A decade ago, a friend and I checked out an indy film in New York City by a Black woman whose name we didn’t know. The film, “I Will Follow,” was a fresh, sophisticated exploration of love, death and healing. It was nuanced and layered in a way we’d rarely seen before. Amid enthusiastic applause at the end, author and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis introduced a curvy, dreadloc’d sista with a luminous smile who announced in a soft, confident voice, “Hello. I am visionary filmmaker Ava DuVernay.” We enjoyed her presentation, agreed she was a talent worth watching and went home to Jersey. Little did we know…
Today, Ava DuVernay is an entertainment powerhouse without peer.
She has conquered large and small screens from Paramount and Disney to Netflix and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN television network with spellbinding manifestations of her unique vision. Between major features and series, DuVernay fires off insanely innovative music videos, and next-level commercials for popular fashion and music brands including Fashion Fair, Miu Miu and Apple Music. She’s equally adept at sobering documentaries and warm, uplifting dramas that routinely win critical and popular acclaim.
DuVernay’s second feature film was released in 2012. “Middle of Nowhere” explored the life of a registered nurse in Compton who struggles with her own challenges and desires as her husband serves time in prison. Described by Awards Daily as “revolutionary, haunted, [and] deeply erotic,” it won the Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.
In 2013, DuVernay helmed the ESPN documentary “Venus VS,” which chronicled tennis champion Venus Williams’ longtime push for pay equity between male and female players.
Next, she tackled a seminal moment in American history with the major 2014 dramatic feature “Selma,” which rounds out Dr. Martin Luther King’s humanity while exploring the dynamics of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by King and activists Hosea Williams and John Lewis. “Selma” garnered numerous awards including an Oscar for Best Original Song, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year, Golden Globes awards for Best Original Song and Best Motion Picture – Drama, an American Film Institute (AFI) award for Movie of the Year, African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) awards for Best Picture, Best Music and Best Director, among many others.
DuVernay’s creative vision was again sparked when, on a visit with Oprah Winfrey, the mogul handed her a copy of the acclaimed 2014 novel Queen Sugar, by Natalie Baszile, about a Black family’s struggles with love and sugarcane farming in rural Louisiana. DuVernay expanded the scope of the book’s story and the series of the same name debuted on Winfrey’s OWN network in 2016 with its heartfelt look at Black family life. Each episode unfolds with the unhurried sensuality and nuanced storytelling of a feature film. DuVernay’s commitment to humanizing her characters includes insightful portrayals such as traumatized young boys with Barbie dolls, transgender characters portrayed by transgender actors, and male characters given the space to express a full range of emotions.
One of DuVernay’s biggest ambitions for “Queen Sugar” was to recruit a multiracial, multicultural team of women directors who had never directed for television before. She has maintained this commitment through five successful seasons, with the sixth to debut later this year. This was not only groundbreaking but life-changing for several of those women, who have said publicly that their work on the series boosted their credentials and careers after years of being sidelined in their industry.
Her work is stellar and her brand undeniable. DuVernay has won Emmy, BAFTA and Peabody Awards. An Academy award nominee, she sits on the advisory board of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and chairs the Prada Diversity Council.
Many entities crave the DuVernay touch. For its 2016 opening, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) commissioned the auteur to create the short film “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People.” This mini-documentary, which was available for streaming on several platforms, gathered a star-studded cast to highlight six key dates in Black history including the British royal ascent of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, to the 1955 murder of young Emmett Till, to Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination in 2008 to be the first African American man to be a major party’s presidential candidate.
Her quest to educate audiences continued with the 2016 Netflix documentary “13th,” which illustrates how the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution turned African Americans from slaves to criminals to feed the nation’s prison system. “13th” won critical raves plus a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Documentary and an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Netflix recently highlighted “13th” in its relevant Black content following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
She made history again with the 2017 Disney release “A Wrinkle in Time,” which made DuVernay the first Black person (and 13th Black person) to direct a $100M grossing film. She modernized Madeline L’Engel’s beloved 1962 fantasy sci-fi young adult novel by making Meg, the main character, the Mixed-race daughter of a Black Biracial mother and White father, with an adopted Filipino brother. Then she further upped the diversity quotient by casting superstars Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling and Reese Withspoon as Meg’s mystic astral guides. She was widely lauded for “breaking down walls in Hollywood,” as PBS NewsHour described. In that interview, DuVernay emphasized that while she wasn’t surprised that it had taken until 2018 for a Black woman to helm a major studio blockbuster, she also doesn’t wear it as “a badge of honor.” DuVernay said, “I think it’s a real indictment of an industry that’s ignored incredible Black women … all kinds of women of color filmmakers for decades … over a century. The fact that there’s been a decision to put a light on me has nothing to do with me.”
In 2017, the self-described “shapeshifter” also debuted “Family Feud,” an 8-minute music video for Jay-Z’s song of the same name, where she conjured lush futuristic Shakespearean-esque storytelling with a star-studded, multi-hued cast into a captivating portrayal of family infidelity, crime and politics. She wrapped it up with a glimpse of a utopian America featuring co-presidents and a diverse group of women leaders.
DuVernay’s muse led her into much grittier territory with the 2019 four-part Netflix series “When They See Us.” She dramatized the real-life tragedy of four Black and one Latinx teen from Harlem framed by NYPD detectives and prosecutors from the New York District Attorney’s Office and railroaded into jail, accused of raping the famed Central Park Jogger in 1989. Dubbed the “Central Park Five,” the young men endured torturous prison terms before the real rapist confessed, and they were exonerated as adults. “When They See Us,” which quickly became Netflix’s most-watched series, was noted for having therapists available on set. After it aired, outraged fans pushed for Linda Fairstein, who ran the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office at the time of the case, to lose book publishing contracts and her teaching position at Columbia Law School. DuVernay’s work to humanize the young men led to them being re-named The Exonerated Five.
In February 2020, DuVernay added “Cherish the Day” to her friend Winfrey’s OWN network—a romantic anthology drama about a couple exploring what she calls “the radical act of Black love.” With a number of projects on her calendar, she continues flexing and stretching her artistic muscles and finding new ways to tell stories about “the lives of Black folk as the subject. Not the predicate, not the tangent,” as she said when receiving the Visionary Filmmaker award from Essence.
While racking up awards and accolades, DuVernay has established herself as a major artistic and activist voice on social media, where she uplifts other creatives, affirms the empowerment of Black people, women, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities, takes down Trump and rails against injustice in support of a broader, more inclusive humanity.
An article in Smithsonian Magazine stated that “Ava Duvernay makes art that looks squarely at society and takes it to task.” The DuVernay test to challenge Hollywood’s dismal record on racial diversity was first suggested by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis in 2016. DuVernay tweeted that she was “thrilled to be associated” with such a “lovely cinematic idea.”
Her commitment extends far beyond simply realizing her visions onscreen. For decades, a lack of distribution options has presented a major hurdle for Black independent filmmakers. To address that gap, DuVernay founded Array in 2010, a non-profit collective that distributes and spotlights films by People of Color and women filmmakers.
Prior to picking up a camera to realize her dream in her thirties, DuVernay was a successful publicist at Hollywood studios who decided to take a chance on a brighter future. Her achievements, while awe-inspiring, are only part of what makes Ava DuVernay such a standout. Her vision keeps expanding, and her presence is equal parts affirmation and realization of her ancestors’ wildest dreams. She personifies peak Black excellence steeped in genius and fueled in unapologetic purpose. She is #BlackGirlMagic personified, flowing seamlessly between disciplines, genres and platforms as if to say, “Don’t believe me? Just watch!”