“We wait for someone to tell us it’s OK to do something. Sometimes you have to create your own systems, your own structures.”
Ava DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California, to Darlene Maye (née Sexton), Joseph DuVernay, Jr. Her parents divorced and DuVernay, oldest of five children, grew up in Lynwood, California. DuVernay’s stepfather, Murray Maye, from Hayneville, Alabama, was the reason behind DuVernay’s summers in Hayneville, a small town between Montgomery and Selma.
These summers in Alabama would later influence the making of Selma, as her stepfather saw the walk through his county as a child. Her maternal aunt, Denise Sexton, was a registered nurse and a community theatre actress and was the prime person to introduce DuVernay to movies.
DuVernay attended Saint Joseph High School, graduating in 1990. Her parents along with her four younger siblings then moved to Montgomery. In 1995, DuVernay graduated with a B.A. from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she double-majored in English and African-American studies.
Discussing her career as a filmmaker DuVernay said, “I never had a desire to be a filmmaker. As a child and a teenager and in college, I was not aware of black women making films.”
Whilst in college, DuVernay expressed interest in producing for broadcast journalism. She interned for CBS News and worked on the national evening news during the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She soon became dissatisfied with journalism, and decided to switch to publicity. Her switch to publicity was also fuelled by her interest in movies, generally.
In 2008, DuVernay made her feature directorial debut with the documentary This Is the Life. DuVernay saw documentaries as a way to gather funds for future projects, “documentaries were something that I could do for a small amount of money, and then I felt like as long as I found the truth in the stories I was telling as a documentary, I could teach myself filmmaking through documentary filmmaking.”
Overtime, with small successes such as I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere, DuVernay was paving her way to success with her big hit, Selma. I Will Follow was filmed in 15 days to keep costs low. Nevertheless, I Will Follow was an official selection of AFI Fest, Pan-African Film Festival, Urbanworld and Chicago International Film Festival.
DuVernay began production on her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere. The film was acquired by AFFRM and Participant Media at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in U.S. Dramatic Competition and acquired the Best Director Award for DuVernay, making her first African-American woman to ever win the prize. DuVernay also won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for Middle of Nowhere.
DuVernay directed and co-wrote Selma, a $20 million budget film produced by Plan B Entertainment, about Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson, and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. The movie was released on December 25, 2014.
DuVernay’s biggest contribution towards the movie has to be the rewriting of Dr. King’s speeches, the production did not have copyrights to use the original one, therefore this had to be done. DuVernay discusses speeches from the 60s and implements them in politics and society today, proving how little has changed: “I see it so clearly with the political parties that are warring over the black and brown votes, and what they do to pit people against each other,” she says. “This idea that poor white people somehow think that some of these Republican values are for them – to not have health insurance is good for you because that’s evil – and people believing it, is really an example of this idea.”
The film was released in the wake of public riots in the States, in protest to the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The cast of Selma wore t-shirts with the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” whilst promoting the movie in Manhattan, New York. DuVernay comments on the timing of the release: “I think the film is coming into the culture at a very robust national moment, and that’s an honour that it has something to say and is speaking directly to the time is just so of now.”
Whilst raised in a predominantly black neighbourhood, DuVernay attended a predominantly white catholic school, and would make her way through childhood as a minority, yet understanding her surroundings. Later in life, this experience proved advantageous to DuVernay, as it facilitated her navigation through a predominantly while-male directing industry.
Selma is nominated for various awards, Golden Globe Award for Best Director, African-American Film Critics Association Award for Best Director and Critics Choice Movie Award for Best Director, to name a few.
“The best creativity happens within limits,” DuVernay says.