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‘Selma’s’ Ava DuVernay: ‘Studios Aren’t Lining Up for Black Protagonists’

Ava DuVernay had an epiphany while attending this year’s Oscars ceremony, where “Selma” received two nominations including best picture, but was snubbed in categories like acting and directing.

“It was a room in L.A.,” DuVernay said in her keynote speech at SXSW on Saturday morning. “It’s not anything but a big room with very nice people dressed up. It’s very cool. But my work’s worth is not about what happens in, around or for that room.”

DuVernay delivered a passionate, at times emotional, speech in Austin about her journey making “Selma,” revealing she was Paramount’s seventh choice to direct the drama about the 1965 civil rights marches.

A member of the audience asked DuVernay why it took so long for Hollywood to tell King’s story.

“The studios aren’t lining up to make films about black protagonists,” DuVernay said. “Black people being autonomous and independent.” But she later stressed that it was important for diverse filmmakers to find ways to get their stories told (“go do the work”).

“I’ve had the f—ing most awesome year,” DuVernay said. “I can’t even describe it.”

She still tried. Her memories included screening her film at the White House 100 years after “The Birth of a Nation” played there, and then being asked to stay for dinner with the Obamas. “I think it might have been because I was rolling with Oprah,” DuVernay said.

She recalled having a panic attack on the night that her movie premiered at the AFI Fest last November. “I went to the bathroom,” DuVernay said. “I vomited, I cried. [I thought], they are going to put me in director’s jail. I was freaking myself out.” But then she stood in front of the theater and received a rapturous standing ovation, and realized they were clapping for her film.

She said that on Christmas Day, when “Selma” opened in limited release, she and David Oyelowo (who plays Martin Luther King Jr. in the $20 million drama) drove to five theaters in Los Angeles to watch audiences watching the film. “That brought me more joy than I think I experienced on everything that happened,” DuVernay said.

She described how Prada flew in two seamstresses from Italy for one of her awards show appearances, “to get these hips right in the dress.”

DuVernay said that the script to “Selma” was a challenge, because producers told her they couldn’t afford the rights to Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches. “What do you mean?” she asked them. “He’s Dr. King. He’s about the speeches.”

But as she was working on the screenplay, she made sure to add women characters to the story. “The women of the movement never got their due,” she said.

DuVernay talked about how, as a young director making indies like 2010’s “I Will Follow” (with a budget of $50,000 from personal savings) and 2012’s “Middle of Nowhere” (which cost $200,000), she found herself focusing on wrong measures of success — like box office grosses and recognition from Sundance.

But with “Selma,” she focused all her energy on servicing the story. “If your dream is only about you, it’s too small,” she said.

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