we do. This cannot determine the worth of my work.But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get caught up in the frills and benefits of working at the $20,000,000 level. Her speech was chock-full of less-than-humble brags and name drops: Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah, Prada, Dianne Von Furstenberg, More Oprah, Meryl Streep, SO MUCH OPRAH. But still, it comes back to one thing: “Do the work.” Which seems to be a shorthand for finding what you’re passionate about, what speaks to you personally, and making it happen.
We have to do the work. For me it’s not about saying, “It’s not diverse enough. Hey, you guys. Make it diverse.” It’s about—I mean, what are we asking for? The work has to be done. People who care about the work do the work that has to be done. Stop asking people who don’t care about the work to do the work, and do the work.