Ava DuVernay for the movie ‘Selma’. Photo: Magnus Sundholm
  • Industry

Director Ava DuVernay: Breaking Barriers That Shouldn’t Exist

One in an occasional series featuring prominent women working in Hollywood today.


“It’s bittersweet.” Says Ava DuVernay about the accolades she’s racking up as a director, because she also has the dubious distinction of being the first woman of color to achieve many of the groundbreaking titles bestowed upon her. “As a black woman director I hold that Golden Globe nomination very close to my heart,” she says of being included in the Best Director category for her work on Selma (2015). “The Golden Globe nomination was the first major international award that saw and acknowledged my work as being worthy of excellence and achievement.” She was also the first woman of color to win the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Best Director Award prize for helming Middle of Nowhere. However, she does not consider the accolades as an endorsement that she is a trailblazer. “When I hear in 2015 that I’m the first woman of color to do something in the world of film, it makes me think of all the women, particularly black women who have come before me who just haven’t had the opportunity, or the spotlight like I’ve had. Who didn’t have the support, nor people on whose shoulders they could stand. All those women who did it for decades before me, and no one knows their names; I know their names. Some people know their names – but their names are not known like mine. Mine is in the spotlight only because they blazed the trail so that I could walk the path.”


For the Los Angeles native, who grew up in Compton, it’s all about the work. For 14 years she ran her own PR company providing award strategy for names like Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. It was while working on the set of Michael Mann’s Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jada Pinkett Smith that DuVernay had an epiphany. “I’d been on many sets as a publicist over the years; they were usually shot outside of LA or on a sound stage. This movie was shot in the inner city where I grew up and it struck me that it was possible to tell stories with these new tools – digital cameras – in communities of color. I thought if Michael Mann could tell a story here, then I should be able to tell a story here. That sent me into investigative film making.” The result was Venus VS, an ESPN documentary that traced tennis star, Venus Williams’ fight, for women to receive prize money equal to that of the men’s purse at Wimbledon. The UCLA graduate explains the attraction. “Venus coming from Compton, like I had, and having a story that was so vital and unheard, prompted me to make that documentary. Many people didn’t know that Venus Williams, one of the greatest athletes of her time, had used her fame, fortune and her spotlight to fight for something that mattered beyond herself. I thought it was a fascinating story.”

The theme of the outsider resonates with DuVernay.  “I didn’t enter film making with a book of connections, so I had to allow my work to do the networking for me.” She’s been delighted and surprised at the manner in which people have made themselves allies.  “Kathryn Bigelow, (the first female director to win an Oscar) has been wonderful, open, warm and giving in her advice. J.J. Abrams, and Robin Swicord, are others she counts amongst her inner circle. She’s currently co-producing a series with Oprah Winfrey: Queen Sugar based on the novel with the same name by Natalie Baszile which she will also direct, and counts Oprah as a great advocate and collaborator. When pushed for specific advice these heavy weights may have shared, Ava hesitates. “These are on-going relationships. Sometimes you get inspiration by their very presence and the way that they are, as opposed to passive quotes.” Then she elaborates, “One of the things Oprah always talks about is being your best self in any moment, even when times are hard or there are rough moments, to take a second to breathe and see things on a higher perspective. Its really helpful in the world of directing where sometimes it’s about controlling chaos.” “People will support you if you work hard and stay open. I didn’t think that would be the case when I was on the outside. Now I’m a little bit more in the industry I have found a lot of like-minded people who are really giving and caring and lovely.”

In case it seems that it’s been all glory and ease for DuVernay, she puts things in perspective. “Coming into a meeting, walking to a receptionist and them not believing you have a meeting in that place,” “is just one of the hundred micro aggressions that happen at any given time living as a black woman in the United States of America.” Ultimately, if there is something I feel is egregious or inappropriate – not just to me as a black woman, or as a woman, but to anyone else that is around. If something is said about the LBGT community, or Muslims, I call it out.” “I’ve been in very big rooms, very fancy rooms where I say, ‘Oh, that’s not cool, that’s very inappropriate, that makes me uncomfortable, is that what you really believe?’ Most of the time if you call people on it, they back away from it.”

Something else she’s not hesitant to highlight is that films about minorities, starring minorities are good business and do well at the box office. “There have always been films by and about women and black people that have done incredibly well at the box office and critically. It’s become hard for people to propagate the obverse because there are so many facts.  It’s in your face that is not just a one-off. To see Straight Out of Compton, Creed, Selma, Precious, 12 Years a Slave – these are just the films that are considered prestige pictures,” she rattles off the names of films that have been on the ‘Best of the Best’ lists during award seasons recently, then broadens the net. “When you look at box office, at the Barbershop films, the Kevin Hart films, the Tyler Perry Films, the Think Like A Man films, films for and by people who don’t see themselves (reflected) enough, yet they do great numbers? At some point it becomes not a myth; it becomes a lie.” Factor in that more than half of frequent moviegoers in 2013 were minorities and the idea that movies with minority leads or stories are unprofitable seems questionable. DuVernay agrees. “There is no fact that backs it up and we know the truth is something different. We are at the point now that we can’t hear that without saying, ‘You are not being truthful.’ It’s not a myth. It’s not a Hollywood rule. At this point its antiquated and false and more people are realizing that and thinking about things in a different way.”

Queen Sugar will air on OWN.