How Director Ava DuVernay's South L.A. Roots Helped Her Shatter the Film Industry's Glass Ceiling

Director Ava DuVernay's indie career is on hold; she's now heading a $100 million Disney adaptation of the young-adult science-fiction classic, A Wrinkle in Time.
Director Ava DuVernay's indie career is on hold; she's now heading a $100 million Disney adaptation of the young-adult science-fiction classic, A Wrinkle in Time.
Courtesy of Netflix

It's 8 a.m. in Santa Clarita and Ava DuVernay is thinking about fate. We're on the set of Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, the film adaptation of the much-loved fantasy story that she's directing. Here in DuVernay's trailer, a framed photo of James Baldwin below the television stares out to the couch where we are sitting. She wonders aloud if it's possible to be "meant for something." Then, muted commercials for Queen Sugar appear on the flat-screen TV, coincidentally promoting the recent television series the director created for Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel.

"I believe in fate," she says in her confident rasp.

DuVernay's breakthrough 2014 film, Selma, earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director, the first for a female African-American auteur. And she says fate connected her to British Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, the lead in her film portraying the life of Martin Luther King Jr. DuVernay gets animated telling the story, adjusting and readjusting her legs on the couch.

"He's on this plane next to someone who happens to have one of my scripts [Middle of Nowhere] and asks David — since he's an actor — if he should invest in this independent film."

She explains that Oyelowo had seen DuVernay on CNN talking about her small distribution company, Array, the week before. Then he read the script while on that flight and immediately called DuVernay for a part. "That doesn't just happen by coincidence!" she laughs.

That kind of kismet in the film world is a distant long shot, an impossibility, even — but the story is true.

On the phone from New York City, Oyelowo later told me that the connection he had with DuVernay was immediate and unspoken. Before they even met, he felt they shared a bond. "When I read Middle of Nowhere, there was something so unashamedly complex, nuanced and poetically lyrical about her writing. You can't write like that without having a vision for the thing you're trying to make."

In that film, a woman, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), navigates life in Compton after her husband goes to prison; Oyelowo plays the bus driver who tries to woo her. Aside from telling a vital story about the women left behind in the African-American incarceration crisis, Middle of Nowhere exhibits bold flourishes and artistic confidence. Compton is also where DuVernay grew up.

After Middle of Nowhere, Oyelowo was cast in Selma, fulfilling an actual dream he had years ago that he would play MLK. He brought DuVernay on to direct. She reworked the script for Selma, slimming the glorification of LBJ and granting more emotional weight to Oyelowo's character — exactly as he had envisioned he would play MLK. The speeches DuVernay crafted for Oyelowo are so breathtaking that even people who actually marched with the civil rights leader thought they were the original words.

While fate played a role in DuVernay's relatively swift ascendency in filmmaking, her subtle brilliance is what has driven her success. In college, DuVernay didn't even study film. She studied African-American history at UCLA before working in journalism and starting her own film publicity company. She was 32 before she directed her first short film, and she proclaims that she would have been happy continuing to make small movies for small audiences. "People never believe me when I tell them this, but it's true," she says.

"Every filmmaker wants to be making indies, because you have control. But they're afraid of losing all this," she says, waving her hand at the exaggerated grandiosity of this luxury trailer, where the sun has just broken through the clouds, revealing the loop of a Magic Mountain roller coaster in the distance. DuVernay's indie career is on hold; she's now heading a $100 million Disney adaptation of a young-adult science-fiction classic.

Ava DuVernay says it was fate that brought her actor David Oyelowo, star of Selma.
Ava DuVernay says it was fate that brought her actor David Oyelowo, star of Selma.
Paramount Pictures / JIMA

Producer Catherine Hand has been trying to make A Wrinkle in Time for around 35 years.

Since she first started the project, Hand has felt a deep responsibility to author Madeleine L'Engle and her 1962 novel about a precocious girl, who assembles a team of like-minded school misfits to search for her missing scientist father. He disappeared into a tesseract, a phenomenon transcending space and time. Hand had to wait those years for a female writer — Frozen's Jennifer Lee — to deliver a stellar script and for a studio to trust a female director, the right female director, with the project. But Hand says she was certain the second DuVernay walked into the room at Disney that this was her director.

"Patience isn't usually associated with strength, but sometimes you have to be strong and wait," Hand says. "Ava just embraced the project. What she saw was a young girl who goes on this epic adventure to find her father, and she ends up finding herself. And this gives her enormous courage to overcome the darkness."

DuVernay's own father died six months ago. In the trailer, she says that this had been the first day that she could think about him and not break down in tears.

"I was driving to work this morning, and that song that I never liked that goes, 'It's gonna be a bright, sunshine-y day,' is on. But this morning I was listening to it — 'I can see clearly now, the rain is gone' — and that line made me think about my father. Six months ago, I could have never imagined this day, where I'm going to work feeling good, having a conversation, functioning.

"You just have to go through the moment, piece by piece, and if I'd stayed in that past, I'd get bogged down. You're supposed to move through it, move past, keep going."

But she doesn't want to keep the past at bay.

Today, DuVernay says, she decided to wear a pink-and-blue striped sweater from the 1990s she bought at the Gap when she first started at UCLA — and felt so cosmopolitan, coming from Compton. She says wearing the sweater is a rare instance of looking backward, of reflecting on her own history, rather than the collective history that has informed her movies, like her Netflix documentary 13th, on the prison industrial complex and modern black slavery.

"Honestly, I don't have a good memory. I'm so busy living in the present. And I don't remember my dreams. Oprah told me, 'That's not great.' But I think personal memory — finding your history — is a muscle," she says. "And I'm going to try to make a point to exercise it now."

St. Joseph's is a private, Catholic all-girls high school 10 miles east of Compton, in Lakewood. DuVernay was its first black homecoming queen and first black student body president, and today, a sign hangs in the office honoring the director.EXPAND
St. Joseph's is a private, Catholic all-girls high school 10 miles east of Compton, in Lakewood. DuVernay was its first black homecoming queen and first black student body president, and today, a sign hangs in the office honoring the director.
April Wolfe

A thousand girls in plaid skirts scream at the tops of their lungs to win the Jester "spirit jug." The St. Joseph High School gym's packed for a pep rally, a sea of parochial-school blue and white undulating to pop songs. Seniors get the good seats in the bleachers, where they can stomp their hearts out, and one by one every girl on the floor is hoisted up to dance — solo — to thunderous applause.

"See that girl with the microphone, leading the show?" St. Joseph's principal Terri Mendoza whispers. "That would have been Ava."

St. Joseph is a private, Catholic all-girls high school 10 miles east of Compton, in Lakewood, with an idyllic garden setting and a little chapel the sisters encourage students to use for daily peace. DuVernay came from a working-class family — her father laid carpets and was on his hands and knees every day of his life — and the relative wealth and privilege of students at St. Joseph was in stark contrast to that. When DuVernay was a student there, she was the first black homecoming queen and first black student body president. Today, there's a hand-painted banner on the administration desks greeting you when you walk in the front doors. It reads: "We Love Our Jester Sister Ava DuVernay."

Mendoza pulls out an old yearbook and points out a photo of DuVernay stacking cans of food. "She organized food drives," Mendoza says. "She just saw a need and did it herself."

There's a general sentiment from the women and sisters who take turns stepping away from the rally to speak with me: DuVernay was so good, so passionate about everything she did, that they often took her for granted.

Celine Figueroa, a former classmate of DuVernay's, says the two used to go to the movies all the time. They argued so passionately about their favorites that Figueroa's mom told them she wouldn't drive them to the theater anymore. When Figueroa wrote a script as a teenager, DuVernay read it and immediately went into production mode. "Here we are, 16 years old, and she's sitting me down, giving me serious casting advice."

Mendoza shows me the quote beneath DuVernay's senior yearbook photo. Typed in Times New Roman on a pink background, it reads: "In dreams & love there are no impossibilities."

DuVernay, now 44, still has a seemingly boundless work ethic that helps overcome impossibilities. She divides her time almost equally between her creative pursuits and her civic-minded aspirations.

Ava DuVernay directs a crucial scene in Selma.
Ava DuVernay directs a crucial scene in Selma.
Paramount Pictures / JIMA

At her distribution company, Array, DuVernay and her team try to make films into important conversation starters. They've teamed up with the Broad museum in Los Angeles to screen overlooked African-American classics, one of many initiatives they're working on to bring cinema to the people. DuVernay says that, in Compton, there wasn't a theater to see Straight Outta Compton. In Selma, Alabama, where her dad marched with King, there was no theater for Selma. The same goes for marginalized communities in New York, Chicago, everywhere. She says she doesn't have the time or resources to open these theaters herself, but she can do these pop-up events.

"If you show someone who would be a true film lover at heart a film of the kind that they've never seen before, it becomes like a drug," DuVernay says. "They will seek it out. Show someone who's never seen a film with subtitles or never seen a film directed by a woman — and that's a reality if you're just looking at studio films that play at the mall — that might open their minds."

DuVernay may not reflect on her personal history often, but maybe that's because she hasn't changed much. That girl leading the pep rally? She's now charged with lifting the spirits of millions.

"I don't want to put too much of a burden on Ava's shoulders," Chaz Ebert says on the phone from the rogerebert.com offices in Chicago, "but I think what she is doing will transcend the world of film and TV. I think that she is one of the people who will actually help bring more empathy and compassion into this world."

Chaz met DuVernay through her husband, the late critic Roger Ebert, who championed DuVernay's earliest feature, I Will Follow; in the documentary Life Itself, which chronicles Roger's last years, DuVernay testifies to his warmth and humanity.

Chaz was moved by DuVernay's speech at Roger's funeral: "She said he was a force of goodness, always reaching out to all people, no matter your color. But I think about that now, and that's Ava, too."

Every person I talk to for this story uses words like "a force" to describe DuVernay. Sometimes it seems her status as an inspirational figure might overshadow the artistic integrity of her work.

In most interviews, journalists ask about African-American culture, about philosophy, about everything but the act of making films. Few ask her about actual filmmaking, like how she approaches actors, or whether she blocks out scenes with intense rehearsing or chooses a more organic approach. That's why she hosts a podcast, The Call-In, where she dials up African-American filmmakers and asks the questions they never get asked. This shoptalk fills a void, a receptacle for the knowledge held by marginalized artists.

"In terms of black directors, I can pick up the phone and call almost everyone," DuVernay says. "It's not a very big community. Sometimes with the older crew, you hear stories that there would only be one or two spots for black women, so they couldn't be friends. But I didn't come from the industry. I'm from indies, and I'm not competing."

I Will Follow, DuVernay's earliest feature film
I Will Follow, DuVernay's earliest feature film
Courtesy of AFFRM

Julie Dash, a native New Yorker and leading light of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, says she saw from the start that there was something special about DuVernay's films. Dash would know; she's a pioneer of lyrical black cinematic stories from women's perspectives, exemplified in her now-remastered, Sundance award–winning feature Daughters of the Dust (1991).

"I just happened to be in the audience when Middle of Nowhere was screening at Sundance," Dash says. "I was overwhelmed by her confidence — you can tell when a director is confident from how they take their time and let a scene unfold. I usually don't say anything at these public screenings, but I was the first person to grab my mic, and I said, 'You're my hero. This film is brilliant.'"

One scene of Middle of Nowhere returns to me often: Ruby's lying down on the bed, rolled over on her side. In the background, there's a blurry movement, as if someone is behind her, but we've already seen she's alone in the room. This is the specter of the imprisoned man she loves, a literal shadow of his former self forever living only in her memory. DuVernay's portrayal of that emotional burden through abstraction shows confidence as a director, and it's why the film took honors at Sundance: She's a director who takes chances.

Samantha Sheppard, a professor of cinema and media studies at Cornell University, says DuVernay avoided the pitfalls of "tokenized diversity," that tendency of Hollywood's to see one black woman director as the black woman director, shutting out others even as they patted themselves on the back for hiring her.

"Ava actually became the entry point to discover this wealth of black female filmmaking," Sheppard says. "She points back — both with her filmmaking and advocacy — even as she continues to move her own work forward. She's shining a light on all these people who've tried to see black lives in a valuable way."

DuVernay also is actively getting jobs for women and people of color. Every episode of Queen Sugar — even those advertised on this trailer's TV — is directed by a woman. (That choice prompted the producers of Netflix's Jessica Jones to fill their director slate with women, too.) She says that after enjoying the independence of indies, she walked into Disney with a "'you're-not-gonna-take-my-soul' attitude." But she was pleasantly surprised that the people she saw in her first meetings were people she actually knew, a rarity for a black woman from Compton who doesn't travel in the same circles as studio executives. She had worked with them in the indie trenches.

"It was a big lightbulb moment for me, because I realized this is what a lot of my white male counterparts have, this ease, the familiarity. They seem really easy to work with because they feel good about it — because they know each other." She says she didn't have a "legacy" as a black female director, nobody who'd been through the process with a studio whom she could call for advice.

But now, DuVernay is that legacy.

Is that a lot of weight on her shoulders?

She shrugs, unfazed.

Two years ago, when she was screening Selma, DuVernay got calls from both the Smithsonian and Netflix to make movies. On her weekends, she discreetly made a 22-minute short for the Smithsonian called August 28: A Day in the Life of the People, starring Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. In her free time, when she wasn't prepping for A Wrinkle in Time, she made 13th.

Lisa Nishimura, head of Netflix Originals, says DuVernay's ability to break down big subjects into easily digestible, beautiful bites is unrivaled. "I told her to think about a subject she wanted to cover, and she called me back and laid out this conceit that was so big it didn't fit in the room" — a survey of the centuries-long institutional enslavement of African-Americans. "I remember my pregnant pause. Because it was a big pitch to get over the phone."

Van Jones in DuVernay's documentary 13th
Van Jones in DuVernay's documentary 13th
Courtesy of Netflix

DuVernay has the rare ability to break down onscreen a subject as complex as the racist history and reality of America's centuries-long campaign against African-American men, implicating politicians, courts and prisons. In 13th, DuVernay dissects institutional systems, and the rhetoric that has long obscured their functions, and draws a tight time line of one event leading to the next that's revelatory in its clarity. The documentary tracks this history from the Civil War to the 2016 election, emphasizing how Nixon's "tough-on-crime" Southern strategy sent out a dog-whistle call to racists that would resound through generations, with even Democratic presidents resorting to tough talk about cracking down on "criminals" (read: African-Americans) to secure the votes of fearful populations.

DuVernay's interview subjects in the film include thinkers like Van Jones, who shares her read of the history, but also the likes of Newt Gingrich, who gleefully recounts how he stomped out "soft liberals" with policies that militarized our police. DuVernay says she's "curious" about Gingrich's thinking and was never angry or rattled by his words, just "fascinated" she'd get to ask him any question she wanted — and he'd answer. And sometimes he said something that surprised her, like when he stated that he thought crack and cocaine should have been treated as equal drug offenses. But to get that answer, she had to sit across from him, look him in the eyes, and say, "What do you think?"

"My mother taught me empathy," DuVernay says. "I remember once when a boy broke into our house when my mother was home. The police went and caught the guy and brought him back to the house in the back of a cruiser. They asked my mom if it was him, and she said, 'Yes.' But then she went to the window, tapped on it, and the boy looked at her, and she said, 'You're gonna be OK.'"

DuVernay cocks her head back, her eyes looking to a barren corner of the trailer, as if she's trying to find something, but she's mining her memory. She says she remembers emotions more than details, but this story sticks in her head. The pained look on her face is one of someone who has just traveled back in time, who's reliving a memory to learn from it again. After all, memory is the tesseract, the place that transcends time and space. It's where you go searching for someone else and you find yourself. "And I get it now," she says. "That's who raised me, that woman, who would go to the boy who broke into the house and tell him, 'It's gonna be OK.'"

DuVernay's phone buzzes. She picks it up and announces that she has to dash back to set, asks if I have everything I need, ever hospitable and thoughtful. In the short time we've been chatting in her trailer, texts and voicemails have been pouring in. Ava DuVernay is direly needed — everywhere, it turns out.

[Note: An earlier version of this story stated that St. Joseph High School is in Lynwood. It is in Lakewood. We regret the error.]


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