Ava DuVernay's Advice to Women in Hollywood: "Fight for Your Stories"

Female Directors - Ava DuVernay - AP Photo- One Time Use Only-H 2017
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Oscar nominations still "amplify work in a way nothing else does," says the director of the nominated documentary '13th,' who spoke to THR from the set of Disney's 'A Wrinkle in Time.'

What do this year's more inclusive nominations mean for the industry?

Very similar to the prison system in this country, where over the years we've put Band-Aids on something that needs surgery, in the film industry we've often done cosmetic changes to something that needs structural reconstruction. As far as the Academy goes, there now are structural changes put in place — and I was part of that decision-making — and the hope is that those changes will continue to manifest in years like this where the true world is reflected, but we won't know until years to come. We can applaud this year's Oscar nominations, and we should. It's a beautiful year, and it will be even more beautiful when there are Latino, Asian-American, Native American, people with disabilities [represented].

How are you able to effect change as a producer versus as a creator and director?

If you have the opportunity to hire, then you are a part of this problem if you've not done whatever you can to make sure that your crew looks like the real world. On A Wrinkle in Time, you step on our set you see the whole world — women and men of all colors, shapes, sizes, creeds, cultures and faiths working together on this story. You go on [the set of OWN's] Queen Sugar, you're going to find an all-women directorial team. You're going to find a producer who's saying, "The other way, the old way needs to stay old and we need to come up with a new way."

I'm often applauded for the all-women directorial team on Queen Sugar or for my crews, which are always very inclusive. But don't applaud me for doing the right thing — talk to the folks at Game of Thrones, who've only hired one woman to direct in the last three years. The celebration of the few that are doing it — yeah, it feels nice but it's not actually moving anything forward. What needs to be moved forward is an interrogation of the companies and the individuals to do what it's going to take to make real change, which is an industry-wide overhaul.

For me, whether it's [becoming] the first black woman to win Sundance, the first black woman nominated for director at the Golden Globes, the first African-American woman to be nominated for a documentary feature Oscar, or the first to make a $100 million film, all of those firsts to me are bittersweet because my mind immediately goes to the women before me who should've been those firsts — not could've, who should've if they were not in an industry that ignored them and turned a blind eye to their talent and their voice: people like Julie Dash, Euzhan Palcy, Ayoka Chenzira, Neema Barnette, Kasi Lemmons, these are women whose voices are strong and whose visions are really magnificent — and they came at the wrong time. And I know that the reason why the microphone's in my face is because I just happened to be here at the right time.

What do you say to women and people of color who are daunted by the obstacles in Hollywood?

Anyone who thinks it's too daunting should go do something else, because if you walk in thinking that it's daunting, then it's going to be that for you, and this is not for you. But if you walk in ready for it, to fight for your stories, to recognize that the traditional walls are collapsing, that the old system is on its last legs, that there are new ways to create material, to distribute material, to amplify your material, there's no one stopping you. What you really have to interrogate is what do you want: Do you want to tell your story or do you want to be famous and win an Academy Award? 'Cause those are two different things. There's nothing stopping you anymore from telling your story.

Julie Dash, a beautiful filmmaker far, far more talented than I am, was making films in the early '90s, and her [Daughters of the Dust] became a classic film that's in the National Archives. But she's not a household name; she only joined the Academy last year when I lobbied to get her in — she's on the margins and the outskirts of quote-unquote mainstream Hollywood, and yet over the years she's found a way to tell her stories and be satisfied outside of that industry paradigm. So if you want to tell your stories, what I would say to someone is, "Go tell them." And I believe that that is not a frivolous statement: It can be done; there are people doing it and go for it.

So why do Academy Award nominations still matter?

They amplify work in a way that nothing else does. I want to tell my story by any means necessary, any way I can, and that was something that I started my career perfectly content to do: to share my work with people hand-to-hand, screening by screening, 40 people by 30 people by 20 people. What that distinction [of a nomination] does is that it's a big bullhorn for films and for artists — and for me, 13th in particular is a film that I want to have that attention because the ideas and issues in it are paramount to our understanding of this current moment in our country.

Do this year's more inclusive nominations send a message to the world about Hollywood — and by extension, American culture?

It's pretty hard these days, in terms of the way the world sees us, to cut through anything other than what's coming out of the White House. So it's incumbent upon artists and advocates for artists and the entertainment community to try to counteract that — and if that comes through more representative nominations within the Academy, if that comes from the kind of films that we're making, distributing, amplifying, marketing aggressively around the world, then that's the part that we should play.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.