Every Monday, Culturess chooses one woman in pop culture to be our Woman of the Week. These women inspire and empower us to kick ass, take names, fight the good fight, and live our best lives. Today, our Woman of the Week is Ava DuVernay!
If you know anything about the state of the film industry today, it will come as no surprise that Ava DuVernay has never won an Oscar. This immensely talented woman has gone largely unrecognized in official channels, despite being one of the foremost directing talents of our time. That’s because women, especially women of color, have been largely excluded from the profession for the entire history of film. In fact, only one woman has ever won a directing Oscar (and that was for a hyper-masculine war movie). But the amazing thing about Ava DuVernay is that she is completely undeterred by the limits placed on her. She just keeps making her work, no matter what anyone says.Ava DuVernay on “The Daily Show with John Stewart,” Screengrap via Comedy Central
DuVernay famously did not pick up a camera until she was 33. Originally she worked as a journalist, and then opened her own PR firm. It was just 11 years ago that DuVernay decided to make her first movie. This tale is often used to illustrate how it’s never too late to start doing what you’re passionate about. Because in those 11 years, DuVernay has risen straight to the top, based solely on her own talent and hard work.
For her directorial debut, DuVernay first shot a documentary – which can be made on a smaller budget than a narrative film. In 2008 she released her first film, This Is The Life. She released her first narrative film, I Will Follow, shortly after in 2011. DuVernay shot I Will Follow on a microscopic budget ($50,000) and shot in 14 days. But the quality of the story, which DuVernay also wrote, attracted major attention as it made its way into prominent film festivals. Her second feature, Middle of Nowhere, garnered her the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, for the best film made under a $500,000 budget.
But it was 2014’s Selma that was DuVernay’s breakout. The intimate and incredibly moving portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1965 march from Selma garnered DuVernay critical acclaim and a Best Picture nomination. But (in my opinion), she was robbed of a Best Director nomination at the 2014 Academy Awards. It was one of the many snubs that led to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Regardless of that slight, DuVernay’s incredible work cemented her as a major director in our times.
Since then, DuVernay’s recent film 13th has been nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. And she is currently directing A Wrinkle In Time, making her the first black woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million dollars. If that wasn’t enough, she created and executive produced the highly critically acclaimed TV show Queen Sugar, which won her an NAACP Image Award for Best Writing in a Drama Series.
But it isn’t just DuVernay’s incredible work that makes her an amazing Woman of the Week. Because the most amazing thing about DuVernay is how she uses her success to promote other women and people of color in the film industry. For A Wrinkle In Time, she insisted on casting the main characters with mixed race actors. In previous adaptations, creators always assumed that Meg, Cal, and Charles are white. With this casting choice, DuVernay is opening the story up to young children of color, so that they may be able to see themselves represented. And for Queen Sugar, she only hired women directors for the first season. DuVernay told Oprah.com,
“I wanted to make something in my likeness…which meant asking, can I bring in women who’ve never directed television before? Can that be done? We proved it can.”
As a result, DuVernay is changing the popular idea of who is and is not capable of being a director.
Ava DuVernay is an incredible talent. Her versatility is unmatched. From intense historical dramas like Selma to whimsical tales of magic like A Wrinkle In Time, she is constantly churning out outstanding work. Not only that, but she also endeavors to promote, empower, and represent women and people of color. Through the stories that she chooses to tell, through her casting choices, and through her hiring practices behind the camera, DuVernay is actively and consciously creating a world where more people can be included, in film and also in life. She is the future of film, and she’s bringing us all up with her.
Thank you so much for all you do, Ava!
You can find Ava DuVernay’s work here:
13th: You can watch DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary on Netflix.
Middle of Nowhere: DuVernay’s second narrative feature is on Netflix.
Queen Sugar: OWN renewed Queen Sugar for season 2 before season 1 even premiered! There’s no premiere date for the new season yet, but keep an eye on its website to find out.
Selma: You can watch Selma for free now if you have Amazon Prime!