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Ava DuVernay

The film director who tells epic tales through intimate stories

Text by Ann Friedman
Portraits by Todd Cole
Issue n° 11, Spring & Summer 2015

Ava DuVernay has always enjoyed spotting a missed opportunity. At the age of 27, the native Los Angelena established her own publicity company to promote films to neglected audiences. Then she set about organising theatrical releases for independent black films. But now she’s a different kind of mover and shaker. In 2011, she closed her business, moved to a smaller house, and threw herself into film directing – previously, she says, a “hobby”. The shift culminated in Selma, a major feature film chronicling three months in the life of Martin Luther King and produced by Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt. Ms DuVernay, now 42, is a woman of strong convictions, including the belief that West Side Story is one of the best movies ever made.

Ava DuVernay was on the set of someone else’s film – Michael Mann’s 2004 Collateral, to be exact – when she realised, “I could do this.” Mann was shooting in East Los Angeles, a working-class corner of the city where Hollywood directors usually fail to tread. Jada Pinkett Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Javier Bardem were all filming scenes that day. And perhaps it was this combination of location and actors – “black and brown people were on set,” Ava notes – that made it all click for her. “I just thought, wow, I could tell this story,” she recalls.

Today, she’s known as the director of Selma, an Academy Award-nominated film about a crucial three-month period in 1965 during America’s civil rights movement and the back-and-forth between one of its leaders, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and President Lyndon B Johnson. But at the time, Ava was a publicist, responsible for marketing films, not making them. And she was, by all accounts, quite successful in her chosen corner of the entertainment industry. She’d founded her own agency – the DuVernay Agency – when she was just 27, and she’d already worked on publicity for major studio movies like Spy Kids. But after that day on the Collateral set, she began a ten-year transformation from publicity powerhouse to path-breaking director.

“It was a hobby. That’s what it started as,” she tells me over guacamole and quesadillas at Gracias Madre, a vegetarian Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood – her choice. She wears angular black glasses and long braids, is dressed casually in jeans, and carries a boxy red leather Prada handbag. DuVernay, who’s 42 but looks younger, has big brown eyes that are friendly yet intense when she focuses her gaze. Perhaps it’s her publicity background, or maybe it’s all the interviews she’s been doing about Selma, but she tells her story in a way that’s understated yet cinematic.

First, she bought some books on the art of screenwriting and tried tapping out a script in the evenings and at weekends. “And then it really took hold of me” Ava says. She began using her savings to make films, including a feature-length documentary about hip-hop and a feature film called I Will Follow, released in 2010. “She was busy – really busy,” says Spencer Averick, the editor who’s worked with her on every project since her first documentary, This Is The Life, in 2008. “She would run into the edit suite, look at a couple things, give me some notes, run back to the office and her marketing company. Back and forth.” Eventually she moved the editing suite directly into her agency’s office.

Around that time, she realised that if she really wanted to make a feature film, she’d have to devote herself to it full time. In 2011, she closed her agency to focus on filmmaking. “I sold my house at one point,” she says of her move from Sherman Oaks to Beachwood Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. “I don’t talk about it a lot, but I had to downsize. And I was perfectly happy to do it. I had to reassess and say, ‘I now make small films, so I need to live like a person that makes small films.’ Do you want a bigger house and a fancier car? Or do you want to do something every day that you can’t wait to get up and do?”

She also knew the odds were stacked against her. Hollywood doesn’t like to gamble, and by all accounts, it still sees women filmmakers as a risk. Women directed only 4.7 per cent of studio films between 2009 and 2013. Even so, at first, Ava tried to get financing for her film the traditional way: she showed up to meetings with studios, pitched her idea, and begged powerful people to help her make it happen. It didn’t work. “I’ve found audiences around the world open to new stories by new voices,” she says. “But the guys holding the purse strings, sometimes, not so much.”

The tireless and terrific director was photographed in her home city of Los Angeles, taking moments out from the frenetic activity that has surrounded the release of her breakout film, Selma. Ava wears her own clothes here and throughout.

One day, she says, “I just realised that I need to work without permission. As long as you’re asking people to help you, you’re not empowered to help yourself. I had a lot of what I needed; I just didn’t realise it.” She used her publi-city connections to turn her script into an independent film. The result, Middle of Nowhere, is a conflicted love story about a woman from South Los Angeles caught between two worlds and two men. In 2012, the film was accepted for the Sundance Film Festival, where Ava became the first African-American woman to receive the best director award.

It’s usual for directors to work with a small rotating cast of collaborators, from editors to costume designers to screenwriters to actors. But DuVernay is extraordinarily loyal, and her cast and crew are so devoted that other Hollywood luminaries have taken notice. When director Kathryn Bigelow sat down with DuVernay for a Q&A after a screening of Selma in Los Angeles, Bigelow’s first comment was, “I think one of the greatest compliments a director can receive is the love of an actor. And the names will remain anonymous, but your cast loves you.”

One of them who has no desire for anonymity is David Oyelowo, one of the leading actors in Middle of Nowhere. “The love she has for the cast and crew is reverberated back onto the screen,” he says. “She’s a brilliant student of humanity and a purveyor of emotion and truth. It creeps into her writing, into her direction and the way she teases out great performances from people who go on to become her friends.” Oyelowo describes their relationship as “chemical. I know if we need to go again on a take simply by the way she says Cut!” It was he who introduced Ava to Selma.

Incredibly, despite the fact that the United States has dedicated a national holiday to Dr Martin Luther King Jr – assassinated in 1968 after years of groundbreaking work as a nonviolent organiser of the movement for African-American civil rights – Hollywood has never previously made a film featuring him as the protagonist. The Selma script, originally written by the British screenwriter Paul Webb, had bounced around town since 2007, with a string of directors signing on and then dropping the project. When Oyelowo heard about it, he had a premonition. “I was in a time of prayer, and God told me on the 24th of July 2007 that I would play Martin Luther King in the film Selma,” the British actor told a packed audience at the Urbanworld Film Festival last year. Not long after, he was approached about the part – and then another director abandoned the film.

Finally, Oyelowo stepped in and told the studio they should consider DuVernay. “Being a great actor is based on trust – trust in yourself, but also in your director,” he says. “Being on screen is pretty exposing. And when you’re portraying a figure of Martin Luther King’s stature, it’s doubly so. You can’t go through all those emotional steps without a coach, a cheerleader, a captain, and that’s Ava. She enables you to jump off the cliff knowing that you’re going to get caught.” Ava says: “He pitched me so hard and so fervently that by the time I got the call, it was like, ‘Do you want to do this? Because he really thinks you can do it.’ And so the script landed on my lap.”

Ava DuVernay grew up south of downtown Los Angeles, far from the glitz, in the neighbourhoods of Lynwood and Compton, made famous by rap lyrics. There was no local cinema, so she had to drive to the mall a few neighbourhoods away to see commercial blockbusters. More often, she watched old movies on television with her Aunt Denise. “My big memory is of West Side Story,” she says. “I remember seeing it and thinking it looked like my friends. I love that movie still.”

She went to the University of California, Los Angeles, which is renowned for its film school, but she took a degree in English and African-American studies. She wanted to be an investigative reporter until an internship with CBS News changed her mind. The OJ Simpson trial was the story of the moment, and Ava was given the disenchanting task of digging through jurors’ garbage. “This is not what Walter Cronkite would do,” she thought.

After graduation, she landed a job in film publicity at 20th Century Fox. There, she learned that Hollywood studios break down the potential audience for a film into four “quadrants” – men, women, those over age 25, and those under it – and that a film must appeal to two of them to be green-lit. Then, when the time comes to market a film, studios ignore potential cinema-goers that don’t fit neatly into the quadrant formula. Ava recognised a missed opportunity, founded her own publicity agency, and made it her business to show the studios how they could market their films to underserved audiences.

“It’s hard to start over, which is essentially what I did,” she says, looking back at her decision to make movies. “But it was my mother who I’d seen do that before.” DuVernay’s mother, then a top executive at a hospital, decided in her mid-30s to move into early childhood development, which had always been her passion. She quit her job and moved with DuVernay’s father, who owns a flooring company, to his hometown in Lowndes County, Alabama. They took Ava’s siblings – she’s the oldest of five – with them. DuVernay, 19 at the time, stayed behind in Los Angeles. Her family still lives in Alabama, where they walk the very streets where many of the demonstrations depicted in Selma occurred.

“I was perfectly happy to downsize. Do you want a bigger house and a fancier car? Or to get up every day and do what you want to do?”

Although Ava didn’t have to fight for the job of directing Selma, complications were to come. The film rights to all of King’s speeches and letters – every one of the inspiring words he’s best known for – had reportedly been licensed to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for an MLK biopic Steven Spielberg was slated to produce. Paramount, which was behind Selma, could depict King and the events in the film, but Ava would have to rewrite some of his well-known speeches. Even for a woman with degrees in English and African-American studies, it was a tall order. She listened to his speeches on headphones as she hiked in the hills around Los Angeles, studying his cadence and the way he blended Southern-style preaching with New England intellectualism. What could have been a setback ended up being a huge opportunity, she says.

“I just had to untether myself from the words and really commit to proving the point of Dr King’s concepts. He’s trapped in a catchphrase, ‘I have a dream’ – that’s all we know about him,” she says, referencing King’s most famous speech of 1963. “I just think it’s criminal that you don’t know the radical that he was, the intellectual, the strategist, the tactician, the man of faith who was sometimes unfaithful. He was guilty, had an ego, was a prankster. All those things have just been locked in a marble statue.”

Not in Selma. The film is gripping and highly emotional – and features Oprah Winfrey in a supporting role – but never tips into saccharine, melodramatic territory. Selma, David Denby writes in The New Yorker, “avoids the lifetime-highlights tendency of standard bio-pics… This is cinema, more rhetorical, spectacular, and stirring than cable-TV drama.” Because the script didn’t use King’s actual words, Ava didn’t have to seek the approval of his heirs, who are notoriously difficult to please. The film doesn’t shy away from controversial issues, like an alleged audiotape of King’s marital infidelities supposedly mailed to his wife Coretta around the time he was planning the march from Selma to Montgomery. Ava was free to offer her own interpretation of the events of 1965. After all, she says, “this was not only King’s story. The story is called Selma. It’s about a whole bunch of people, you know what I mean?”

Joanne Heyler, director and curator at the Broad Museum, who invited Ava to speak in 2014 with the artist Kara Walker, says, “Ava has a way of capturing the epic scale of history while not losing a handle on the intimacy of individuals. Kara’s work is similar. History can be abstract and distant, but these women both prove that it is empathy and personal stories, that makes history alive.” Heyler also mentions that Ava was right in the middle of editing Selma when she appeared with Walker. “For someone under so much pressure, the grace and openness with which she spoke was really remarkable.”

These days, Selma, Alabama, is a small town of 20,000. But in 1965, it was a turning point in the battle for civil rights. At the time, blacks had the constitutional right to vote but were systematically kept from the polls in the South by discriminatory practices like additional taxes and literacy tests. King and his fellow activists sought a federal law that would prevent such barriers to voting. To gain the attention of President Johnson and the rest of the country, they staged protests and marches in the heart of Alabama, a state with a notoriously racist governor and police. In other words, King and his colleagues didn’t just find themselves in the South; they made a strategic decision to bring the movement to Selma. Ava went out of her way to depict its unsung and lesser-known heroes on screen, especially the women, from Coretta to the strategist Diane Nash and Richie Jean Jackson, who hosted Martin Luther King and other leaders in her home.

DuVernay’s previous film had been a dialogue-heavy independent with only a handful of actors. Selma called for shootouts, tear gas, horses and hundreds of extras. And because the studio wanted to release it on Christmas Day – a huge marketing opportunity, Ava knew – they had only 32 days to shoot. (Most studio films are shot over two months.) DuVernay completely devoted herself to the project. “I’ve never seen anyone with the passion she has,” Averick says. “She definitely has a great network of friends. But she works a lot.”

There was no room for error. Some crucial and complex scenes, such as that depicting Bloody Sunday, a peaceful demonstration that ended in a violent crackdown by police, had to be filmed in just two days. A New York Times film correspondent who was on set as Ava directed the scene reported that “it was thrilling to witness a female director bring this agonizing American story to life and, in the process, stake her own claim on our cultural history.” Ava says, “I had early conversations with my crew about what I expected and how I expected to be treated, because most of them haven’t dealt with a woman, certainly not a black woman, on set. I’m really clear about what I will and won’t tolerate.”

In August, as DuVernay was in the editing room racing to complete Selma to meet the release deadline, protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. An unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown had been killed by the police, and the black community and its allies were pushing back. A few weeks later, New York City police killed an unarmed black man named Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold and ignoring him when he called out, “I can’t breathe.” By December, when the studio was preparing to release Selma, protesters filled the streets of Manhattan after the officers in both incidents weren’t indicted.

“While I was looking at the footage that we shot, I’d turn on cable news, and see these very same images,” DuVernay says. “There’s definitely an echoing through history, a conversation between these two moments.” Her Twitter feed is equal parts Selma press and news updates about modern-day racial-justice issues. She evidently doesn’t feel the need to draw a clear distinction between the roles of artist and activist and is open about the fact that, filming the tense tête-à-tête between King and President Johnson depicted in Selma, she identified more with King’s perspective.

Shortly after its release in the US, Selma was criticised by historians – not for DuVernay’s reworking of King’s speeches but for her depiction of the president’s reluctance to wholeheartedly support the movement. A former Johnson aide weighed in, claiming that, contrary to the film’s portrayal, “In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Ava responded on Twitter, calling the claim “jaw dropping and offensive”. Later, she added, “Bottom line is folks should interrogate history. Don’t take my word for it or LBJ rep’s word for it. Let it come alive for yourself.”

When the Academy Award nominations were announced a few weeks later, Selma got a nod for Best Picture, but DuVernay’s name was absent from the best-director list. Oyelowo was also denied a nomination for his powerful performance as King. There were charges that sexism or racism was at play: 2015 marks the first time in 17 years when not one black or Asian actor has been nominated. Other observers said the problem was logistical: Paramount hadn’t delivered screeners of Selma in time. Either way, DuVernay would not become the first African-American woman nominated for Best Director. (She was, however, nominated for a Golden Globe.

But, as many Oscar missteps have shown, a film doesn’t have to win top awards to be groundbreaking. And despite the lack of nomination, Selma has made Ava one of the most-watched up-and-coming directors in Hollywood. She’s toured tirelessly to promote the film. “She can get no sleep, take a red-eye across the country, speak to a group of people that morning, go schmooze at a party that night, get no sleep again, wake up, do the whole thing over,” Averick says, “and she’s totally functional and bright and sharp. That’s been her life for the last five years, and especially the last six months.”

It will probably come as no surprise that Ava is already busy with her next project: a movie set in 2005, as Hurricane Katrina wreaks devastation throughout Florida and Louisiana. “We’re at the very beginning of the project,” says David Oyelowo, who will act in the film. “But the process will be the same as Selma. Ava and I will have days and days of phone calls and a few meetings, and then she’ll go away and write. We have a similar world view and idea of taste. It’s not about being right; it’s about being true. Anyway, the process has already begun. And hopefully,” he adds, “it will end up as a great work of art.”