Toronto: Ava DuVernay Talks Black Representation in Hollywood: "The World Has Changed"

Ava DuVernay - Publicity - H 2020
Adam Burrell

"I've been in a lot of spaces where I'm the only woman, the only Black person, the only person of color," the director told a masterclass at the Toronto Film Festival. "Now I walk in, like, why am I the only one? What's wrong with you?"

Ava DuVernay says the time is long overdue for Hollywood to wake up to being too white and too male and allowing more representation from women and people of color into its top ranks.

"I've been in a lot of spaces where I'm the only woman, the only Black person, the only person of color," the Selma director told a masterclass at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday. She argued the current racial reckoning around the Black Lives Matter protests compels the entertainment industry to welcome greater diversity and inclusion.

"Now I walk in, like, 'why am I the only one? What's wrong with you? Why don't you have more people here?' And I think the world has changed in that way where you can walk in and say there's no way that the people who are putting this festival together, this company, or this department aren't aware that everyone is looking the same way and being the same way," DuVernay explained.

The pioneer Black woman director said she welcomed contributing her historical movies like 13th and When They See Us to the Black Lives Matter conversation. But she feels sore for having that dialogue in the first place.

"I'm resentful of the fact that we have to even say the words, that my life matters. Is this a conversation? Yes, for a lot of people it is," DuVernay accepted. "Hopefully we can keep talking about it and looking at these things and get to a time when it's not needed," she added.

DuVernay also said she's puzzled when people ask her how she feels about making movies about history. "We're in the presence of history, and I don't understand why people don't see life that way. But this year, people understand," she added.

"Truly, you can feel the vibration of the day, one day after the next, that we are in the midst of history and 2020 will be long remembered," DuVernay said. Her 2014 film Selma being denied best director and best actor Oscar nominations partially sparked the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that later resulted in significant changes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

She also directed Walt Disney's A Wrinkle in Time and the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, about the Central Park Five case that divided New York City in 1989. Seeing the past as a window on the present, and the future, DuVernay insisted she was looking forward to seeing what filmmakers eventually make of 2020 as most every current event is recorded for posterity.

"I'm most excited to see the art that comes from this time, not only the art in terms of what people feel, but the art that comes out about this time, and who will tell our story. These are strange and important times," she told the TIFF session that was streamed online.

The Hollywood director also discussed 13th, a documentary where she looked to reframe the long history of mass incarceration in the U.S. in a film that ran for 100 minutes and no longer. "I just didn't think people would engage with this kind of material much longer than that," DuVernay explained.

She took far more time to tell the story of the Central Park Five in When They See Us, five hours in all, as DuVernay insisted recreating their story needed a larger canvas. "Making a five hour film was an adventure, but it allowed us to tell this story, which is so sprawling, which goes from when they were boys to when they were men and how the system was applied to them through every phase of their lives," DuVernay said.

The Toronto Film Festival continues through to Sept. 19.