In the hands of certain filmmakers, movies like Selma, 13th, and A Wrinkle in Time, might have become rote Hollywood fare: a by-the-numbers biopic, a standard documentary about social injustice, and a manufactured family film based on a beloved book designed to capitalize on nostalgia and birth prequels, sequels, and licensing opportunities. In the thoughtful hands of Ava DuVernay, however, each film transcended their genre and was propelled by her artistic vision, her knack for injecting life into history, and her ability to make representation feel natural in an artform where it’s anything but.
How exactly did Ava DuVernay become a Hollywood player, one whose work is revered for being expertly realized, relevant, and invigorating?
A Prolific Early Career
DuVernay is a director, writer, producer, and distributor who first gained recognition by directing an episode of the hit ABC political drama, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington. What many don’t know is that DuVernay began her career as an intern with CBS News covering the OJ Simpson trial. Her journalism career led her to becoming a publicist at Fox, and later starting her own agency, The DuVernay Agency. She built her name in the industry by working on the publicity campaigns for hit films like Shrek 2 and Dreamgirls.
Making the jump from publicist to respected filmmaker is rare, and it shows how DuVernay has come by her success honestly. She made her directing debut with a short film that cost only $6,000 to make. From there, she cut her teeth creating documentaries, which came with bigger budgets and more room to take risks. I Will Follow was DuVernay’s first foray into feature films and it was a rousing critical success, produced for just $50,000. In 2012, her next film, Middle of Nowhere, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. DuVernay won the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Directing Prize, making her the first African-American to ever do so.
A Household Name
After Scandal, her next project was the critically-acclaimed, Selma, starring David Oyelowo as US civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., chronicling his legendary equal-rights march in Alabama. The film garnered two Academy Award nominations and won Best Original Song. While DuVernay didn’t take home the Oscar for Best Director, her talent has earned her an Emmy, a BAFTA, and a Peabody.
Since Selma’s release in 2015, DuVernay has co-created the TV series Queen Sugar with Oprah Winfrey, directed the harrowing Netflix documentary, 13th, about racial inequality in the US prison system, and brought Madeleine L’Engle’s classic fantasy novel, A Wrinkle in Time, to the big screen (with Oprah co-starring, no less). The Disney-produced Wrinkle made her the highest-grossing black woman filmmaker in American cinema history, and she’s about to break new ground again: DuVernay has reportedly signed on to direct the DC Comics blockbuster The New Gods for Warner Bros., based on the work of legendary comic creator Jack Kirby, making her the first African-American woman to helm a major superhero film.
The passion and ideas DuVernay imbues in her work connect with audiences. She’s led the charge for representation in film and television, and crafts stories that feel like calls to action. Her films are rousing and thought-provoking, with an urgency that feels ideal for her time, and she’s maintaining her voice as she takes on bigger and bigger projects. There might not be a more exciting storyteller working in Hollywood today.
Rob Shapiro | Contributing Writer
Photo Credit: STEPHANIE MORENO