“All black art is political. I think our very presence is political. Anyone that is able to establish a voice and a consistent presence and put their voice forth is doing something radical and political with their very presence.” – Ava DuVernay
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay was born in 1972 in Long Beach, California, and raised in Lynwood—just outside of Compton. She grew up surrounded by the violence that permeated that time and place, but also in a space where art and activism lived. Her mother Darlene was an educator and activist and her Aunt Denise, who she constantly references as a major influence in her life, reinforced the idea that art was important. DuVernay explains that her aunt worked at night so she could “pursue her passion during the day, which was art and literature and theater…. She worked to live. But what she loved in life was the arts. She was fed by it. That was a huge influence on me.” Both her mother and her aunt made sure Ava knew that you could make an impact through the arts.
DuVernay majored in English and African-America Studies at UCLA and, remarkably, did not pick up a movie camera to produce her own work until she was 32 years old. Prior to that time, she spent years working in film publicity and marketing. After years of watching other directors work, she began releasing short films before writing and directing I Will Follow in 2010. Middle of Nowhere followed shortly thereafter in 2012. At that year’s Sundance Film Festival, she won the U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic – the first African-American woman to do so.
Her next major film was Selma, a biopic on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—the first ever presented on the big screen. Selma was an important historical drama, but it was also a personal project for DuVernay; her beloved step-father was an Alabama native and she would visit his childhood home on summer vacations. As a child, he watched the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers pass and his memories informed her experience making the film. The movie was both controversial and acclaimed, but it was undeniably powerful. DuVernay became the first African-American female director nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Director and was the first black female director to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The film’s lack of nominations in other categories—and the absence of diversity in the moviemaking industry—contributed to the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
As the movement picked up steam, DuVernay became a strong voice, challenging the entire industry to evaluate its representation (or lack of representation) of people of color. She told Time Magazine, “If the person who gets to tell the story is always one kind of person, if the dominant images that we see throughout our lifetimes, our mothers’ lifetimes, our grandmothers’ lifetimes, have been dominated by one kind of person, and we take that? We internalize it. We drink it in, as true, as fact. The images in our minds that make up our memories are all told by one kind of person, one kind of background. It shouldn’t be this way. That is a deficit to us. A deficit to the culture… For anyone who is working in a house that was not built for them, at times it is not particularly welcoming… So, it’s about making sure we push against tokenism and vain attempts at diversity and push for different points of view to be centered, valued, and seen.”
In 2016, DuVernay directed and co-wrote 13th, a documentary about the Thirteenth Amendment and how race, the American justice system, and mass incarceration have devastated the African-American community. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Outstanding Documentary. Currently, she is wrapping up Disney’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time and is the first black woman to direct a movie with a $100 million budget. Her movies inspired a race equivalent to the Bechdel Test (for women in film) called the DuVernay Test, which asks if films feature minorities with fully realized lives, who are not simply scenery in white stories.
In 2010, Ava founded AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), her own distribution company meant to focus on films made by and/or focusing on black people. In 2015, she rebranded the company under the name ARRAY to focus on bringing attention to films by both women and people of color, worldwide. She also owns Forward Movement, a film and television production company. Recently, she partnered with Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, to launch a diversity program to fund internships in the entertainment industry for young people in underserved communities.
DuVernay has earned the right to be selective in what films she makes and how. She is known for her care in creating inclusive environments on her film sets—recognizing every member of her cast and crew, from the marquee star to the key grip. But she acknowledges her privilege at this point in her career and the pathway that other, less renowned, black female filmmakers helped pave for her. DuVernay is and will remain dedicated to showcasing varied voices and images in cinema, further clearing the pathway for new voices in global media.
Lead Photo Credit: Super Soul