Director Ava Duvernay can relate to her documentary subject Venus Williams. Both are from Compton, California and both emerged onto the national scene in areas where Black women are still scarce – film and tennis. So it’s fitting that Duvernay would helm the ESPN documentary “Venus Vs.” part of ESPN’s “Nine for IX” series celebrating Title IX and women’s sports.Williams was an integral part in advocating for equal pay for women at Wimbledon, the hallowed Grand Slam tennis tournament taking place this week that was the last holdout in pay parity for women. We caught up with Duvernay, the first Black woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film “Middle of Nowhere,” who was celebrating being asked to join A.M.P.A.S., (American Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) the voting body for the Oscars.
Blackamericaweb.com: How did you get involved in Venus Vs.?
Ava Duvernay: They came to me and asked if there was anything I was passionate about and that they were interested in working with me and making a film. I was aware of the “30 For 30” series which was an auteur driven series where they basically give a writer/director free reign over topics.I had always had an affinity for the Williams sisters since she was the first one out. I had heard about her story from a friend and they immediately took to it and we were literally making a film about two weeks later. (There is another documentary about both sister and their careers on the way this summer.)
How did you approach telling the story?
Did you want it to center around this specific issue because there is also a lot about the rise of Venus as a tennis player and her historical wins at Wimbledon.I really approached it as the evolution of a champion on and off the court. How you get from being a 14-year-old girl in 1994 from Compton who enters the pro ranks very much the outsider. From there to become a champion off the court where you are shepherding, strategizing and guiding a campaign for all the women that play at Wimbledon which is the highest court in the land. Through that you get a portrait of a girl who becomes a woman who becomes a very enlightened, empowered, engaged, activist all the while she’s killing it on the court.
The evolution of Venus and the evolution of Ava. You were just asked to join A.M.P.A.S., which must be an amazing honor.
It was unexpected, out of the blue, a surprise, lovely. What made me really happy is that I was invited by both the writer’s and the director’s branch. There were only three people this year invited by both branches and I feel equally a writer as well as a director. This year was really great in term of invites. There were a lot more women, and a lot more people of color. It was a lot more reflective of the real world and hopefully that finds its way into the decisions that are made about what’s among the best in cinema. Ultimately there should be some quality of critique and judgment and that can only happen if the voting is diverse. So I applaud them for making changes.
You’re relatively new in the business but have done varied and interesting work thus far – two feature films “I Will Follow” and “Middle Of Nowhere,” the Venus doc and “My Mic Sounds Nice” among others. And of course the Miu Miu webisode, which people loved. Are you seeking out specific projects or are you being asked to take things at this point?
I’m really trying to do a very specific thing. I want to tell a very particular story with Black people and Black women at the center. Everything I do is related back to that mission. For me, all this stuff has my name on it. Film is forever.We’re still watching films from the early part of the last century so I take these images really seriously. They last for a long time. When Prada approaches me and says ‘Do you want to make something’ with us?’ Heck yeah. Oh, you’ve never had Black women before, well, I’m going to use six. (Laughs). In my own independent work it’s about illuminating who we are in all of our complexity and nuance.
AFFRM – The African American Film Festival Releasing Movement is your baby as well. What is that about?
It’s regular black folks putting out films by black filmmakers that you might not see otherwise because the studios are not offering this to you. It’s a grass roots network, it’s our sixth film and we’re almost three years in. Our next film is “Big Words” It was written by Neil Drumming, a former reporter at “Entertainment Weekly.” We’ll be releasing it in L.A. and New York on July 19th and then it goes wider after that. These are movies you’ll never see in theaters otherwise.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a couple of really exciting things and I feel so wack that I can’t tell you what they are. (Laughs.) All I’ll say is that it’s a good time.