Follow This Leader: Ava DuVernay
It’s August of 2016 and you’ve just been announced as the director of Disney’s live action film A Wrinkle in Time, slated with a whopping 100-million-dollar budget. Meanwhile, your documentary, 13th was released in July to widespread critical acclaim, and will earn you an Academy Award nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category. This, ladies and gentleman, is a mere snapshot of the life of award-winning director and writer Ava DuVernay. This industry legend skyrocketed to fame with her film Selma, a civil rights drama based on Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for the right to vote and the protests in Alabama, and has been familiar face on the Film Festival Circuit since. As a woman and person of colour, she is a trailblazer for an industry typically dominated by men, in which she not only opens up the conversation to inclusivity and equality, but also brings to light the importance of stories told by people from all walks of life.
As the child of two modest working class parents, DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California. She grew up close to the well-known city of Compton where she attended the all-girls St. Joseph’s High School among many wealthy and privileged peers. Her talent and ambition to drive change paved a clear path to success, becoming the school’s first black homecoming queen and student body president. Her teachers and peers, to this day, commend her motivation, passion and natural disposition for leadership. She remains an important role model for the young woman attending St. Joseph’s, so much so, that the administration has displayed a banner in the lobby reading ‘’We Love Our Jester Sister Ava DuVernay.’’
Two of the most pivotal years for DuVernay were 2008 and 2012. In 2008, she made her directing debut in a small budget indie film, This is The Life, and focused on subjects that intrigued her most. By 2012, her third film called I Will Follow was entered in the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S Drama category and earned DuVernay the Best Director award, dubbing her the first ever African-American woman to win the prize. From there, she could have been directing blockbusters and large budget films, but instead she stuck to telling the societal narratives that mattered, such as the civil rights movement. Her father’s participation in the Selma marches and real-life experiences later inspired her to make a film nominated for multiple Academy Awards that won her the respect and critical acclaim she deserved. One member of her crew described her influence on set as something he has never seen before. He marveled at the way DuVernay harnessed the collective vision, drive and belief of her team to foster the development of rare fellowships that are difficult to find.
One of the most important conversations that DuVernay started centred on feminism in the entertainment business. When Selma was released, critics across the board stated that DuVernay almost guaranteed an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. This made the fact that she wasn’t nominated shocking yet predictable – because the only other woman to win this award in the last eight years was white. The systematic gender equality issue highlights both the lack of award show diversity and the lack of opportunity for female directors. Take Alejandro Iñárritu, winner of Best Director for two consecutive years, for his work on Birdman and the The Revenant, two films with equally radical plots, two films approved and filmed without question. Female directors rarely get the opportunities to tackle projects like this, and if they do they face obstacles and prejudice. Despite the slow pace at which progress is evolving, it would be a lie to deny that everything is still stagnant. Patty Jenkins gave us all enormous hope as she steered this year’s hit DC Comics film Wonder Woman to wondrous success, breaking records as the highest-grossing film ever to be directed by a woman, as she followed in the footsteps of DuVernay who gave the world a peek at the boundless potential of female directorial creativity and poise.
Although DuVernay’s early and current works share many commonalities, one in particular withstands the test of time: race and prejudice. Aside from the obvious civil rights theme in Selma, DuVernay has written and directed films with a large focus on the themes of race and inequality. Her film 13th earned her an Academy Award Nomination for Best Documentary Feature, making her the first African-American woman to be nominated for the award. The documentary is centered on the issue of race in the United States criminal justice system, and is aptly named after the 13th amendment to the Constitution which prohibited slavery. DuVernay argues in the film that slavery is being perpetrated through the mass incarceration of individuals of colour. She announced two more film projects besides A Wrinkle in Time: a story called Part of the Sky which is set Compton. She is also said to be writing and directing a film on the social and environmental effects of Hurricane Katrina, and the creation of AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) to which she dedicates most of her efforts. DuVernay created the film distribution company to ensure that films made by or focusing on black people had the opportunity to be seen by larger audiences. Although it is a business, DuVernay constantly stresses that the main driver of AFFRM is activism.
An Inspiration to All
Ava DuVernay is undoubtedly a leader to watch, from her equality activism, to the way that she uses her art as a medium to express her beliefs to a wide audience. The director continues to tell narratives that she feels passionate about, and as both a storyteller and leader, it is crucial that she continues to bring a voice to stories that aren’t often told on the Hollywood stage.