Director Ava DuVernay has only made four movies, but she’s already broken barriers in the film industry. The one-time film publicist harbored a desire to make her own movies, and finally did with the breakout success of her first film, I Will Follow, made independently on a limited budget. When she was faced with distribution problems for her second film Middle Of Nowhere, she created her own distribution network African American Film Distribution Releasing Network (AFFRM).
The Compton, California native, 42, is a graduate of UCLA and says at first she had no concept of becoming a filmmaker herself as there were so few examples that it was a viable career for an African-American woman. But she loved films and instead became a publicist working on over 100 film and TV projects and eventually branching out to her own eponymous company.
I was a film publicist, so I represented a lot of filmmakers and I was always around them. I [started thinking] “They’re just regular people, like me, with ideas. I’ve got ideas,” she told Interview magazine. “That’s literally how it started. It was definitely a career change; I didn’t make my first little short until I was 32. It was kind of intimidating coming in to it so late—all these whippersnappers fresh out of film school, I couldn’t do any of that. But I did start to recognize that 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 learned just from being around. I coupled that with some very intentional study and practice—picking up a camera—and started just making it.”
That initiative paid off when she was asked to helm Selma about the infamous Selma to Montgomery march led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965. The film, starring David Oyelowo, Tessa Thompson, Carmen Ejogo and Oprah Winfrey was produced by Winfrey and achieved a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
DuVernay is living proof that you can create your life as you will it and that boundaries, be they self-created or created by outside forces can be overcome with determination, perseverance and resilience. DuVernay has since scored several other projects including an adaptation of the book Queen Sugar with Winfrey for OWN and a romantic feature film set during Hurricane Katrina.
Despite her success and the accolades and options its created, DuVernay remains humble.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have more clout,” she told NPR. “There’s really no precedent for someone like me gaining clout in the space that I’m in — a black woman directing films in Hollywood. You know, [there’s] no precedent for there being a black woman director who has gained any clout. Black woman directors that make amazing beautiful things? Yes. I can name 50. Black woman directors that have attained that kind of clout to be able to kind of answer that question from a place of the privilege of having lots of options: I’m not so sure. We’ll see.”