With her Netflix miniseries 'When They See Us' and a newly built downtown L.A. studio, the director is creating a modern Hollywood empire while tackling such complex issues as race, justice and that "rich, bloated, flamboyant guy" in the Oval Office: "I'm not going to knock on any closed doors. I'm going to make my own door."
Ava DuVernay is speed-walking through her offices at 5 p.m. on Good Friday, wearing a construction hat and sweatpants and pointing out a loose board to a staffer. "I worked so hard on this," she says, gesturing to a once-leafy courtyard taken over by construction detritus. "Now it's got port-a-potties on it. But anyway, you come back one day and it'll be great."
At 3 this morning, DuVernay turned in the final cut of her latest project as a director, the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, about the Central Park Five case that divided New York City in 1989 and sparked one of the first moments of racially charged political grandstanding by one Donald Trump. Now she's turning her attention to construction on a 50-seat movie theater at her company, Array, a three-building campus housed in a former paint store in Historic Filipinotown near downtown L.A. If she's tired from the late-night cutting session, there's no sign of it, as DuVernay bounds up the steps to her editing suites, pops in on her creative executives and pushes through the plastic construction sheeting walls of her future screening room.
"I always used to say I'm not going to knock on closed doors — I'm going to make my own door," DuVernay says. "When I come here, I'm walking through my own doors. I built my own door, I built it."
From an unassuming corner of Glendale Boulevard, across from an auto parts store and next to a Pentecostal Spanish-language church, DuVernay runs a company that now employs about 50 people at work on 14 TV shows in various states of production and development, as well as her independent film distribution arm, which has released 22 movies in theaters. She bought the 14,000-square-foot property for $7.6 million in 2018 with her paycheck from directing Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, and she is in the midst of making the space her own. Decorated with reclaimed wood, succulent plants and colorful murals, DuVernay's offices were inspired jointly by J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot facilities in Santa Monica and by Ethiopian director Haile Gerima's Washington, D.C., bookstore and cafe, Sankofa. The Array Creative Campus, which includes her production company Array Filmworks, her nonprofit Array Alliance and her indie distribution arm Array Releasing, functions like a mini version of the Hollywood studios just a few freeway exits away — with a noteworthy difference: Almost everyone who works here is female and almost no one is white.
DuVernay's background as a film publicist before she became a filmmaker arms her with an unusual awareness about the power structures of Hollywood and how to harness them, and she has capitalized on the current push to create a more inclusive entertainment industry, securing groundbreaking jobs for herself and many other women and people of color. "It's not yet a movement," DuVernay says of the inclusion drive. "It's a trend. And time will tell if it will mature into an era of true systematic change." As savvy as she is about image-making, social media and what makes Hollywood tick, she's also uniquely aware of the people who work quietly behind the scenes to better her career. At one point she steps out of an interview to be sure the publicist waiting outside her office has a chair. "I think some filmmakers, you're walking down the red carpets and lights are flashing and you're feeling yourself," DuVernay says. "I used to roll that red carpet down there on my hands and knees. I see the machinery of it, and that has allowed me to never take any of this too personally."
Duvernay's four-part series When They See Us, about the five Harlem teenage boys who were wrongfully convicted of rape in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, premieres in full on May 31 and grapples with ideas the director has been marinating on for decades — ideas about race, criminal justice and who gets to write history. DuVernay, 46, was a high school junior in Compton applying to journalism schools when the crime became national news (she ultimately attended UCLA as an English and African American studies major). As a teenager being raised by a hospital administrator/preschool teacher mom and a father who owned and operated a flooring business, she was struck by the misreporting of slang the boys in the case used — "wilin' out" was reported as "wilding." "Sometimes 'wilin' out' just means you're hanging out," DuVernay says. "Sometimes it means you're out just having fun. It certainly doesn't mean you're raping people. The fact that wilin' became wilding, became wolf pack, became these boys are animals. … I remember for the first time realizing that the news might not be true, that the news is something that you have to really think about and question."
Given that DuVernay is one of Hollywood's most active and adept users of Twitter (2.1 million followers), it's fitting that this project came to her via a tweet. In 2015, Raymond Santana, one of the Central Park Five (now age 44), had just seen DuVernay's best picture-nominated Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma and tweeted to her, "What's your next film gonna be on?? #thecentralparkfive #cp5 #centralpark5 maybe???? #wishfulthinking #fingerscrossed." DuVernay direct-messaged Santana, stunned to learn that no one had licensed the rights to the remarkable story he shares with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. In 1990, as teenagers, the men were convicted of the rape of Trisha Meili, a white female jogger in Central Park; their convictions were vacated in 2002 when another man confessed to the crime and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt. "It wasn't an idea that I pitched to them," DuVernay says. "It was an idea that they pitched to me, and I was honored that they chose me."
DuVernay has probed the criminal justice system in her previous projects — most directly in her Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary 13th, which draws a straight, infuriating line between the institution of slavery and the mass incarceration of black men. In Selma, she depicts David Oyelowo's MLK questioning his role in the civil rights movement in a dimly lit Alabama jail. In her 2012 film, Middle of Nowhere, which won DuVernay the directing award at Sundance, she focuses on a woman coming to terms with her husband's eight-year prison sentence. She's drawn to the subject, DuVernay says, because of how many people in her community growing up were touched by the criminal justice system. "Her talent is medicine for a lot of us," says Jharrel Jerome, 21, who broke out in Moonlight and plays Korey Wise in When They See Us. "We look up to Ava as someone who is telling a story that we can't tell. We don't have the means to yell and scream, and try to get out all of our anger, our resentment towards what we're going through. But we can sit down and we can watch two hours of a project that Ava put together and say, 'Yes, OK, I understand. We are at a good place, and we will keep fighting, and we will keep moving forward.' "
For what she considered the "mountain" of this project — finding the actors who would play the five leads over the story's 25-year span — DuVernay enlisted casting director Aisha Coley. She cast different sets of actors to play the characters as boys and then as men for all but Jerome's role, as he was physically able to portray Wise — at 16 the oldest of the group — through the entire period in a performance that culminates in searing sequences of Wise's life in solitary confinement. "My prayer for Jharrel is, may opportunities come for this young black man in the ways that they come for Ansel Elgort," DuVernay says. Felicity Huffman plays sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein, whose zeal to convict the boys causes her to ignore contradictory evidence and procedures for the questioning of minors. The ethically compromised, sanctimonious character is an oddly serendipitous piece of casting given Huffman's role in the college admissions scandal, in which she pleaded guilty May 13 to a scheme to boost her daughter's SAT scores. (DuVernay declined to comment on the matter.)
For her large cast of 179, DuVernay was concerned not only with physicality and performance but with the intensity of the subject matter, which includes scenes of intimidation, violence and loss in police interrogation rooms, courtrooms and prisons. To deal with potential effects from reenacting the trauma, she made counselors available on set for cast and crew. "With 13th, I was looking through a thousand hours of racist, violent footage with my editor Spencer Averick, and we felt the effects," DuVernay says. "I didn't want anyone to feel diminished by their experience working on the material. It's just part of my maturing as a person, as a filmmaker, to know that if I'm going to be making these kinds of stories, that I have to create safe spaces."
Michael K. Williams, who plays the father of Antron McCray, took advantage of the on-set counseling when the work tapped into his own history growing up in Brooklyn, particularly a police interrogation scene shot in an abandoned jail. "It's the fear of being a young black teen in the streets of New York City," Williams says. "Fearing that I'm going to get snatched up, and the impact it had on some of my bad decision-making as a young adult. A lot of those personal things came up."
People who work with DuVernay describe her calm under duress as a preternatural, mysterious quality. While directing Selma, she was about to begin shooting Oyelowo delivering a key speech when the power went out. "Ava came up on the podium and she said, 'To all of my lovely actors, we're going to ask that you just exit this way, go down in the basement, we'll serve you refreshments, we'll be back,' " says Niecy Nash, who portrayed civil rights activist Richie Jean Jackson in Selma and plays Korey Wise's mother in When They See Us. "I don't know if she was fazed or unsettled by any of it. You couldn't tell. I remember listening to her and I was like, 'That's how you lead. All right, girlfriend, I like your vibe.' "
DuVernay opted not to cast an actor as one key player in the story of the Central Park Five — Trump, who instead appears via news footage. In 1989, the now-president fed the hysteria about the case, taking out ads in four daily New York City newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in the state. Asked about the Central Park Five while running for president in 2016, 14 years after the men had been exonerated, Trump doubled down on his position, telling CNN, "They admitted they were guilty." (The boys' confessions were ruled false and coerced.) In 1989, Trump waded into the case because "it made him feel like a player and important," DuVernay says. "Press conferences ensued. He was on CNN. Those are all the things that we know he wanted at that time. By doing this, he got quite a bit of attention, and still is getting it for doing the same kinds of things. I don't think it was for any real desire to seek justice for Trisha Meili, because if he did feel that way he would have sought it for [Brett Kavanaugh accuser] Christine Blasey Ford. It was an opportunity, and he's an opportunist."
In her miniseries, DuVernay frames Trump as the families of the boys experienced him. In one scene, as a mother walks into court, a reporter asks her, "How does it feel that Donald Trump wants your son to get the death penalty?" In another, family members of the boys watch Trump delivering a TV interview in which he says, "If I was starting off today, I would love to be an educated black." "I decided I was telling the story of the men," DuVernay says. "They knew a rich, kind of bloated, flamboyant guy who owned buildings across town had said something about them. They were much more concerned with their families and their lives than some guy in a golden tower."
"There's a ravenous quality to Ava, in terms of wanting to create and tell stories and share her feelings," says J.J. Abrams, who met DuVernay at a party at the Obama White House and forged a friendship — DuVernay calls Abrams "my only white male filmmaker friend," and he has the Ava Barbie doll displayed in the lobby of Bad Robot. (Her other close industry friends include Oprah Winfrey, Nash, Oyelowo, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his wife, Zinzi, and filmmaker and actress Victoria Mahoney — though she can be guarded about her personal life. She says she is "not single" but declines to elaborate.) Abrams considers DuVernay not just a friend but a professional confidante. "She's someone who knows the business really well from a very different vantage point," Abrams says. "Her experience in marketing gives her a savvy about communicating with people that a lot of creative people don't necessarily have."
In November, DuVernay signed a high-eight-figure, multiyear deal with Warner Bros. TV. For Warners, she produces the OWN series Queen Sugar, set to return for its fourth season in June, about siblings who inherit a sugarcane farm in Louisiana; CBS' The Red Line, which premiered in April, about three Chicago families whose lives are affected by a police shooting; and Cherish the Day, an anthology romance series scheduled to premiere on OWN in 2020. She's also working on a documentary about Prince for Netflix, with the cooperation of the musician's estate and access to his archive recordings, including unreleased materials, and developing a DC comic for Warners' film studio based on Jack Kirby's relatively obscure The New Gods. "It's been said to be the basis of Star Wars," she says. "It's grand and epic in that way. It has a kitschy kind of comedic and romantic heartbeat to it that is just unlike a lot that's out there."
Of her pitching style, DuVernay says, "I believe in the Jerry Maguire method. Just get there, and look someone in the eye, and tell them what it is." Actors describe her as a clear and direct communicator as well. But possibly one of the strongest messages DuVernay has delivered to her industry is as a producer: On each season of Queen Sugar, she has employed only female directors. Asked if a male director has ever pushed back — legally or via a guild — at her hiring practice, DuVernay says no but that she would welcome the debate. "My answer to that is we can have that conversation, if anyone wants to, in court," she says. "I will pull out every TV show that never hired a woman. I don't think that's a conversation that anyone's ready to have, but if anyone wants to, I'm happy to have it." It has always been DuVernay's strategy to place more women and people of color on her casts and crews, an idea Hollywood has begun to embrace tentatively, as when WarnerMedia and Paramount adopted inclusion policies in the past year.
When DuVernay made A Wrinkle in Time, she became the first woman of color to direct a movie with a budget of more than $100 million — Wrinkle also was her first film greenlit by a studio. (Selma was a negative pickup for Paramount.) DuVernay's adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 fantasy novel grossed an underwhelming $132.7 million worldwide off of lukewarm critical response. DuVernay is pragmatic about reviews. "I care about them as a distributor, because it gets people into a movie. Otherwise …" she shrugs. A Wrinkle in Time is a movie for which she was operating within an unfamiliar system. "That was a time in my life where I learned a lot, and that includes the politics of a studio," DuVernay says of the Disney project. "To be working with a studio — not just any studio, the biggest, baddest studio. … They have structure and legacy, and to be working with the property that was so challenged because the movie was one that had been trying to be made for a long time. ... There were a lot of limits and rules that I hadn't been used to working with."
On When They See Us, she's back at Netflix, for which she made 13th. The film industry debate around the streamer — including how Oscar voters ought to regard its release strategy — is one that amuses DuVernay and, in her view, reveals a degree of privilege. "We'll look back in a very short number of years and it'll all sound ridiculous," she says. "Do audiences in Compton count? Do audiences in Selma count? Because I can't show Straight Outta Compton in Compton, and I can't show Selma in Selma because there are no movie theaters. Now you have a platform that's saying, 'You can make Orange Is the New Black, or you can make Roma, and we will make sure that audiences, not only in this country, but in 190 countries, for the price of a hamburger can see your movie, your TV show, your whatever.' For there to be any debate where that is valid is, to me, kind of self-preserving. It's unfortunate because while some people are self-preserving, other people are being excluded, both from the making of the piece and the enjoyment of the piece. These are things that I hope the academies, both film and TV, start to think about."
That's an argument DuVernay also brings to theater owners when she's booking the films distributed by her collective, Array Releasing, which places independent films directed by women and people of color in theaters. It's common for DuVernay to call the art house owners who have passed on Array films herself. "I'll say, 'This is a New York Times critic's pick. I've seen for the past three months you've been booking movies with not as strong reviews. What will it take for you to put on your screen some people who don't look like you?' " DuVernay says. "Sometimes I just get so upset, and sometimes they'll want to barter, 'Well if you come …' No, no, no, I'm not going to come. You're not asking the head of any other outfit to come. Do you even see how condescending that is? Watch this film on its merit." That frustration has partly inspired the building of the 50-seat theater at her company, which will screen Array movies for the public as well as for students.
DuVernay's political engagement extends beyond her company. She is an active voice on policy issues, including Alabama's recent restrictive abortion bill, about which she tweeted: "Don't move forward after reading this like everything is normal. Don't shake your head at Alabama and then keep going about your day. Realize that this is a warning. It's Alabama and abortion today. It's you and your rights tomorrow."
As DuVernay's company grows, she is grappling with how tightly to hold all of her shows and films. "I remember sitting next to Steven Spielberg at a dinner at J.J.'s, and I asked him, 'Your name is on a lot of projects. How do you do this?' " DuVernay says. "He said something to me like, 'You can't think that you're going to do it all because your name is on it.' That's been more challenging for me." Coming from the world of indie film, from a world where she rolled out the red carpet herself, DuVernay is used to doing it all. "It's going to take some time for me to get to a point where I don't have to have my hands in everything," she says. "Everyone has their own measure of what makes them comfortable and what makes them happy. I'm trying to find mine."
This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.