“It’s Not Anything But a Big Room in LA”: ‘Selma’ Director Ava DuVernay on the Oscars, the LBJ Controversy, and What’s Next

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AUSTIN, TX: At a rousing Keynote address at the SXSW Film Festival Saturday morning, Selma director Ava DuVernay addressed her film’s much-discussed Oscar snubs and the controversy surrounding its portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but primarily sent her audience away with an inspiring message about what she discovered during “the fucking most awesome year.”

In a thirty-minute address to an enthusiastic Austin audience, DuVernay talked about her newfound appreciation of “the intention of our attention. It’s so big for everyone, but especially for artists and creative types like us. It’s the cause that produced the effect, and the effect is our life. So if you’re not paying attention to your intention, then your life is kind of a hot mess.”

She illustrated the principle via remembering three of the biggest days of her life: the opening days of her three films. On her first picture, the $50,000 micro-indie I Will Follow, the goal was establishing herself as a filmmaker (after years as a publicist) and launching her independent distribution cooperative. On her second, the $200,000 Middle of Nowhere, the goal was getting into the Sundance Film Festival, and the credibility and accolades that afforded her. Both of those were big deals, she said, but hitting those kinds of targets “will ring hollow in the end, because none of that shit matters.”

The opening of Selma was different, because “something happened as I started Selma that excluded any thought of box office or awards or any of that.. I went into that film with one thought, singular and clear: Serve this story.” And because she made that decision, she says, “I started working inward instead of outward. And when I tell you that the world opened up, there are dreams out there bigger than you even know how to dream. So don’t limit the dream with the small stuff. You have to open up and let your attention be beyond yourself, because if you’re dreaming about you, it’s too small.”

And that, it seems, was the approach that allowed her to take a kind of Zen philosophy about the film’s Oscar nominations and wins–or lack thereof. She made a realization at the Oscars, she says, “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, or about that room… This cannot be the basis of what we do.”

The much-discussed question of Selma‘s depiction of LBJ was one she dismissed within the keynote itself with a simple “Ergh.” But when asked about it in the Q&A, DuVerney added this: “Y’know, that’s the whole thing about what is truth and what is fact. And what’s true for me is not true for [those critics]. So, what are we gonna argue about? You can make your movie and I’m gonna make mine, which is done and out, sorry, it’s out there. Which is basically what it was, so no disrespect, but that’s what it is.”

The other recurring theme of the Q&A was the question of representation and diversity, and one where DuVernay suggests action rather than discussion. When one audience member asked why it took so long for an MLK-based film to hit theaters, DuVernay offered a simple theory: “Studios aren’t lining up to make films about black protagonists, about freedom and dignity as it pertains to black people and people of color being the drivers of their lives. So that’s not, ‘What should make this year, Tom?’ ‘Oh, let’s make that!'”

But ultimately, she says, it’s up to the storytellers to, well, tell stories. “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, 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 for permission who don’t care about the work, and do the work.”

Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire