It’s hard to think of a more galvanizing, charismatic woman in film than Ava DuVernay. The 44-year-old producer, director, writer, distributor and crusader for social justice broke into the larger cultural zeitgeist in 2015, the year her acclaimed film Selma was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and four Golden Globes, and won the AWFJ EDA Award for Best Woman Director. She is the winner of three AWFJ EDA Awards in 2016, including those for Best Documentary and Best Female Director for 13th and Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in Film.
Forging the Path
At a time when it is still hard for women directors to sustain a career past their second picture, DuVernay has forged her own path, toggling between TV and movies, documentaries and feature films with small and large price tags alike. She made an outraged 2016 documentary, 13th, about the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that both abolished slavery and reestablished it within the walls of American prisons, and is following it up with a big-budget A Wrinkle in Time, based on the beloved fantasy novel by Madeleine L’Engle. DuVernay also distributes and amplifies the work of people of color and women directors through her film collective ARRAY.
Finding Her Way
DuVernay’s filmmaking career grew out of more than a decade’s experience running her own public relations firm. Many of the nearly 100 films she promoted were by and about underrepresented artists and communities, including What’s Cooking (2000), Lumumba (2000) Beauty Shop (2005) and A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy (2008). She said in a 2012 article in Interview magazine, “I represented a lot of filmmakers, and I was always around them. … Being so close to really great filmmakers and watching them direct on set and the experiences that I did have, although different from film school, were still super valuable. … I coupled that with some very intentional study and practice—picking up a camera—and started just making it.”
Success at Sundance
Following her self-funded fiction debut, I Will Follow (2010), her path to success was eased after she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere.
The film tackles two subjects of relevance to women and African Americans—a black man’s incarceration and the wife whose idealized view of their relationship causes her to abandon her own goals and relationships waiting for him.
The plot could have come out of a woman’s film of the 1950s, but DuVernay’s script and direction never preach, and she examines compassionately the depths of her protagonist’s struggle with her conflicting emotions and aspirations.
Reaching and Influencing Diverse Audiences
As with so many of her feature films and documentaries, DuVernay touched a nerve beyond her supposed demographic with Middle of Nowhere. She was quoted as saying that a female studio executive in Hollywood called her: “She said this was her story, and nobody knew.”
As a measure of just how much influence DuVernay wields in the larger world, the very mainstream Mattel Toys issued a limited-edition Ava DuVernay Barbie for the 2015 holiday season and was persuaded by her fans to increase the edition; the dolls sold out in only two hours. Characteristically, DuVernay donated her share of the sales to two nonprofits: Witness, which trains and supports people who use video to champion human rights, and Color of Change, which amplifies the political voice of underrepresented communities.
Why We Chose to SPOTLIGHT Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay has smashed boundaries and expanded professional and personal possibilities for women, and especially women of color, everywhere. As AWFJ’s Best Woman Director of 2015 for Selma and of 2016 for 13th, DuVernay has our greatest respect for her artistry, her dedication to freedom and equality for all people, and her innovative leadership by example.