Ava DuVernay: Focusing the Lens on Equality

shutterstock_237751423This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

Fusing social consciousness and stunning artistry, director, writer and producer Ava DuVernay‘s well of emotionally resonant stories runs deep. Time and again, DuVernay has demonstrated her commitment to creating meaningful work for the big screen, tackling issues of racial and gender equality and culture, and prominently featuring women and people of color at the heart of every story.

Born August 24, 1972 in Long Beach, California, DuVernay attended the University of California, Los Angeles, double majoring in English and African-American studies. After a brief stint in broadcast journalism, DuVernay tried her hand at publicity and in 1999, founded her own agency, DVA Media + Marketing. Over 14 years, DuVernay orchestrated the marketing campaigns of over 120 films, including those by famed directors Steven Spielberg, Bill Condon and Michael Mann.

In fact, it was on the set of Mann’s 2004 film Collateral starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx that DuVernay realized she wanted to make movies.

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“I just remember standing there in the middle of the night in East L.A. and watching Michael Mann direct and thinking, ‘I have stories,'” said DuVernay, “That was the moment I thought: ‘Wow, I could do this. I would like to do that.'”

DuVernay began making documentaries, helming This Is the Life (2008) about The Good Life, an L.A.-based urban music movement in the 1990s. In 2010, she directed My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth about Women and Hip Hop for BET, celebrating the women who shaped hip hop. That same year, DuVernay debuted her first narrative feature, I Will Follow (2010), praised by Roger Ebert as “the kind of film black filmmakers are rarely able to get made these days, offering roles for [African American] actors who remind us here of their gifts.” DuVernay continued to champion diversity and equality in 2013’s Nine for IX: Venus Vs., an ESPN documentary chronicling tennis star Venus William’s little-publicized lobbying for equal wages for women and men tennis players at Wimbledon.

Though DuVernay breakout film, 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, the deeply moving story of a woman struggling to maintain emotional connection with her incarcerated husband, won her Sundance Film Festival’s coveted Best Director prize (the first and only time a black woman was awarded the prize in the festival’s 37-year history), it was 2014’s Selma that cemented DuVernay’s rightful place in cinema history. A beautifully crafted film starring David Oyelowo as civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Selma recreates the events preceeding King’s historic 1965 march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. Though endlessly (and often unfairly) critiqued, the film nonetheless picked-up 8 NAACP Image Awards nominations, 5 Independent Spirit and Critics Choice Award nods, and 4 Golden Globes distinctions including Best Director, the first one ever for an African American woman. Ironically, Selma‘s two Academy Award nominations proved less a triumph for equality as an alarming reminder of just how necessary diversity is.

Fortunately, DuVernay shows no signs of slowing down.

In January, DuVernay and Selma star Oyelowo announced their plans to develop a feature film set in the eye of Hurricane Katrina. Then, in February, DuVernay signed on to create an original television series for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network based on the Natalie Baszile’s novel Queen Sugar, and she also inked a deal to direct a dramatic series, For Justice, for CBS.

“I wanted to do this for a long time,” said DuVernay. “Now I’ve got the keys to the car, and I ain’t parkin’ it anytime soon.”

Photo courtesy of Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!