Trailblazing filmmaker and storyteller Ava Duvernay. (Photo by [Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP)
By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
Ava DuVernay, the trailblazing filmmaker seemed to prophesy about the surreal insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, during an interview for Time published Feb. 10, 2017, almost four years ago. She said then:
“…But when you have a divisive figure like Donald Trump instigating violence and prejudice against people at his own rallies as he pursues the presidency, then he takes power as President and continues to perpetuate misogynistic, homophobic, racist points of view, I feel that I have to, as an artist, tell that story as vigorously and passionately as I can. It was very apparent to me, as I was watching, that he was asking his supporters to be aggressive with and violent with people who were expressing dissent. I saw the alignment of what he was asking for and what had happened in the past, and I wanted to make that point in the montage that we crafted in 13th.”
DuVernay was referencing the substance of her Oscar nominated documentary 13th, which explores the malignant American practice of mass incarceration, disproportionately wielded against communities of color. And the prison-industrial complex that reaps billions in profits annually. She examines both within the context of history specifically the adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, which abolished slavery in the United States. In 13th, DuVernay contends slavery has been perpetuated from the end of the Civil War to today.
Her exploration of race in America through the medium of film has garnered much critical acclaim and many proclaiming her a visionary artist less than a decade since she burst into the main cinematic arena with her second narrative feature film Middle of Nowhere. In 2012, the film made DuVernay the first Black woman to capture the Sundance Film Festival award for Best Director for an American drama. Her love of storytelling may be traced back to her childhood growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s and her biological father’s Southern roots.
Ava Marie DuVernay was born August 24, 1972. She was raised by her mother Darlene (Sexton) Maye, an educator and her stepfather, Murray Maye. Her biological father is Joseph Marcel DuVernay, III. During her childhood she would spend summer vacations at the childhood home of her father near Selma, Alabama (her dad witnessed the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches of 1965). And she has revealed the trips to Alabama during those summers greatly influenced the making of her film Selma (2014), which made her the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director and the first Black woman director to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Yet, there was no evident pursuit of filmmaking during her high school and college years.
DuVernay, graduated from Saint Joseph High School in Lakewood, Calif., in 1990. And she was a double major in English literature and Black Studies at UCLA.
Allegedly DuVernay’s first professional interest was journalism. She landed an internship with CBS News and she was assigned to help cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial. However, she apparently became disillusioned with journalism and transitioned into public relations, working for several agencies and ultimately opening her own firm, The DuVernay Agency in 1999. She primarily provided PR services for the entertainment industry. Perhaps it was her proximity to show business that compelled her to take a shot in the film industry in 2005, when she took $6,000 and financed her first film, a 12-minute short called Saturday Night Life. The film about a struggling single mother and her three kids and a trip to a grocery store was about DuVernay’s mother. It was broadcast in February 2007, on Showtime’s Black Filmmaker Showcase.
Next, DuVernay explored documentary filmmaking with Compton in C Minor, a short she directed in 2007. Then in 2008, she made her feature directorial debut with the alternative hip hop doc, This Is the Life.
In 2011, she made her first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, with a budget of just $50,000, shot in 14 days. The legendary film critic Roger Ebert called the film, “one of the best films I’ve seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one.” That summer she began production of Middle of Nowhere, which she completed in 2012.
In the midst of making her first films, DuVernay also began mastering the business aspect of the industry when she established the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), her company focused on making movies made by or focused on Black people.
On Christmas Day, 2014, the film Selma, focused on the journeys of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. The movie directed by DuVernay was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song (which it won), but not Best Director at the 2014 Academy Awards. The film also sparked some controversy because DuVernay performed an uncredited rewrite of most of the screenplay and lamented the fact she allowed Paul Webb to “take credit for writing Selma when I wrote it.”
In 2016, DuVernay returned to the documentary genre and directed perhaps her most consequential film to date, 13th.
In 2018, with the release of A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay became the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million.
In that 2017, interview with Time, DuVernay also spoke cogently about the role of Hollywood in the American discourse on the country’s racial reckoning.
“I think that is a misconception, that Hollywood’s leading a conversation,” she said. “It’s really not. People in the real world are doing work and have been. My job is just to reflect it.”