Janel Dyan

Women Crushing It Wednesday

#WCIW: Ava DuVernay

Barrier-Breaker.  Inclusivity Advocate.  Tremendously Talented Director.

Recently when Oprah Winfrey was asked, “Who is Oprah’s ‘Oprah’?”, she immediately responded, “Ava DuVernay is my new one. She’s just burning up; she’s a light! I’m inspired by her.”  

And if you know who Ava DuVernay is, it’s easy to see why. DuVernay has been making her mark on Hollywood and the world in a big, big way. After directing and producing the critically-acclaimed masterpiece, Selma in 2014 and being snubbed by the Oscars for Best Director, she's only stepped up her pace. In addition to her incredible projects like Selma, 13th, and the upcoming A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay has proven to be a fierce activist and advocate for racial and gender equity, equality, and sisterhood... and she’s just getting warmed up.

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Born in Long Beach, California in 1972, DuVernay did not always aspire to become a filmmaker.  Inspired by her entrepreneurial father, who owned a carpet business, Ava dreamed of owning a business of her own one day. After attending UCLA and working in film publicity throughout the 1990s, she did just that by opening She opened her own publicity agency in '99. DuVernay Agency specialized in promoting films to African American audiences.

It wasn’t until working on the set of the 2004 Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise thriller, Collateral, that she became interested in producing and directing her own films. Drawing from her love of hip hop, her first creative forays were shorts and documentaries focused on alternative and women hip hop artists. Her documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop aired on BET in 2010. That same year she also released her first feature film, I Will Follow, which she wrote and directed. The film was a critical success and put DuVernay on the map. Critic Roger Ebert called the film, “A universal story about universal emotions”. 

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A long-time advocate for the Black community, in 2011 DuVernay helped to found the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a group dedicated to supporting the release and distribution of independent movies by Black filmmakers.  

She has consistently produced films with diverse casts and has worked to break down boundaries for Black female directors, producers, actors, and actresses. In 2012 she became the first black woman to win the Director’s prize at the Sundance Film Festival with her film Middle of Nowhere.  

When Lee Daniels dropped out of directing Selma in 2013, lead actor David Oyelowo, who had starred in Middle of Nowhere, successfully advocated on behalf of Ava to replace him. After rewriting the script, the team, which included producers Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt went to work. The result was a beautiful, timely film about the fight for the Black right to vote that earned multiple award nominations and a Golden Globe nomination for DuVernay for best director — the first nomination of its kind for a Black woman.  

Continuing her advocacy for the Black community, DuVernay released the Netflix documentary, 13th, which is a powerful, in-depth look at the evolution (and lack thereof) of Black rights and progress from the 13th amendment through present day. The film received an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category.

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DuVernay has become, if somewhat reluctantly, the go-to expert and advocate for the inclusion movement in Hollywood. She is adamant about using the word “inclusion” instead of “diversity” because it isn’t enough to have one or two women or people of color in order to create a “diverse” cast. There shouldn’t be a quota to fill, and to become inclusive the industry must be reflective of the actual population. Oprah, who has used the term “diversity” on many occasions recently said:

“I will say that I stand corrected. I used to use the word "diversity" all the time. "We want more diverse stories, more diverse characters …" Now I really eliminated it from my vocabulary because I've learned from her that the word that most articulates what we're looking for is what we want to be: included. It's to have a seat at the table where the decisions are being made.”  

DuVernay has also been a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, encouraging activists to go “Beyond the Hashtag” and focus on the message they want to send to those outside the community. With her upcoming project, Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, Ava becomes the first Black woman to be at the helm of a $100Million live-action film. Her cast is undeniably inclusive, with Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and Storm Reid all in leading roles.  

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For her barrier-breaking career, her advocacy for inclusion, and her indisputable talent as a director, Ava DuVernay is this week’s #WCIW.

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