However, this year, the Oscar-nominated director of Selma, 51, makes history as the 80-year festival’s first African American woman to compete for the coveted Golden Lion, with her film Origin.
Starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Jon Bernthal, DuVernay’s biopic revolves around the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson, whose non-fiction book Caste explored the genesis of racism in America.
Ahead of the film’s official world premiere on Wednesday (6 September), DuVernay spoke at a press conference about breaking barriers as the first Black woman filmmaker ever to be accepted to compete at Venice.
“For Black filmmakers, we’re told that people who love films in other parts of the world don’t care about our stories and don’t care about our films. This is something that we are often told: you cannot play international film festivals, no one will come,” DuVernay said.
“People will not come to the press conferences, people won’t come to the [press and industry] screenings. They will not be interested in selling tickets. You might not even get into this festival, don’t apply. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, ‘Don’t apply to Venice, you won’t get in. It won’t happen,’” she continued.
“And this year, something happened that hadn’t happened in eight decades before: an African-American woman in competition. So now that’s a door open that I trust and hope the festival will keep open.”
On Tuesday (5 September), Origin was acquired by independent film distributors Neon in what was said to be a “competitive” sales process, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Expressing how important it was for the film to remain independent – though it initially didn’t start out as such – DuVernay said: “I don’t feel like we would have had the cast that we had if it had remained in the studio system.
“The studio system is a place where I worked and made projects that I’m proud of, but there is really an aspect of control over who plays what. And there is an idea about who makes money, attracts attention and sometimes that sits at odds with who might be the best person for the part. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor was the best person for this part.”
The film also stars Niecy Nash-Betts, Vera Farmiga, Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Blair Underwood, Connie Nielsen, Emily Yancy, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Finn Wittock, Victoria Pedretti, Isha Blaaker and Myles Frost.
“This cast is populated with actors who are not quote-unquote superstars in Hollywood,” DuVernay continued.
“It’s populated with meat-and-potatoes, blood, sweat and tears working actors who are very respected. The whole cast is filled with them, and together you see how they shine like stars. So I think it gets into this idea of the value that we place on certain artists based on corporations saying who is more valuable and who’s not. And thank goodness we made this film independently and we were able to hand-pick everyone.”
Origin makes its world premiere on Wednesday (6 September) at Venice Film Festival.