By Valerie Kalfrin
Award-winning director, writer, producer, and film distributor Ava DuVernay often has to explain why she loves historical narratives. Not this year.
“These are strange and important times,” she said this month at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “Because truly, you can feel in the very vibration of the day, one day after the next, that we are in the midst of history. That 2020 will be long remembered. That we will be talking about this year and this time and remembering how we felt and what we thought and where we were and who we were engaged with for the rest of our lives.
“And so in that way, history is very present. It’s kind of living and breathing in our days in ways that I think are different than the way most people usually engage with it.”
We will be talking about this year and this time and remembering how we felt and what we thought … for the rest of our lives.
DuVernay spoke online as part of an “In Conversation” event with TIFF because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Between COVID-19 and the social justice movement in the United States, she said she’s curious to see the stories that 2020 inspires.
“What I’m most excited about is to see the art that comes from this time,” she said. “Who will tell our story of this?”
Directing Disney’s 2018 children’s fantasy “A Wrinkle in Time” made DuVernay the highest-grossing black woman director in American box office history.
Many viewers first noticed her on the awards circuit after her 2014 feature, “Selma,” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Starring David Oyelowo (“Queen of Katwe”) as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Selma” chronicled King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to secure equal voting rights.
More recently, DuVernay won a Primetime Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and a BAFTA Award for “13th,” her 2016 Netflix documentary about how the United States prison system reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.
Among other projects, she created and directed the critically acclaimed Netflix limited series “When They See Us,” a dramatization about five Harlem teens falsely accused of a brutal rape in New York’s Central Park in 1989. She also produces the drama series “Queen Sugar” on OWN, and she founded the independent film distribution and resource collective ARRAY, which amplifies independent films by women filmmakers and people of color.
DuVernay first came to filmmaking as a publicist, proud to be one of “those little words that scroll at the end of the movie that most people don’t stay for” by helping artists communicate their vision.
Then she saw director Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller “Collateral.” It was the first film she’d seen shot on a digital camera, but Mann also filmed around East LA, which she knew well, and cast “a lot of black and brown people” like Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Javier Bardem alongside Tom Cruise.
“There was something about the alchemy of the cameras and the place and the cast,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, these are people that look like me on these really interesting new cameras, and we’re in a place that I know. Like, why can’t I be doing what he’s doing?’”
DuVernay once told The Hollywood Reporter that she’s become more comfortable with being “Social Justice Woman” through the projects she chooses. “[T]hese projects are my children,” she’s said. “My name is on this, this matters to me. This is what lives on when I’m done.”
“The more that you understand that these are ordinary people, these aren’t superheroes … the more you feel like you might be able to do extraordinary things.”
She’s proud to bring complex issues involving real people to life. She told TIFF that the original script of “Selma” centered on the White House and discussions between President Lyndon B. Johnson and King. But because her father is from Lowndes County, Alabama, she knew that the “so strong and so vibrant” people and history of Selma offered a more intimate way to tell that story.
“The more that you understand that these are ordinary people, these aren’t superheroes … the more you feel like you might be able to do extraordinary things,” she said.
The late U.S. Representative John Lewis, who marched with King, shared stories with her about the infighting and jealousies of the civil rights movement in those days, which she found fascinating.
“I am always hurt by people who think nonviolence is the easy way. Nonviolence is very muscular in the discipline and strategy and planning that it takes to stick to that in the face of great violence and hate and oppression,” she said. “I really wanted to show how complicated it is and how much strategy and politics went into it.”
Early in her directing career, DuVernay sought the advice of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and 2020’s “The Old Guard”). She told DuVernay not to let bad behavior on the set slide, especially from male crew members.
“She had talked about it being really important to call it by what it is, acknowledge it — and not privately. In the open,” DuVernay said. “[I]t didn’t have to be sassy, and it didn’t have to be anything dramatic, but to let it be known that certain things wouldn’t be tolerated.”
At first, DuVernay recalled with a laugh, she thought, “I’ll never have that problem. … And of course, it used to come up a lot for me.” It doesn’t as much anymore “because now I’m in a position where I choose who all those people are.”
The world has changed over the past five to ten years when DuVernay said she used to feel self-conscious being the only woman, the only black woman, or the only person of color in the room.
Now, she says, “I walk in like, ‘Why am I the only one? What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have more people here?’”
There’s no way that the people who organize film festivals, companies, and other creative spaces “aren’t aware that everyone looking the same way and being the same way is a problem,” she added.
I really think of my sets as, ‘It’s my house. I’m just welcoming you into my space. … And look, you need to take your shoes off at the door and mind Mama’s rules. … [But] as long as you stay within the rules, you’ll be just fine.”
If you’re feeling awkward in such a space, don’t be antagonistic, just confident, she said. “You should walk in feeling like, ‘I’m here, and why am I the only one?’” DuVernay said. “You put the onus of the nervousness on them.”
She aims for that sense of inclusion and comfort on her own projects.
“I really think of my sets as, ‘It’s my house. I’m just welcoming you into my space. … I expect everyone there to treat each other with respect,” DuVernay said.
“And look, you need to take your shoes off at the door and mind Mama’s rules. … [But] as long as you stay within the rules, you’ll be just fine.”