You are likely familiar with the name Ava DuVernay. As a filmmaker, she’s repeatedly made history as the first African-American woman to be nominated for and win multiple top awards. Her career has ranged through both fiction and documentary, and many different facets of the production process including writing, directing, and producing.
DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California, not far from the world of Hollywood, and she grew up in Lynwood. She attended UCLA, but at the time she was not intending to pursue a career in film. Double majoring in English and African-American studies, she was thinking about journalism. During an internship with CBS News, she helped with coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial and said she was asked to “sit outside the juror’s house, look through trash and do all the things I thought were not becoming of a broadcast journalist. I became disenchanted with journalism, so I pivoted to publicity.” That pivot led to the creation of the DuVernay Agency, a public relations firm that promoted and marketed other directors’ film projects. She has said that working in PR let her really get to know filmmakers and their work. “That closeness to film as a marketer sparked my interest in filmmaking itself.”
In 2008, DuVernay directed the feature documentary This Is the Life: How the West Was One. The film focuses on The Good Life Café, where a large community of hip-hop artists gathered in the early ‘90’s for a regular open mic night. She told Interview Magazine that she had already written a feature script but decided to start with a documentary project because of the budget constraints of narrative filmmaking. “…the documentaries were something that I could do for a small amount of money, and then I felt like as long as I found the truth in the stories I was telling as a doc, I could teach myself filmmaking through doc filmmaking.”
She was able to put those lessons to work in 2011, with her first narrative feature I Will Follow. Filmed in only two weeks on a $50,000 budget, it was praised by Roger Ebert as “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one.” It was screened at several festivals before a limited release run, and won the 2011 Best Screenplay Award from the African-American Film Critics Association. DuVernay also was nominated for the screenplay and for best director at the 2012 Black Reel Awards.
Almost immediately after the release of I Will Follow, DuVernay began filming Middle of Nowhere, based on a script she had written years before. The film tells the story of a woman’s struggle to navigate her life and her relationships while her husband serves a long prison sentence.
With only a nineteen day shooting schedule, and a $200,000 budget, the film was still very small by most standards. It was shot on location in and around the neighborhoods that it depicts. After the film’s premiere at Sundance, the New York Times said that Middle of Nowhere is “a plaintive, slow-boiling, quietly soul-stirring drama about a woman coming into her own.” DuVernay became the first African-American woman to be honored with the Best Director prize at Sundance that year.
DuVernay did not leave documentary behind after this success in narrative film, and in 2013 she directed Venus Vs. for ESPN as part of their Nine for IX series. That year, she was also invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in both the director and writer branches. She is only the second African-American woman invited to join the directors’ branch.
In 2014, DuVernay returned to narrative filmmaking with the historical drama Selma, serving as director and doing un-credited rewrites of the script. The film was critically acclaimed, and was nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Academy Awards. DuVernay was notably absent from the list of Best Director nominees, though she has said she hadn’t expected to be included. She was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics’ Choice Award, and a Film Independent Spirit Award and won Best Woman Director and Female Icon of the Year from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
DuVernay followed up with the documentary 13th, which was distributed by Netflix and premiered in 2016. The film ties together the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” and the current issue of mass incarceration. It sounds like an insurmountably complex topic, but DuVernay uses the language of film to help draw out the history in a compelling way.
It has won awards from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, the Women Film Critics Circle, and the Black Reel Awards. It is currently nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 2017 Oscars, a category which is notable for the representation of African-American filmmakers and subjects in this year’s nominations. DuVernay is also the first black woman nominated in the category.
During the documentary’s production, DuVernay was also busy with the series Queen Sugar, which aired on OWN in 2016. The series follows a family of sugarcane farmers in modern day Louisiana. Each of the 13 episodes was directed by women, five of them had never directed episodic television before. DuVernay told Vulture that part of the problem is studios not appreciating the similarities of indie film and television, and thus not giving these women credit for their directing experience. “I look at these women, and if anyone would take the time to watch their films and value their voices, it would be indisputable that they should be working.”
While the show’s second season will have a new shownrunner, DuVernay will continue to hire the directors and has said they will again be an all-female group.
Outside of her work as a director, she has also started the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, or AFFRM, in 2010. In 2015, the group was rebranded as ARRAY, which works for “the amplification of independent films by people of color and women filmmakers globally.” DuVernay believes that art serves a social purpose, and advocates for representation in the media both in front of and behind the camera. She doesn’t like to use the word diversity, instead opting for “inclusion.” She told The New York Times, “I feel [diversity] is a medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue. It’s emotional for artists who are women and people of color to have less value placed on our worldview.” Inclusion is better because “there’s a belonging problem in Hollywood.”
DuVernay is quick to point out that her success shouldn’t be taken as an indication of anything larger, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I’m one person…that’s not change. That’s an anomaly,” and that “the fact that the mainstream starts to gaze at this space doesn’t make it a moment, it makes it a moment for them.” She says that the problems of inclusion and representation are systemic and “there needs to be more done than applauding one or two people who make it through your door.”
DuVernay’s career has ranged throughout genres and formats, including television documentaries, short films, and even a podcast called The Call-In. In addition to her filmmaking awards, she has even been honored with an official limited edition Barbie doll which sold out in less than 20 minutes.
Her work is also part of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, with the short film August 28: A Day in the Life of a People. The film looks at the date of August 28th in different pivotal years in American history and was created for the museum’s opening. It now welcomes visitors as they enter the museum.
In 2017, DuVernay told Essence magazine, “I don’t have to approach film like a man would, or like anybody else I read about, because it’s personal. So there’s no right way or wrong way. Directors talk about their process but that doesn’t have to be my process.” She has also commented that as a black woman director, she very rarely gets asked to talk about the actual craft of directing, instead always being asked about “diversity.” The discussion that followed that comment, in a podcast interview with Vulture TV’s Matt Zoller Seitz, is a fascinating look not just at her process but also her skill and confidence as a director.
She is bringing all of that skill and confidence to her current project, a highly anticipated adaptation of the Madeline L’Engle book A Wrinkle In Time, starring Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. When she was hired by Disney for the film, DuVernay became the first African-American woman to direct a live action film with a hundred million dollar budget. But she has said “the way I tell a story is the same at $100 plus million as it was for my first movie…I have more tools to do it and more planks to build the house now, but ultimately if the story is not solid, it doesn’t matter how much money you have.”
While she has many projects being developed, it is guaranteed that DuVernay will be pursuing her own path in her own way, as she told The Hollywood Reporter, no one is going to stop her from doing what she wants to do. And she believes that other women filmmakers need to remember nothing is stopping them either. “But if you walk in ready for it, to fight for your stories, to recognize that the traditional walls are collapsing, that the old system is on its last legs, that there are new ways to create material, to distribute material, to amplify your material, there’s no one stopping you…There’s nothing stopping you anymore from telling your story.”
Written by Mary Ratliff