One of the hottest directors, producers, screenwriters, and filmmakers of our time, Ava DuVernay, is creating media that educates, inspires, and tells complex stories about the human experience. A latecomer to the screen game, DuVernay didn’t pick up a camera until the age of 32 — but we are so glad she did because she has been making and sharing media that heals the soul.
Although she is originally from Compton, California, DuVernay did not have any connections to Hollywood before she began making films. In an interview with Go Into the Story with Scott Myers, DuVenary shared that her love for watching films was inspired by her tia. “I had a very beloved aunt named Denise who was a lover of the arts, film, music, theater, and literature.” Not only did her tia love films and share her love for them with DuVernay, she also shared her “encyclopedic knowledge of film” with her. One of her earliest memories was watching the Latino cult classic film, West Side Story. “I watched West Side Story and was just really captivated and mesmerized by all the color and the brown people and the dancing and the music and the love story.”
DuVernay did not take a film and or screenwriting class while she attended UCLA and still hadn’t taken any formal academic filmmaking classes when she started to explore storytelling through film. Instead, she took advantage of the resources she had available to her. To her, the most useful thing to start off with has always been the Director Commentaries on DVDs. While some people might find the commentary annoying or weird, DuVernay feels a different way: “Imagine this,” she says. “Your favorite movie. The director’s going to sit down with you, one on one and walk you through their movie, what they did, what they were thinking about, how that shot came to be — I mean, it’s gold for people who wanna learn what they’re doing. I watched so many director’s commentaries.” She also took advantage of the numerous Q&A events that Los Angeles offers. Through these conversations, she was able to get a direct line of information from reputable sources and people doing what she wanted to do. And of course, she leveraged her day job as a public relations professional and learning the business side of filmmaking.
Through opening her own PR agency at the age of 27, she was able to help consult on films while learning and connecting with the people and world she needed to in order to get her stories shared and watched. She consulted on Spy Kids, the television show Girlfriends, White Chicks, Shrek, and several other television and film projects. These opportunities helped realize that she wanted to create a lane all her own when it came to the creation and distribution of African American filmmakers. In 2010 she founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM). According to their site, AFFRM is “an independent film distribution and resource collective comprised of arts advocacy organizations, Maverick volunteers and Rebel member donors worldwide.”
It was through AFFRM that she released her first independent film I Will Follow in 2010.
I Will Follow received rave reviews from institutions like the Chicago Film Festival, Urban World Film Festival, and the Pan – African International Film Festival to name a few. Famed professional and trusted critic Roger Ebert said, “I Will Follow is one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Directed by Ava DuVernay, it isn’t sentimental, it isn’t superficial. It is very deeply true.” He also went on to say that every emotion in this wonderful independent film is one I’ve experienced myself.”
I Will Follow tells the story of a Black woman learning how to let go of a loved one who is dying, a loved one she left to care for her sick aunt, dealing with family relationships, and falling in love all at once. Truly talented at capturing the human experience – the Black human experience – and making it universal, DuVernay is continuing to give Black people the ability to be the tellers of their own stories, growth, and keepers of their own emotions. She released another independent film, Middle of Nowhere.
However, neither of these films were almost made because of a lack of funding.
At first, DuVernay was trying to get funding from major studios but says, “[Studios are] not knocking down doors to make nuanced stories about the interior lives of black women,” and as a result of that not happening she had to put projects aside. After some time away from the piece and realizing another avenue for her to release her work was on the independent circuit she pursued independent filmmaking.
Her ability to break out on the independent film circuit helped bring her work, talent, and abilities to the eyes of major media companies. In 2013 she worked on Shonda Rhimes’ show Scandal as the director of the episode, “Vermont is For Lovers, Too.” The following year she was directing Selma. Selma tells the true story of Martin Luther King and several freedom fighters in the south of The United States coming together to walk 54 miles from Selma, Alabama to the states’ capital in Montgomery, Alabama to fight for the voting rights of African Americans.
Going from being an underfunded and relative outsider of Hollywood to directing a film that highlights one of turning points in American history in four years is only possible because DuVernay did not give up and had a clear reason for continuing on, telling and sharing the stories of Black people. “I’m interested in the lives of Black folk as the subject. Not the predicate, not the tangent.[These stories] deserve to be told. Not as sociology, not as spectacle, not as a singular event that happens every so often, but regularly and purposefully as truth and as art on an ongoing basis, as do the stories of all the women you love.”
Of course, as a Black women filmmaker in Hollywood she has faced her share of barriers and roadblocks however she took her own advice and figured out what she had to do and moved towards her goals while being aware but not consumed with the blocks she may encounter. “Ignore the glass ceiling and do your work. If you’re focusing on the glass ceiling, focusing on what you don’t have, focusing on the limitations, then you will be limited. My way was to work, make my short… make my documentary… make my small films… use my own money… raise money myself… and stay shooting and focused on each project.”
Today, DuVernay holds the title of the first African American woman to direct a $100 million dollar for a Wrinkle in Time. A film that she felt nervous but excited about because of the ways she was able to build the worlds and have a young Black girl be not only the protagonist of the film but the hero as well. She is the first Black woman to win Best Director at Sundance in 2012 for Middle of Nowhere. And according to IMBD, she is currently nominated for 56 awards and of those 56 has won 53 of them including winning a Primetime Emmy.
Whether she’s making independent films, blockbuster hits, documentaries, and heart-wrenching series like Netflix’s When They See Us DuVernay, OWN’s (yes, Oprah’s OWN) Queen Sugar, using her passion for Black people, art, and visually compelling storytelling to change the media landscape forever. In fact, her series Queen Sugar makes it a point to hire and work with talented women in front and behind the camera. In 2016, all of the directors on set were women.
DuVernay is a brilliant woman that not only tells stories in human and visually appealing ways; she is also helping create paths for other African Americans to enter the field through her personal hiring practices and incentives. She is all the proof anyone needs to learn that you can pivot in life at any point you want and still succeed.