What a way to kick off SXSW.
Selma director Ava DuVernay began her keynote by telling us all that she’d written it this morning. It had been a crappy week, and she’s been busy with personal stuff and the TV show she’s working on, and it had just slipped through the cracks. But she had written something this morning, a journal entry of sorts, and she asked if she could share that with us.
She began by posing a question. What things are we giving our attention to? And what is our intention with that attention?
To illustrate, she talked about the opening days for each of her three narrative films. During her first, I Will Follow, she was avidly tracking its opening at the box office. For her second, Middle of Nowhere, the entire journey was about finally getting into Sundance (where she’d been rejected several times previously). “Later, I would see my error,” she said, as she left the conclusion to each story hanging.
Then she dropped the bomb.
“If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.”
That phrase was repeated several other times during the course of her speech. She spoke to how, with her first two narrative features, she was looking to external sources for validation. Box office receipts. Festival awards.
With Selma and its massive historical and modern social importance, there was simply no space to worry about such things, and DuVernay says she half-stumbled (ok, she had a little help from her friend Oprah and a habit of practicing intentional gratefulness) into something remarkable. She was so worried about doing wrong by the people Selma depicts, she unconsciously set aside her own ego. “Serve the story” became her mantra, she says, and do the art in service to others. With her previous films, she said, “I wasn’t making great strides as a person and as an artist.”
DuVernay shared many details from a remarkable year past, including the unsure early stages: not knowing this time a year ago if the film was going to get a green light, not being able to use MLK’s real speeches because the production couldn’t pay for the rights, having to abandon her writing credit to get it to go, being the studio’s seventh choice to direct.
From there were many accolades (awards, critical praise, fancy dinners, a trip to the White House), but I found it interesting that DuVernay finished her narrative about her journey with Selma with the Academy Awards. She was, of course, popularly perceived as a snub for a Best Director nomination, but she said as she sat in the theater for the Oscars, she had an epiphany. “It was not anything but a big room in L.A.” and that wasn’t what she was striving for.
“Serve the story.”
Have an “intention of service” and an attention to it.
In an industry that is so often hammered (and rightly so) for its incredible self-absorption, it was refreshing to hear a voice for the “small and powerful tribe” speaking out on the virtue of service in storytelling and in life.
And all this from a speech written this morning, at the end of a crappy week.