When Ava Duvernay began her talk, saying she had had a bad week (family issues), had not had a chance to work on her speech, and then finally decided to write it in the form of a journal entry, my heart sank. However, she went on to say that after pondering the five things that day that she could be grateful for (Oprah Winfrey’s advice to her as daily ritual) she became inspired about what she was going to say. This particular day she was grateful for a quiet flight, the greetings she had received from SXSW staff members, the stories she was told by her production designer about a stint in the Israeli Army, a great hotel room, and being inspired about what she planned to say today.
She framed it in terms of intentions that underlie our attention. She recounted her intentions in the films she made before Selma. First, for I Will Follow, a $50 million endeavor, her primary intentions were to get it kick-started and distributed, and she organized a collective for this purpose. Her attention was then focused on distribution of films and affirming herself as a filmmaker. Now, she sees her error: She had placed her sense of self-worth on factors outside of herself.
Her second film was Middle of Nowhere, a $200 thousand endeavor. Sundance had rejected her films five times previously, so this time, her intentions were focused on making the deadline for submission, which she made, and the film was accepted. Her error this time, she says, was that her dream was too small; it was only about her, and she was still relying on factors outside herself for validation.
With her third film, Selma, there was a huge boost in the budget: $20 million. Someone said to her, “It’s a hell of a thing to get everything you wanted.” This bugged her a bit, and she realized she needed to set aside her ego for something beyond herself. This filled her with bewilderment and wonder, and her motto became “Serve this story.” She should have nothing else in mind but that the film should be made for others.
She had to go beyond her self-perception of being a “Little Oprah”, she ignored reviews, was not obsessed with award considerations, etc. In other words, she “went nerd”, and she and her star David Oyelowo determined to go to every theater in Los Angeles on opening day and watch the film with the audience. As she watched their reactions, she said this brought her more joy than all the other films. Duvernay’s message to us in all this is to “go big” with our dreams and open them up beyond ourselves. For Selma, Duvernay felt better grounded in her intentions; this time, she was aware that her dream was so much larger than herself. She simply needed to tell the story, and it was about service.
Duvernay says she is still awestruck; she was thrilled during the whirl of award season, dinner at the White House, visiting Oprah and other famous people in their homes, and a conversation with Meryl Street, but realized that a film’s worth is not in all that: It’s about making films that will be of service to others.
Duvernay clearly deserved the standing ovation and thunderous applause she received. And it occurred to me that because of her insightful qualities, I figure she was not disappointed about not getting an Oscar nomination; she was more grateful for the approbation of the people who saw her film, particularly those people who participated in the Selma demonstrations.Rarely are the newly famous so insightful.