At last year’s Academy Awards, Ava DuVernay was the first black female director to have a film—Selma—nominated for Best Picture. That she was not nominated for Best Director helped spark the #OscarsSoWhite movement. Ask DuVernay and she’ll tell you being omitted was no surprise. She hasn’t let it slow her down, and this month is proof of that. First, a new TV series she created, a family drama called Queen Sugar, debuts September 6 on OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s network. Weeks later, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors in Washington, D.C., visitors will be welcomed with a short film by DuVernay.
Then, at month’s end, her new documentary, The 13th, which chronicles the history of racial inequality in the United States, will open the New York Film Festival. (The rest of us can watch it on Netflix in October.) All that while she’s prepping a $100 million-plus adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time for Disney. We talked with DuVernay, an L.A. native, about these projects as well as her efforts to help women and nonwhite filmmakers find an audience. It is the job of the privileged to lift others up, she says. She does that every day.
You made The 13th—whose title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—in secret, going public only after it was completed. Why?
I didn’t want there to be any industry pressure or expectation. I wanted it to be what it was going to be, and I didn’t know what that was. I just knew that I had a lot of questions. After the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the press tour for Selma happened in the midst of all these slogans—“Black Lives Matter,” “I Can’t Breathe,” “Don’t Shoot”— becoming calls to action. At the time a lot of journalists were trying to link Selma with what was going on. When I finished with the whole circus of awards press, I wanted the chance to think of this current state of police aggression from a historical context, so I started studying. I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and then looked at a lot of documentaries. There’s something really disturbing that happens when you take all of this information and put it together. You see the through-line, the thread, the inevitability of so much of where we all are— black, white, brown, and otherwise— and how it’s been blossoming, you know, from the seed that we’ve been watering.
The film focuses on the high incarceration rate in the United States and, in particular, the incarceration of black men.
Yeah, there is a lot of unpacking of our thoughts as a society about criminalization: who we regard as criminals, how we think of white-collar crimes as opposed to street crimes, what we think of people who used powder cocaine as opposed to crack cocaine, as seen in the very laws that would prosecute people more for the rock than for the powder, when it was the same drug. In the film we look at mandatory minimums, “Three Strikes You’re Out”—all of these things that have increased the prison boom.
It’s the first documentary that’s ever opened the New York Film Festival.
Someone told me it was the first time an American woman has opened the festival, and the first black person, male or female.
When you’ve been asked about #OscarsSoWhite, I’ve heard you say that at this point, instead of taking part in diversity committees, you prefer to “just do the work.” Meaning, your creative work.
That’s right. I only have so many hours.
Is that an evolution? Did you used to take part in committees?
I did. Even today, with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I have been torn. I could get in there and spend time illuminating things for people. But in general that’s not my work to do. It’s not my organization. The Academy has been there a long time. I don’t disparage it. For better or worse, people around the world look to the Academy as the arbiter of excellence. There are some wonderful artists involved. I’m a member. I was a part of the branch meetings this year that made sure that an unprecedented number of women and people of color were invited for the first time. But the onus is not on the marginalized to educate and remedy the problem, because we didn’t build the problem. And this is not just the Academy. For example, I’m not transgender. I’m privileged in that I live in a society that favors my gender identity over someone else’s. So it’s my job to learn about it, to listen, to try to figure out how to be an ally. If I’m forward-thinking and know that there is inequity, I should not need the transgender woman to take time out of her experience to educate me. Often, especially in our industry, women and people of color are asked to do that. It’s incumbent upon us not to. If I’m spending my time doing that, then I’m not moving forward in my own path. I’m stopped, trying to help you catch up.
Tell us about Queen Sugar, your first foray into television. Why did you want to do it?
There are certain types of TV shows I love that I just don’t see rendered with people of color. I loved Six Feet Under, for example. The framing mechanism was they owned a funeral parlor, but it was really just a family drama. Queen Sugar is the same: a character-driven show about a black family. What it isn’t is the kind of plot-driven show that dominates most African American-centered dramas.
When a woman is in charge, as directors are, she’s often seen as pushy or bitchy. How do you deal with that?
I’m sure people think that [I’m bossy], but it only matters if it matters to me. Everything I do, I go in saying “I just have to satisfy myself.” Whether anyone else likes it, I know I liked it and had a good time making it.
You founded your distribution company, ARRAY, in 2010 to promote African American filmmakers. Now you’ve expanded to focus on the films of women and all people of color. You’re busy. Why take this on?
I’m not going to depend on somebody else integrating this space, because that has gotten us where we are, which is not very far along. That’s why I started ARRAY, but it’s not just me. It’s a collective of people who work around this idea that is financed through my filmmaking and through our donors. Some of the films that ARRAY promotes have been at festivals, but because they were not at a festival that’s privileged and branded and seen as valuable by the press and distributors, they were left by the wayside.
Sounds like your own early experiences. You made your first dramatic feature, I Will Follow, for less than $50,000 in 15 days, and it premiered at black film festivals in 2011 but never got to Sundance.
I started making films to share them with the people. I was, like, “Maybe one day I’ll make a film that costs $1 million.” My second narrative feature, Middle of Nowhere, had a budget of $200,000. Never was the plan to be prepping A Wrinkle in Time for Walt Disney Pictures.
That’s a perfect segue to discussing your next project: a sci-fi film whose main character is a young girl. What’s the process like, trying to turn a beloved novel about time travel into a feature film?
It’s similar to Selma in that it’s a type of movie I don’t usually see. I was an African American and English studies major at UCLA, but I won’t watch civil rights movies because they usually gloss over the emotional terrain and are not told from the point of view of the people who were terrorized. I’ve felt the same way about movies with a younger person at the center or anything based on a fantasy book. I have not seen Narnia or Lord of the Rings. I’m sure they’re beautiful, but I just don’t see them.
It sounds like you think that can be an advantage.
I asked all of the people who I invited to work with me as department heads on A Wrinkle in Time: “Have you made one of these movies before?” If the answer was no, I said, “Good.” That lets us consider: How do we make one of these movies to satisfy ourselves?
What’s the answer?
I’m into the girl being at the center. I’m into what the worlds could look like as imagined by a person of color. I’m interested in the trio of witch characters—Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which—looking like women who would appeal to kids all over the world, not just like lovely old white ladies from New England. I want the little girl in Pakistan or the transgender kid to see the movie and see something in themselves. I asked the folks at Disney, “Are you down with that?” And they were.
Any advice for girls or women who aspire to work in a predominantly male industry?
So often we’re trying to climb this fake ladder that leads nowhere for us. It’s somebody else’s ladder going to wherever they constructed it. Stay centered. I really think that’s the key. It’s not strategy, it’s not networking. It’s not trying to get someone’s card, asking people out for coffee, being at the cocktail party, doing the panels. It’s joy. You have to find joy in the work. Because when the joy is embedded, your best work will happen.
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 LA Woman issue. Read our full feature on the women who are radically transforming L.A. here.