Filmmaker Ava DuVernay: ‘I was like, “they’re doing this? I can do this”’

Ava DuVernay floats out from her office in a full-length emerald dress, her skirt billowing around her, and greets me with a hug, apologising for making me wait. I’d arrived 15 minutes earlier at the headquarters of Array, the heart of the 49-year-old filmmaker’s expanding creative empire, but DuVernay was recording a guest segment for Kelly Clarkson’s daytime TV show. “I usually don’t wear this much make-up,” she explains, laughing.

A little over 10 years ago DuVernay released her first feature film; since then she’s become a Hollywood powerhouse, writing, directing, producing and even distributing movies, her own and others’. Her company’s campus sits in the mostly residential enclave of Historic Filipinotown, not far from downtown LA. There’s a 50-seater cinema and courtyard walls filled with colourful murals honouring women from the local community; by the gate a wrought iron sign is engraved with a quote from the poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “Art Urges Voyages”.

“We came back to campus in June, and it’s 100 per cent fully vaccinated,” says DuVernay, as we walk across a courtyard. “I had to get back to work. I kept everyone on payroll during the pandemic and we actually grew. There were six or seven new hires.”

From the outset, DuVernay has had bigger ideas than focusing on her own career. She’s a brilliant, versatile filmmaker, from her Sundance-winning romance Middle of Nowhere to her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars, and the searing documentary 13th, an examination of the links between slavery and the US prison-industrial complex. Her Emmy-winning 2019 miniseries When They See Us, the story of the eventually exonerated Central Park Five, was a pacy drama that showed her commitment to highlighting historic injustice

But she’s also an industry disrupter, determined to put a spotlight on the creative work of women and people of colour, to champion them as filmmakers and across the industry. This is about far more than diverse casting: DuVernay has played an outsized role in moving to the centre the stories and experiences of those we’re used to seeing at the margins.

As we drive into downtown LA, heading for a Brazilian place called Woodspoon, I mention one of her recent projects — the re-release on Netflix of Sankofa, a 1993 film by the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima. Feted at the Berlin Film Festival, the movie was originally ignored by US distributors and only found an audience because Gerima fought to release it independently. DuVernay, who calls Gerima one of her artistic heroes, masterminded the restoration of the film. “It does get into a question of authenticated work,” says DuVernay. “You could have a successful, robust career serving black people . . . You could be a star in your community but not within the authenticated spaces. He’s 75 years old and the Academy is just looking his way.”

DuVernay’s own success may seem meteoric, but she’s been in the film business for more than 20 years. After receiving her degree in African American Studies and English from UCLA in the mid-1990s, she worked in entertainment PR, setting up her own agency in 1999. Watching filmmakers at work, and knowing there were stories she wanted to tell from a different perspective, DuVernay started to think about writing and directing herself.

“I have always loved film, but I never thought I could do it,” she says. “But when I started working in publicity and being on set, I was like ‘They’re doing this? I can do this.’ . . . It was really observing directors, white men who were directing, and thinking, ‘I’m interested in what he’s doing, and I can do it too.’”

She started off shooting documentaries and in 2010 wrote and directed her first feature, I Will Follow, on a tiny $50,000 budget. At the same time, she founded a distribution company to release her work and that of other women and creatives of colour. Affrm (African American Film Releasing Movement Now) was rebranded in 2015 as Array, and today the company combines film and TV production, independent filmmaker support and releases, public and educational programming and a platform to support underrepresented professionals in the industry.

The company started with DuVernay and two others; today, she tells me, there are some 40 staff, 90 per cent of them women. “We do have five men. One of our interview questions is, ‘have you ever reported to a woman, and that woman reported to a woman at a company that the woman owned? And if so, then have you ever had a black woman boss?’ I just ask them straight out. You have to.”

We pull up to a little hole-in-the-wall place sandwiched between nondescript storefronts. Inside, it feels like I’ve walked into a friend’s apartment, furnished with things she’s nabbed from her grandmother’s house.

We’re led to our little table with no fanfare by a friendly but harried server. He slips us paper menus, tells us he’s manning the busy lunch hour alone, then rattles off the day’s specials. It usually takes me forever to decide at a restaurant. DuVernay gives the menu a once-over and asks our waiter his name. He says Diego. She then orders appetisers for the table: a sample of the small plates, a mix of Brazilian street food, an order of yucca fries, some grilled prawns and a beet salad. She tells him we’ll be ready to order the main dishes by the time he brings the appetisers.

Lakeith Stanfield in Ava DuVernay’s ‘Selma’ © Alamy

Colin Kaepernick in the Netflix drama ‘Colin in Black and White’ © Alamy

I ask DuVernay if she comes here often. She admits that she hasn’t been able to get away for lunch in a while, but she chose it because it’s a nice place and it’s owned by a black woman. It’s no surprise that even in picking a restaurant, she is intentional about highlighting the work and creativity of other black women. DuVernay has blazed a trail herself: she was the first black woman to win the award for best dramatic director at Sundance, the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for director, the first black female director to direct a film with a budget of $100m (the fantasy adventure A Wrinkle in Time).

“The idea of being the first at all these things, it actually makes me sad, because why am I the first this late in the game?” says DuVernay. “I don’t put it in my bio, and I don’t let people use it to introduce me at events if I have a say. Because when I get picked as the first, I don’t think, ‘ooh, I’m the first!’ I think, ‘wow, there were a lot of people that got ignored, overlooked, underused and underseen in the path to my being the first acknowledged.’ I know those other talented people are there. So it means some institution or studio, or awards saw fit that I was going to be the first one they let in. I’m not happy about that reality.”

She pauses and sips her water. Then shakes her head slowly and adds: “And yet I’m not disparaging it. I know there’s value to winning Sundance and being the first black person to do all that stuff. I’m just saying I’m not internalising it. I’m using it but it’s not a badge of honour for me.”

We are meeting on the five-year anniversary of one of those firsts. Her 2016 documentary 13th, a film about race, justice, and the American incarceration system, was the first film by a black filmmaker to open the New York Film Festival, and the first documentary. She smiles when I mention it.

“What happened with 13th was extraordinary and meaningful, but one of the most significant things for me about that was just the number of young people who watched it. Netflix shows you the data. I mean we’re talking 16, 17, 21-year-olds worldwide, 190 countries, watching and telling their parents and teachers. To be able to feel that swell of youth enthusiasm around something so important was fascinating and powerful.”


107 West 9th Street, Los Angeles, USA

Yucca fries $6

Beet salad $13

Mixed appetisers $12

Grilled prawns $14

Grelhas fish $17

Moqueca $27

Plantains $6

Pastel Portuguese $9

Coconut flan $7

Glass Windstream

Chardonnay $13

Total (incl tax & 22% tip) $163.09

Diego returns with a trayful of appetisers, filling the table with small mismatched plates of potato and cod croquettes, kibe, plantains, coconut shrimp dumplings and grilled prawns. We put in our order for the main course. I order the moqueca, a traditional seafood stew with rice, and DuVernay gets the grelhas fish.

At the time of our meeting, DuVernay has seven different shows either streaming or in production, everything from Colin in Black and White, a drama series about the early life of former American footballer and activist Colin Kaepernick, to Naomi, a DC superhero show, Home Sweet Home, a reality programme about cultural exchanges between families, and Wings of Fire, an animated series that DuVernay tells me is like “Game of Thrones meets The Breakfast Club”. I’m still catching up on Queen Sugar, the Louisiana-set family drama that airs on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel.

“I think of ideas all the time,” says DuVernay. “But as I don’t take assignments, and I’m usually creating from scratch, that’s more responsibility. So I have to just really take my time now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be more discerning . . . I like that idea today but will l like it in two years?”

She admits that she did more than usual during the pandemic. “The pandemic was different because I rushed out with a bunch of new projects, because I was scared. I felt I needed to keep working. So now we have so much stuff . . . And if my name is on it, I’m doing it. I’m working on the final script, final music, I’m really in there.”

Diego returns with our main dishes. DuVernay hands him the plate of prawns that are still locked in their shells and smiles. “This is too fancy. Can you open this for us? Tell the chef I’m from Compton and I don’t know how to do it.” He takes them away.

DuVernay can’t emphasise enough how much she loves her work. I ask her what she does for fun and she tries to explain that the work is the fun.

“I really love what I do everyday. To the point where people say, ‘you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re always working.’ But if you were working on the thing that was your highest dream, at the level where you got to choose what you wanted to do and you had the resources, well, that’s the window I’m in. I’m having a blast.”

Still, I’m curious about the challenges she must face in an industry that remains dominated by white men. I take a few spoonfuls of my stew and ask her flat out: “What’s it like being in an industry as a black woman trying to do all these things?’

She hesitates before answering and takes a few bites of the fish. I can tell she’s thinking how best to answer me. I also sense from her body language — she’s not looking at me — that it’s a question of which she’s not necessarily fond. She puts her fork down. “I think people dictate their own experience, not dictate how they’ll be treated, but dictate their own experience.” She lays out some options. “You can go into something like, it’s all against me. Because it is all against you. And choose to be combative. Or you can say, it’s all against me but I’m about to break down these walls. Or it’s all against me and I’m just going to go along with the status quo and get mine, or it’s all against me but I’m going to turn it around.”

She looks me in the eye. “Our experience can’t be dictated by what we’re allowed to do or given permission to do. That was just a decision I made early on. Part of it was that I had worked in the industry as a publicist. I had seen the ugly hard side of it and worked within it for a decade before I started making films. So I felt like I had my eyes a little more open than if I had come in at 25 years old making movies, and I’m grateful for that.”

She returns to the conversation we were having in the car about Sankofa. “You know, it’s such a beautifully crafted film. The cinematography, the editing, the music selection. As black filmmakers we’re rarely asked about those things. When I’m talking to a film journalist I’m usually asked about race or gender, but almost never things that a Chris Nolan or a Denis Villeneuve is asked about because their films are made by white men, and don’t seem to require as much questioning about the subject matter. So they get to answer questions about artistic choices and their craft. I’m rarely asked about that, and I don’t like it. I understand where it’s coming from but it’s an unevolved approach that many film journalists take when they are talking to filmmakers who are not the dominant culture or gender, to only zero in on the thing that is not about the dominant culture or gender. So I’m asked all the black questions and black lady questions, and not about the shot or the performance, or the cinematography or the costume design. Practically never. It’s working at a deficit because they’re leaving a lot off the table.”

We’ve been talking now for over an hour and I realise that she has barely glanced at her phone. She takes a minute to turn it over now, and scrolls quickly down a seemingly endless slew of new messages. I catch Diego’s eye but when he comes around and offers the dessert menu, we can’t resist taking a look. We decide on a coconut flan with two spoons, although when it arrives neither of us can manage more than two bites.

I pose one last question. “Ultimately, when you think about the work that you do, what do you hope for?”

She leans back away from the table and places one arm around the rim of the chair beside her, the emerald drape of her sleeves cascading down. “You know, when you’re promoting a movie you’re always asked, ‘What do you want people to take from this?’ But I’m not thinking of manufacturing an outcome. I’m just doing the things I’m interested in and want to explore, that I think feel good and am excited to share with others. I trust there will be others who agree, or find something in the work that they are interested in too. The fun part for me is watching what people find.”

Enuma Okoro is a Life & Arts columnist

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