Ava DuVernay on Rejection

When director Ava DuVernay first applied to the Sundance Film Festival, her work was swiftly rejected.

Seven rejections later, she was accepted into the festival with her 2012 independent film Middle of Nowhere – and that year she also ended up winning the top directorial prize from the festival. Best known for “small, independent, character-driven films,” she has since released the critically acclaimed civil rights era film Selma, which went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards.

But Ms. DuVernay still knows a thing or two about rejection, especially given the controversy around the Selma Oscars nomination. While the film nabbed a best picture nod, DuVernay herself was passed over for a best director nomination, an unusual move perceived by some to be a deliberate snub. As a black female filmmaker in an overwhelmingly white and male industry where success often depends on who you know and leveraging connections, DuVernay is used to having the odds stacked against her.

The thing she has discovered is that her success is defined not by what she alone achieves – measured by box office numbers or awards recognition – but how much collective good she is able to contribute.

For DuVernay, it is not all about her, so the rejection isn’t about her either, and so cannot be taken personally. In a panel talk she gave about indie film success in Los Angeles, DuVernay said:

“So often in this industry we wait for permission. We wait for someone to tell us it’s OK to do something. Sometimes you have to create your own systems, your own structures.”

That was the mindset that led her to create the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a collective aimed at distributing black independent films. For DuVernay, her focus remains on the bigger picture and what she is able to do with the opportunities she finds.

A lesson she says she’s learned from making Selma was to do everything it took to “serve the story” rather than her own ego, including giving up a writer’s credit and putting aside thoughts of winning awards, in order to ensure that the story itself was told in the best possible and most meaningful way.

That meant creating true-to-life characters while crafting the screenplay rather than standard tropes from history class, with an emphasis on the underrepresented women of the civil rights movement. She also surrounded herself with people who believed in the story as passionately as she did, and were also willing to do what it took to get it made at the highest quality possible.

“Find your people. Find your tribe. Trust your feelings and grow your tribe around your work.”

One lesson we can all learn from this is that when your idea of success isn’t based on the rejection or approval of others, the thing that begins to guide you instead is a focus on the core of what you’re trying to achieve. This then allows you to realize the steps it takes to make that happen.

And while she may not have received the best director nomination for Selma, for DuVernay the greater prize has been the knowledge of how much the film has affected people who have seen it. She has said that watching the audiences watch the film, “…brought me more joy than I think I experienced on everything that happened.”

She’s already quickly gaining a status as one of the brightest new rising stars in independent filmmaking, with her previously made works garnering fresh acclaim, and two television projects in the works including a collaboration with Selma producer Oprah Winfrey on a series for her OWN TV network.

In her keynote address at this year’s SXSW festival, DuVernay said:

“The Oscars were just a room in L.A. 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 that room. There are dreams out there that are bigger than you even know how to dream, so don’t limit the dream with the small stuff. If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.”

Ava is an inspiration to strong independent black woman everywhere. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for insight, wisdom and notices for when our posts go live.

Image Credit: RollingOut.com

About Gesilayefa Azorbo

Gesilayefa Azorbo is a writer, photographer, emerging filmmaker and occasional poet. She is doing a Documentary Media MFA at Ryerson University, and is currently working on a music documentary. She likes (and often writes about) music, movies, books and people. When not listening to music, she is most likely humming it under her breath.