SXSW: Ava DuVernay Calls Oscars a "Room in L.A." at Rousing Keynote

Ava Duvernay - H 2014
AP Images

Ava Duvernay - H 2014

"Studios aren't lining up to make films about freedom and dignity as it pertains to black people," the 'Selma' director said.

One year ago, Ava DuVernay had not even begun shooting Selma. Paramount was waffling on giving the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic a green light, and DuVernay — a studio publicist turned independent filmmaker — wasn't feeling particularly optimistic. She was, after all, the studio's seventh choice.

What a difference a year makes.

DuVernay, 42, seemed as stunned as anyone as she retraced "the most awesome f—ing year" of her life in a Saturday morning keynote at South by Southwest. It was by turns a rousing, funny and brutally frank assessment of her rise to the Hollywood A-leagues on the strength of her widely lauded civil rights drama.

She says the success of the film — her third and by far biggest (Selma cost $20 million, her previous two $50,000 and $200,000, respectively) — came out of a conscious decision to ignore ego-driven incentives like awards and profits. Instead, she pledged to give herself over entirely to the service of a story that desperately needed to be told.

"I came to realize that those dreams I was dreaming were too small," DuVernay said of those early drivers. "If your dream only includes you, it's too small."

Of course, awards recognition came anyway. But DuVernay, who was passed over for a directing nomination by the Academy Awards, says she came to a powerful realization while sitting in the audience at the Dolby Theatre, glammed up in a Prada gown tailored to her figure by two expert seamstresses flown in from Italy.

"It was a room in L.A.," she said of the Oscars, where Selma picked up one statuette, for best song. "Not anything but a room in L.A. 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."

Throughout the speech, one name was invoked more than any other: Oprah Winfrey's. It was Winfrey who finally moved the needle on the long-gestating project after signing on as a producer in early 2014, working alongside Brad Pitt, who developed Selma at Paramount through his Plan B banner.

Sensing a kindred spirit, Winfrey took DuVernay under her wing, and instructed her to write down five things for which she was grateful every day. It's a practice DuVernay relies upon to get through life's most difficult moments, such as the time she was called a "hate-mongerer and distorter of history" in the New York Times by a historian who objected to her interpretation of President Lyndon B. Johnson as obstinate when it came to the passage of civil rights legislation. (DuVernay did an extensive rewrite on Paul Webb's Selma screenplay, but had to painfully forgo a writing credit for "contractual" reasons.)

"What am I grateful for in this moment in time? Well … I'm in the New York Times?" she recalls thinking, one of many lines that drew big laughs from a racially diverse crowd of about 600.

During a question-and-answer session, DuVernay was asked by one questioner, a white man from Alabama who said the film brought his family to tears, why it took 50 years to bring the story of the march on Selma, Ala., to the screen.

DuVernay minced no words in offering her response.

"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."