VH1 Trailblazer Honors: Ava DuVernay Recalls Making the Jump From Compton to Hollywood

A trailblazer is, by definition, someone who makes or creates a new track, a person who breaks new ground, an innovator who accomplishes something never done before. Ava DuVernay has earned the title a couple of times over, most recently becoming the first black female director to helm a movie that grossed more than $100 million at the box office, courtesy of Disney's A Wrinkle in Time.

Well, there's actually a more recent example than that — and it airs tonight on VH1 and Logo at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

DuVernay accepted a trophy from Wrinkle actress Mindy Kaling as part of the VH1 Trailblazer Honors, alongside fellow groundbreakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, and The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood. In accepting her award inside the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, DuVernay did something a bit unexpected for someone so frequently applauded for looking ahead. She peeked into the rear view.

"Standing in a room like this in front of a crowd like you, I can’t help to remember the girl I was growing up in Compton," said DuVernay, welcomed to the stage after receiving compliments from Kaling on activism, creativity, social media and, yes, fashion. (She joked: "Her fashion is so on point that sometimes I forget that she's a director and I'm like, 'what's with Oprah's hot friend?'") "I remember when movies seemed so glamorous and far away, and I can’t believe that I get to make them."

DuVernay thanked her mother, Darlene, and her late aunt, Denise, for encouraging fearlessness and introducing cinema, respectively. "I was 32 the first time I picked up a camera. That’s ancient in film years," she explained. "Where did the audacity come from to say, 'I can do this, I can make films?' ... [My mother] taught me that my flaws were my gifts, so because of her I never questioned my desire or my ability to make films or do anything else. All I knew is that I wanted was to make films about women like her — fearless, gorgeous, courageous, brave, better than they think they are."

As for her aunt Denise, DuVernay said she worked as a nurse on the night shift so she could pursue her love of the arts during the day, whether it be exhibits, plays, films, anything. "After work she would take me to matinees. In 1982, the first film I could ever remember seeing was West Side Story. That day, I met beautiful brown girl characters named Maria and Anita and I thought they looked like the girls in my neighborhood."

There were a lot of women on the roster for the event, not only on the honorees program but also behind the scenes. And that was precisely the plan, explained Amy Doyle, executive vp and general manager of MTV, VH1 and Logo. "We wanted a cross section of the most respected politicians, entertainers, artists and activists," Doyle said of how they came to finalize this year's list. "Every honoree as activism in their veins." 

While it was an easy feat for Doyle to check off all the reasons why each woman was singled out, name checking her colleagues on the project also took very little prodding. Nearly all senior executives who worked on VH1 Trailblazer Honors are women.

Doyle partnered on the effort with fellow executive producers Vanessa WhiteWolf and Andria Parides; talent executives included Marcia Lansdown, Wendy Plaut, Wanda Coriano and Lisa Lauricella; production management team included Fonda Anita and Karen Scarminach; lighting was done by Abby Wells; design by Anne Brahic; celebrity chef Suzanne Goin handled the menu; and Lauren Quinn directed the special.

"I wish I could say that when we came up with [this year's theme] that we decided to have each key role occupied by women," Doyle said. "It's how we've been evolving over the past couple of years. Women deserved these roles and have grown into them. ... It came together in a beautiful, organic way. It really was a proud moment to look around and see so many talented women who work at the company. Definitely a career high for me." 

A highlight for many of the attendees in the room the night the special was taped was the opportunity to see Cher present the trophy to Pelosi, someone who "is elegant and formidable and when I grow up I want to be just like her." 

DuVernay closed her speech in very much the same fashion, by saying that she hopes little girls will be watching the special seeing people like her, Kaling, Atwood, Burke or Pelosi up on stage imaging that one day, it could be them. "One day she’ll say about whatever her heart desires, 'I can do this. This dream is mine and is meant for me.' "