“What will be your story, your movie?,” asked activist, filmmaker and producer Ava DuVernay at Schoellkopf Field at the University’s convocation ceremony on Saturday. “You’re the director.”
After being introduced by President Martha E. Pollack, DuVernay quipped about the “good-looking group” and poked fun at the crowd’s fanning of pamphlets on the hot, humid afternoon.
DuVernay called the day “a dream come true” and joked about her trek to Cornell — “it ain’t easy to get here, folks” — before delving into a passionate speech about these “tender, uncertain times.”
DuVernay, who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a double major in Africana studies and English literature, noted her journey from California to Cornell in her address. She described small interactions she had with fans at the airport as “dreams I had not declared.”
She noted that her presence as a woman of color on that stage was a shift from the original vision of the founders of the University, also noting that “Madame President” Martha Pollack’s presidency was a part of that shift.
“The numbers never supported it,” she said. “I’m from Compton. I’m a woman. I’m black. I never went to film school. The odds that I would be doing what I’m doing were infinitesimal.”
DuVernay is the first woman of color to be featured as convocation speaker at the University since 2008, when poet Maya Angelou delivered the address.
Other “firsts” of DuVernay include being the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe and Academy award. She recently directed films including Selma, the documentary 13th and A Wrinkle in Time, one of the largest budget films to be directed by a woman.
“I stand here before you as a filmmaker, as you stand on the edge of your future, in a place where in the past, it would never have been imagined by the founders of this institution that I would – or could – stand here and speak to you in this way,” said the award winning producer to applause.
Her speech also referenced the University’s past histories of racial bias and tensions.
“The Africana studies building was a target of arson here in the 1970s,” said DuVernay to a crowd of thousands of students, families, alumni and faculty. “Months ago, racially motivated attacks occurred on this campus.”
The attacks alluded to were reported on by The Sun and led to the formation of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate by Pollack, who sat listening behind DuVernay.
The filmmaker said that her experience as a storyteller, and her past as a history student, made her optimistic for the future. “What gives me hope … is the knowledge that there is precedent — precedent for everything that everyone is experiencing,” DuVernay said. “To be hopeless is to disregard history.”
“Everything has happened before, and everything will happen again,” she added.
DuVernay advised that the two things in an individual’s control are their preparation for what can occur and their reaction to what does. These times, she said, were ones that would be “long-remembered, to say the least.”
“There are cracks and fissures in the surface of everything we once knew,” she said. “We can see that as brokenness, or we can see it as room, as space to create a new path.”
DuVernay concluded her speech describing herself as “a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust for fraud, and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty” and congratulating the Class of 2018. She sat to a standing ovation by audience members that nearly filled the field and the bleachers behind it.
Elizabeth Gorman ’18, chair of the Convocation Committee, thanked DuVernay with a convocation medallion, and Vice President Ryan Lombardi lauded her words as an inspiring message for all.
Ending with a performance of the alma mater by the Glee Club, Chorus and Wind Symphony, audience members and onstage presenters swayed to the conclusion of the University’s convocation ceremony.