Who is Director Ava DuVernay?
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Ava DuVernay is a prominent film director, producer, writer and distributor with two Oscar nominated films under her belt, with more to come. She is known for directing films with strong themes of social justice and advocating for women’s rights.
1. DuVernay Was Originally a Journalist
Ava DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California in 1972. The oldest of five children, she grew up near Compton, California with her mother and stepfather. Her family would spend summers in Alabama, near Selma, which sparked her interest in the Selma to Montgomery marches that took place during the Civil Rights movement. The non-violent protests would become the subject of her first Academy Award nominated film, ‘Selma.’ DuVernay never intended to end up in filmmaking because she originally enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles as a double major in English and African-American Studies. After graduating, she went into journalism, but quickly decided that it wasn't for her. She turned to public relations, and opened her own PR firm, The DuVernay Agency, or DVAPR, in 1999. The agency did quite well, working on marketing and PR for projects like ‘Spy Kids’ and ‘Dreamgirls.’ During this time, DuVernay also did her best to promote women of color, setting up promotions for African-American beauty salons and launching a digital platform called ‘HelloBeautiful’ for millenial women of color. In 2005, DuVernay made her first short film. Called ‘Saturday Night Life,’ it was a twelve minute short about a mother’s trip to a grocery store with her young children. She made the film with $6,000 of her own money, and it was featured on Showtime’s ‘Black Filmmaker Showcase’ in 2007. DuVernay then started exploring documentaries. In 2007, she director ‘Compton in C Minor,’ a documentary short that she hoped would show as much about Compton as possible. Her next documentary was feature length, called ‘This Is The Life,’ about the history of the ‘Good Life Cafe’ arts movement in Los Angeles.
2. DuVernay's First Film Was Called 'I Will Follow'
In 2010, DuVernay directed three TV documentaries for the BET Network and TV One. The first was a series of tapings of the live performances at the Essence Music Festival along with behind the scenes interviews called ‘TV One Night Only: Live From the Essence Music Festival.’ The second was BET’s first original music documentary, ‘My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women and Hip-Hop,’ a history of female hip-hop artists. The third was also for TV One, called ‘Essence Presents: Faith Through the Storm,’ about two sisters whose lives were turned upside down after Hurricane Katrina. DuVernay’s first feature length narrative film was ‘I Will Follow,’ released in 2011. It was made in only fourteen days and cost $50,000. ‘I Will Follow’ is about accepting the death of a loved one, with DuVernay’s aunt providing her inspiration for the film. It was a critical success, and was released theatrically. It was also featured at AFI Fest, Chicago International Film Festival, Pan-African Film Festival, and Urbanworld. After the completion of ‘I Will Follow,’ DuVernay started her own distribution company, called AFFRM, or African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. The company recently rebranded and is now called ARRAY. DuVernay used the company to get ‘I Will Follow’ distributed, but the major goals of her company were to promote activism among filmmakers of color and female filmmakers. Those who have contributed funds to the organization include Thandie Newton and Jessica Chastain.
3. DuVernay Won the Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for Best Director for 'Middle of Nowhere'
In 2012, DuVernay became the first African-American woman to receive US Directing Award in the dramatic category at Sundance Film Festival for her next film, ‘Middle of Nowhere.’ The film explores a similar theme to that of ‘I Will Follow,’ about love and loss. ‘Middle of Nowhere’ is about a woman who must accept that her husband is going to jail for eight years. It was a passion project for DuVernay, who wrote the script nearly ten years earlier, but was unable to get it financed. The film also earned DuVernay the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award in 2012. She directed an episode of the television documentary series Nine for IX in 2013, called ‘Venus Vs.’ The episode tells the story of Venus Williams’ fight for equal prize money between female and male athletes. It aired on ESPN in 2013. In 2015, she was considered for directing Marvel’s ‘Black Panther,’ but ultimately turned down the project in order to focus on other films. ‘Black Panther’ ended up being directed by Ryan Coogler, and was just released this past month.
4. 'Selma' Was Her First Oscar Nominated Film
‘Selma’ was released at the end of 2014 and received excellent reviews. The film was made for $20 million and produced by Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B. DuVernay rewrote much of the original script herself, gearing the film more towards Martin Luther King Jr and the people of Selma. 2014 was a pivotal year at the Academy Awards, with the #OscarsSoWhite movement in full swing. One of the most criticized parts of the Oscars was that ‘Selma’ was barely nominated for any categories, despite being one of the most talked about and important films of the year. DuVernay was not nominated for best director, to much outrage. ‘Selma’ did win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for ‘Glory’ by Common, but the only other category it was nominated for was Best Picture. DuVernay has said that she did not expect to be nominated herself, but felt that David Oyelowo’s work as Martin Luther King Jr deserved a nomination. DuVernay’s next project was commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The film, called ‘August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,’ tells the stories of six significant events in African-American history that all happened on August 28. It is a short film, at twenty-two minutes, and stars a plethora of famous African-American actors including Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett and Don Cheadle. The film made its debut at the opening of the museum in 2016.
'Queen Sugar' and Apple Music Ads
In 2015, DuVernay took on a new type of project with television show ‘Queen Sugar.’ She created and executive produces the show for the Oprah Winfrey Network. DuVernay directed two episodes and wrote four for the first season. ‘Queen Sugar’ has been praised for DuVernay’s initiative to only have women direct the show. Now in its third season, the show is follows three siblings who inherit a sugar farm in Louisiana from their recently deceased father. The cast is headed by Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Kofe Siriboe. DuVernay based the series on a book by Natalie Baszile also called ‘Queen Sugar.’ The same year, DuVernay was hired by Apple Music to direct a series of commercials. The three ads would each feature a different female star; Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, and Kerry Washington. The first ad, titled ‘Chapter 1,’ made its debut during the broadcast of the 2015 Emmy Awards on Fox.
The New York Film Festival surprised audiences by opening their 2016 festival with DuVernay’s new documentary, ‘13th.’ Named after the 13th amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery, the documentary argues that slavery is still alive in our society through incarceration. Featuring interviews with high profile politicians and public figures like Angela Davis and Corey Booker, the film was very highly regarded, and earned DuVernay a second Oscar nod. This time, ‘13th’ was nominated for Best Documentary Feature, making DuVernay the first African-American woman to be nominated in a feature category. ‘13th’ was produced by Netflix, and can be found on their website. In 2017 she directed a music video for Jay-Z and Beyoncé called ‘Family Feud.’ It debuted on Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming platform and featured appearances from numerous guest stars including Michael B. Jordan, Thandie Newton, Mindy Kaling and Brie Larson.
5. DuVernay is the First African-American Woman to Direct a Film with a $100 Million Budget
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DuVernay was confirmed as the director of the big budget Disney film ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ in early 2016. She became the first African-American woman to direct a film with a budget over $100 million. ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ based on the sci-fi novel by Madeleine L’Engle, has a huge cast of diverse women including Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. It opened last week on Friday, March 9 to mixed reviews. Critics were not thrilled with the excessive use of CGI and some criticized the story, but celebrated the female empowerment message of the film. ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is a departure from DuVernay’s usual fare in many ways. It is geared towards teens and children, it takes place in a fantasy world and it is a big budget blockbuster film. DuVernay was drawn to it because she wanted to broaden the view of Disney films. She felt it was the perfect story to diversify, and give a new message. Disney bought her idea around the same time as ‘Black Panther,’ and the two have become inevitably linked. As ‘Black Panther’ continues to make box office history, it is unclear whether ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ can have the same effect.
Upcoming Projects and Net Worth
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DuVernay’s upcoming projects include ‘Battle of Versailles,’ a television movie about a 1973 fashion show in Versailles, France. It will be produced by HBO and is currently in pre-production. The film focuses on the tension between the French and American designers. She is also attached to produce ‘Red Line,’ a TV movie about a white policeman who accidentally shoots a black doctor. So far, actors attached to the project include ER alum Noah Wyle and Emayatzy Corinealdi, who was also in ‘Middle of Nowhere.’ She is also rumoured to be working on ‘Part of the Sky,’ a narrative feature set in Compton and an untitled project about Hurricane Katrina. DuVernay’s website also notes that she is in the process of making a film about the Central Park Five, an incident involving racial profiling and wrongful arrests in 1989.
Net Worth and Personal Life
Ava DuVernay’s net worth is estimated at $3 million. Her net worth will likely be much higher after the box office numbers from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ are calculated. She is extremely private about her personal life, but was rumored to be dating rapper and actor Common when they were working on ‘Selma.’ The two have since split and DuVernay is reportedly single.