Ava DuVernay Talks Intersection of Art and Activism at PEN America Gala

Diane Warren and Ava DuVernay

The 29th annual LitFest Gala also honored journalist Julie K. Brown, songwriter Diane Warren, media law attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., the writers of Netflix’s 'Unbelievable,' and the screenwriters of 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'

There’s a question Ava DuVernay always gets asked and loves answering: How do you reconcile being both an artist and an activist?

"To me, they’re one and the same," DuVernay said. "To be an artist, you must imagine and create and world build. To be an activist you must do the same, because an activist must imagine a world that isn’t there and make it so. Activism is art, and art is activism."

DuVernay accepted the Voice of Influence Award at PEN America’s LitFest Gala on Friday night. PEN America champions freedom of expression through the literary arts and honored DuVernay for her efforts to amplify underrepresented voices through her work.

"To write, to create, to hold space, to represent, and to establish representation for others...to do these things, especially at this time, is a radical act," DuVernay told the audience on stage at the Beverly Wilshire.

The 29th annual LitFest Gala also honored journalist Julie K. Brown, songwriter Diane Warren, media law attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., the writers of Netflix’s Unbelievable and the screenwriters of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

Warren, who received the Artistic Expression Award, has written powerful anthems for some of the world’s biggest stars from Lady Gaga to Aerosmith. Songwriting, she said, is just as important as longform writing when it comes to freedom of expression.

"It’s just a different kind of writing," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "You gotta get a lot in that three-and-a-half minutes."

Warren was honored by actress Chrissy Metz, who stars in the film Breakthrough, for which Warren wrote the song "I’m Standing With You." Metz performed the song at the gala after Warren accepted her award.

"[The song] just has a really great message right now," Warren told THR. "We’re so divided right now that to hear a song [with lyrics] like 'Through whatever you go through/ I’m standin' with you' — it’s just a powerful song."

Metz shared similar thoughts about the song and said she was proud to honor Warren.

"So much of what we do in life is self expression. It’s so important to be able to say, 'No, this is what’s going on in the world. Let’s talk about it.' As opposed to sweeping it under the rug," Metz said. "Then, of course, [there’s] the creative side of what Diane has done and what she continues to do, which is really just heal our broken hearts through her music but also just bring us together. That’s what art does."

Unbelievable show writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman told THR that, now more than ever, freedom of expression through art is a right worth safeguarding.

"Freedom of expression is the most precious right of any citizen of a democracy. Citizens of all countries are entitled to freedom of expression," Chabon said. "I don’t think in my lifetime it’s ever been more threatened, and I was born into the Cold War when it felt like half the world was living under authoritarian regimes. It feels worse now. A lot of countries that had proud traditions of protecting freedom of expression, protecting the rights and the lives of journalists and writers, have begun to backslide, and I don’t excuse our own country from that."

In fact, the reporters who originally wrote the story that Unbelievable is based on said that the story would never exist if not for the rights of freedom of expression and access to information.

"To even tell this story, we had to ask for a lot of public records, which is kind of the boring part of reporting, but you have to get them," T. Christian Miller told THR. "That’s freedom of the press. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech go really tightly hand-in-hand."

His reporting partner, Ken Armstrong, said he appreciates those who were willing to talk to them about the case for realizing the importance of free press, even when it exposes their own wrongdoing.

"A lot of people who made mistakes in this case were willing to talk to us, and I think they recognized the value of a free press and the value of publicity in a story like this," he said. "The more people that know about the mistakes you made, the less likely it is that others will make them."

The men presented the show’s writers with the award for Television Excellence, which was made even more special by the fact that the two had previously been honored by PEN America for their original reporting of Marie’s story.

The night’s celebration also included a tribute to Toni Morrison, given by actor-director LeVar Burton. Other guests included Kathy Griffin, Susan Kelechi Watson and Blair Underwood.