Ava DuVernay is a director and activist, fighting for the rights of African-Americans and for their stories to be told. 

Ava DuVernay @ava on Instagram

There are entertainment celebrities that just make us smile, laugh or cry, but there are some who, in addition, make us think and inspire us. Ava DuVernay is definitely one of them. Born in 1972 in California, she is an African-American film director, writer and producer. Throughout her career, she has consistently showcased African-American stories and characters, proving that they have a voice deserving to be told to anybody who thought otherwise. 

A career she was not expecting

Ava DuVernay did not plan on working in the cinema industry. She actually studied English Literature and African-American studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). She wanted to work in journalism and was tasked with covering the O.J. Simpson murder trial while interning for CBS News in 1995. However, she soon decided to turn to Public Relations. She worked as a junior publicist for several companies including 20th Century Fox before opening her own PR firm, The DuVernay Agency in 1999. She mainty working for the entertainment industry and in the 2000s, she was involved in marketing campaigns for movies such as Dreamgirls.

A move towards directing

In 2006, she directed her first short movie called Saturday Night Life, about a single mother and inspired by her own mother’s experiences. She then caught the directing virus and in 2008 wrote, produced and directed her first feature-length documentary, This is Life, on hip-hop. She went on to direct a few music documentaries as well as a documentary on Hurricane Katrina. 

In 2010, her first feature fiction was called I Will Follow and inspired, this time, by her aunt. It focuses on grieving and coming to terms with the death of a loved one. The same year, because she had troubles with finding financing for her movie, she created her own distribution company, ARRAY. Originally called the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, it aims at helping African-American and female storytellers.

An activist telling stories that matter

Just by being an African-American female director in Hollywood, AvaDuvernay keeps making history. In 2012, her second feature film Middle of Nowhere – about the wife of an emprisoned man – led her to win the directing award in the US dramatic competition at the Sundance film festival. She became the first black woman to win this award. Two years later, with the movie Selma, she was the first black woman nominated for the best director award at the Golden globes, and the first black female director to have her film nominated for the best picture Academy Award. Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.

In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary feature for 13th, in which she discusses the lasting impacts of slavery on the discrimination African-Americans still face today, especially in the prison-industrial complex. The name of the dcumentary comes from the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which abolished slavery in the United States.

In 2018, she directed the movie A Wrinkle in Time for Disney. Although it was neither a critical nor commercial success, she was the first African-American woman to direct a film that earned at least $100 million in the US. The same year, she was part of the Jury of 71th Cannes film festival when actress Cate Blanchett was president.


When They See Us

In 2019, she released on Netflix a documentary series called When They See Us, about the “Central Park Five”. She created, co-wrote and directed the miniseries about the 1989 Central Park jogger case. Five brown and black male teenagers were wrongly accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman in New York. After seeing Selma in 2015, one of the 5 men reached out to Ava DuVernay on Twitter, hoping she would tell their story. Although DNA evidence proved their innocence (and the criminal confessed) in 2002 and they had won a lawsuit for wrongful conviction in 2014, the show helped them win the court of public opinion. The show has earned a total of 16 Emmy nominations.

Ava DuVernay managed to make a place for herself in an industry that does not favor African-Americans nor female directors, far from it. She is not done telling stories that need to be told, shading light on important issues and inspiring young black girls all over the world.

Article by Juliette Cardinale