Over the course of a year, our Women to Watch series highlights the groundbreaking achievements of women who have changed the game, so to speak, in their industry, and yet, still have so much groundbreaking in mind. For November 2021, we take a look at Ava DuVernay, a woman who often spends more time behind the camera than in front of it.
DuVernay is a celebrated writer, director, producer, and film distributor and has won Emmy, BAFTA, and Peabody Awards, as well as an Academy Award nomination, during just the first years of her career. In fact, the director has received over 60 awards for her films with only 16 years in the industry, focusing a majority of her work on advocating for minorities. In another 16 years, there is no telling how much DuVernay will do for cinema or those underrepresented in the film industry.
Ava DuVernay’s Early Years
Ava Marie DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California on August 14, 1972. She grew up outside of Compton, CA with her mother and visited Lowndes County, Alabama every summer to see where her father’s family had lived for generations. It was her time in Alabama, and hearing stories about civil rights marches, that would later inspire her to direct the movie “SELMA.”
At an early age, DuVernay showed a passion for the arts, a passion that was encouraged by her aunt. Her Aunt Denise — a nurse by night and performer by day — introduced her to some of the classics, including the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” DuVernay fell in love with the films and carried her mother’s words “say something through the arts” with her as she considered her place in the creative field.
After graduating from Saint Joseph High School in Lakewood, California, DuVernay attended the University of California, Los Angeles where she double majored in English and African American studies. As a student, she interned with CBS News during the O.J. Simpson trial but found broadcast journalism left something to be desired. DuVernay then concentrated on the publicity industry and was hired right out of college as a junior publicist.
In 1999, she started her own public relations company — The DuVernay Agency. This film agency worked on campaigns for movies and television shows where DuVernay was exposed to prominent filmmakers. This experience inspired her to go into directing. So, at 32, DuVernay finally picked up her first camera and got to work.
In 2006, she released her first short film “Saturday Night Life,” which was based on her mother’s experiences. She experimented with more films, often writing and directing. Keeping her mother’s words at the forefront of her mind, her films, then and now, mostly focused on inequality and injustice, as well as challenging the status quo. In 2010, she released her first narrative feature film called “I Will Follow,” which was released theatrically and shown at the American Film Institute Fest, Pan-African Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival. Her second feature film, “Middle of Nowhere,” won the award for Best Direction at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Advocating for Diversity Through Cinema
Following her second film, her career took off. In fact, she steadily became a household name. However, more importantly, her name became synonymous with activism. There has even been a test created in her name, coined by Manohla Dargis in a New York Times article, that is used to evaluate diversity on the screen.
Since releasing her first two films, DuVernay has directed the historical drama “SELMA,” the criminal justice documentary “13th,” and the beloved book turned motion picture “A Wrinkle in Time.” The latter film made her the highest-grossing African American woman director in American box office history. She also produced her own television series, “Queen Sugar,” the CBS limited series “The Red Line,” and the OWN series “Cherish the Day.”
Most recently, she collected 16 Emmy nominations and two wins for the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” about the 1989 Central Park jogger case and was an executive producer on the Netflix limited series “Colin in Black & White,” which centered on Colin Kaepernick and his life in the limelight.
While her films are making history by helping to break barriers and highlight prominent social issues, DuVernay herself is also making history with the number of accolades she has won. Aside from being the highest-grossing Black female director in American box office history, DuVernay is the first African American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival, the first to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, the first to direct a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and the first to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. DuVernay and Beyoncé are also the first African American women to receive multiple Primetime Emmy nominations for directing.
When DuVernay is not behind the camera, she is furthering her cause of amplifying the work of people of color and women in film through her own non-profit film collective ARRAY that she started in 2010.
Check Out More Women to Watch
Jordan Qin with Hollywood Insider once wrote of DuVernay, “Unafraid to speak her mind and address the diversity issues in Hollywood today, DuVernay has become a huge figure who is actively trying to make the silver screen more inclusive.” DuVernay has been a voice for those often underrepresented in film. Her projects not only put underrepresented groups front and center but address the problems that have plagued society and continue to burden it today. With all that she has accomplished so far, it is clear that there is no end to what Ava DuVernay can do. She will continue to impact television and the silver screen for years to come, with more projects set to debut soon.
While we wait for more from DuVernay, check out some of the other amazing women that have been highlighted so far in our Women to Watch series, including philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and General Motors CEO Mary Barra. And, there’s always Hope Smith — the devoted mother, wife, former model, and Founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand MUTHA™. Every day she is making a new contribution to the world — whether it is through philanthropy or entrepreneurship.
Learn more about Hope Smith’s efforts to make big changes. And, keep your eyes peeled for next month’s celebrated woman in the Women to Watch series.