When renowned writer, filmmaker and director Ava DuVernay spoke during the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, she gave keen insight into her storytelling process.
In a candid conversation led by award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee, DuVernay addressed a wide range of topics including her career as a storyteller, dealing with imposter syndrome and the issue of race and diversity in the film industry.
“I think there are different histories and some of them are pushed to the forefront and considered fact and the history of record and then there are histories that have been purposely depressed and hidden, but that doesn’t make them any less real,” DuVernay told the crowd of more than 10,000 who gathered Wednesday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“When we think of Black history, when we think women’s history, when we think of the histories of oppressed people, I like to not prioritize history with a capital H, like there is only one and we have to kind of remake it,” she continued.
“What I feel that I am doing is I am taking these other histories and centering them and prioritizing them.”
DuVernay’s work includes “When They See Us,” which tells the story the Central Park Five; the Oscar-winning historical drama Selma; the Oscar-nominated criminal justice documentary “13th,” and Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” on which she became the highest-grossing Black female filmmaker in American cinema history.
The Academy Award nominee and Emmy-Award winner is known for amplifying the work of women and people of color in an industry dominated by white males.
“Some of bigger directors in my space are white men and they have what we call fan boys,” DuVernay said, referring to men who rally around directors and support their projects.
“We really don’t have fan girls,” she said. “There are some in some industries but the way that I see these fan boys descending on the internet to kind of protect filmmakers and artists that they love, I think there is something in that that gives men the confidence.”
“There is unity around their ideas that I would love to see more of among us and I think that will help us kind of mitigate whatever imposter syndrome we have,” she continued.
She encouraged the women in attendance to be more supportive and protective of each other and to become fan girls.
“I want us to be taking our earrings off for each other and standing in front of each other,” DuVernay stated.
“Those are part of building blocks to getting away from this idea that we are imposters — that we don’t belong. It’s just to create a sense of belonging among us wherever we go. That’s why it’s important to hire each other. It’s important to mentor each other. It’s important to talk to each other.”
“These are the things that go toward helping is know that we are not imposters — that we belong and that the differences that we have been made to believe exist between our work product, our ethic and men is really just myths and lies,” she said to rousing applause.
When asked why she makes it a point to hire women and people of color for her projects, DuVernay responded, “everyone should do what they want to do. I just tell my story. You are limiting your ability to be great if you think greatness only looks like you.”
DuVernay joined other conference headliners who spoke Wednesday afternoon including Elizabeth Gilbert, New York Times best-selling author of “Eat Pray Love” and MacArthur Genius Grant winner and two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” was the 2019 selection for One Book, One Philadelphia.
The sold-out event’s lineup of speakers also included James Clear, New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits and Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, co-founders and co-CEOs of theSkimm. Tickets for Pennsylvania’s conference usually sell out the day they become available. The nonpartisan, nonprofit conference is part of the largest network of women’s conferences in the country.
“It is an honor to support this dynamic community of women through this annual conference and all our year-round resources,” said Leslie Stiles, president of the Pennsylvania Conference for Women Board. “It’s incredibly rewarding to know this event continues to be Pennsylvania’s elite women’s conference.”