Ava DuVernay on Advocating for Female Directors, Her "Low" 'Selma' Moment

Fabrizio Maltese
Ava DuVernay

The activist talks about the industry ups and downs stemming from her film's success and why she won't use the Oscars platform to say exactly what she's thinking.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Where she was: "I was a publicist for other people's movies," she groans. Among the projects DuVernay was pushing at the time: Clint Eastwood's South African rugby drama Invictus and the Bruce Willis-Tracy Morgan buddy comedy Cop Out. Still, she carved out enough time to finish her feature helming debut I Will Follow, which led to her breakout project Middle of Nowhere. The latter won the best director prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, marking the first time an African-American woman nabbed the honor.

Where she is: The 43-year-old Compton native, who counts Oprah as a pal and frequent collaborator, saw her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma land a best picture nomination and become one of the top-reviewed films of 2014. Buoyed by both her success and her 135,000 Twitter followers, DuVernay has morphed into one of the most forceful voices advocating for female filmmakers and stories about people of color. Instead of taking up Marvel on its offer to direct the superhero spinoff Black Panther, she's prepping an untitled, Participant-financed Hurricane Katrina project, which marks her next narrative feature. She simultaneously is readying Queen Sugar, her first TV series, which she wrote and will direct and produce for OWN and Warner Horizon. Additionally, she's finishing postproduction on an untitled feature documentary for Netflix that she directed, wrote and produced about the American prison system and its impact on American culture. And if that's not enough, she is expanding her distribution collective Array, doubling the number of films by underrepresented filmmakers that the company releases.

Best and worst part of success:

You get to do more. There's a window right now for me. I feel more acceptance for my stories. The downside is being too strategic, which is something I've been grappling with, not trying to play the angle but focusing on the things that appeal to me. You get to a place where everyone you talk to is talking about the next right move, and you forget to talk about, "What do you really want to do?" The window is going to close at some point. The question is, "What did you do during that time?" I don't want my answer to be, "I played the angles. I played the game."

Most significant industry shift: The way that we're consuming what we watch. Netflix, binge-watching, destination agnostic were not terms. It was about networks, times, dates. Even with feature films, you had to see it this way, in this capacity, at this time. All that has changed. Now it's really about the story. It's a gift that I became a storyteller at this time.

Coolest dinner party invite: Dining with the president, the first lady and some other friends. It was around the time I was screening Selma at the White House. A wow moment.

Leading frustration about Hollywood: That only 4 percent of studio directors are women. It defies culture in so many ways. It affects the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen by others. It gets into the DNA of how we treat each other, the policies we make, what we're able to say and do to each other. For there only to be one dominant voice determining what's said and saying it is something that all like-minded people who believe in dignity of everyone should be concerned about. That comes into play for women and for people of color. It's not a problem that can be fixed by the word "diversity," whatever that means. It's a problem that's going to take a multipronged solution and allies all over the place who say, "We want to make a change."

Lowest professional moment: When I found out on Selma that I was not going to get my writing credit for work that I had done. We had to abide by contracts with the previous producers. That was a low, low, low moment at a really happy time. I remember Oprah saying, "This is not happening to you. It's happening for you. You need to move forward and focus on the beauty of the film and what it's doing." It happens to a lot of screenwriters, but I had never experienced anything like that because I had always written, produced and directed my own thing to that point. I couldn't wrap my mind around how something like that could happen, and I couldn't talk about it at the time because it's at a studio and it's [Oscar] season.

Thing I wish would be said onstage at the Oscars: I don't see that forum as the kind of place where what I'm thinking should be said.

Hollywood person who's killing it right now:  J.J. Abrams. He's been able to build a company around his vision of film and television. I love that he's taking us back to the roots of a franchise [Star Wars] that I've always loved. On the TV side? Hands down, Shonda Rhimes.

Person outside of Hollywood I most want to meet: Assata Shakur, who is in exile in Cuba for political reasons. She's someone I'd really like to meet and talk to. She's alive somewhere in Cuba. Maybe for a future project, you never know.

Most recent TV binge: Aziz Ansari's Master of None on Netflix. It was incredible.

Talent I wish I had: I wish I could pick up the camera and shoot my own stuff like [Steven] Soderbergh or [Cary] Fukunaga.

Place that most surprised me: Mumbai. I was surprised by the number of people who knew my work there. I shouldn't have been. The resonance of the story of Selma and the people in Alabama in 1965 aligns with many of the struggles of people in India. The whole history of nonviolent protest came out of India and Gandhi, so they have a very close connection to [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] story. The movie didn't open in India, but people found it. It further solidified my mission, which is to continue to ring the bell for people of color and stories from different places, instead of the same white male gaze, which is so dominant in what we see. There are so many other beautiful stories, legacies and memories that should have the same chance to be shared.

Biggest fear of the next five years: That I'll be caught in development on something that takes five years to do and then it doesn't get made.