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THR’s TV Producer of the Year Ava DuVernay on Surging Slate, Why She’s Not Chasing Blockbusters and Tackling Colin Kaepernick Series

With a suite of series and an inclusion initiative that is a go-to resource for Hollywood — not to mention Oprah on speed dial — the prolific producer and director reveals what she’s had to let go of, and how she’s dealing with an expanding project pipeline: "I need to strengthen the walk-away muscle."

Ava DuVernay knows what it’s like to be busy as hell. The Los Angeles native, who made the leap from film publicist to filmmaker in 2010 with the celebrated indie I Will Follow, has added project after project since her work on Selma minted her as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after directors. But, with a suite of TV series, distribution company Array and a massive new initiative to make film sets more inclusive, DuVernay recently admitted to herself that she might have a bandwidth issue. “We have seven shows, and we’re a pretty small company,” she says. “My hands were in way too many things.”

Enter Shonda Rhimes. DuVernay was picking her fellow producer’s brain about time management a few months back when Rhimes posed an unexpected question: Do you work on the weekends? “Well, yeah, I work all the time,” says DuVernay, reenacting their conversion. ” ‘Do you ever catch up?’ No. ‘Then why are you working on the weekend?’ Oh … Right.”

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Speaking over the phone in late June, DuVernay admits that while she’s not ready to take two full days off, she now puts her work down at noon Saturdays. And that’s made her surging TV slate — which includes the OWN flagship Queen Sugar, the HBO Max genre swing DMZ, the upcoming CW drama Naomi and Netflix’s hotly anticipated Colin in Black & White — feel that much more manageable.

You’ve tripled your TV work in a short period of time. What are buyers looking for right now?

It’s such a weird time right now. Before the pandemic, I had a strong handle on who everyone was, what they’re doing, what they’re looking for. Between the musical chairs of executives — which is a generational turnover that’s still happening — and tackling new platforms and new viewer behavior, nobody knows, really. It’s also a different world outside of our industry, so there are different responsibilities to the viewer. It’s a stew of uncertainty.

Your current TV deal is with Warner Bros. What has been communicated to you about the likely WarnerMedia-Discovery merger?

There’s been a lot of really nice calls from a lot of really nice people saying a lot of really nice things. (Laughs.) I’m not the one calling [the studio] the next day to say, “What’s going on?” We’re all trying to figure it out from all sides. I’m going to give them the grace and the time to do that.

What have you learned about yourself in adding so many series and working with other showrunners?

It’s taken some time to refine, and I’m not done. I can’t be as hands-on with everything. A couple of years ago, I was at dinner with J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg just as I was thinking of doing another show in addition to Queen Sugar — which I basically made like homemade cake in my kitchen. They have all this stuff with their names on it. I asked, “Don’t you find it difficult that people associate it all with you?” They both looked at me like I was crazy and then said, “You’ve got to let that shit go.” I’ve struggled with that. I think a lot of it is a lack of privilege that I still am not over after 10 years in making films — that feeling like a door can close.

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Queen Sugar, DuVernay’s first series and first scripted project following Selma, recently completed filming on its sixth season in New Orleans. Skip Bolen/Warner Bros

But you are letting go a little bit more.

I look at Greg Berlanti, Shonda, J.J., Steven. There’s a muscle there that I need to strengthen, the walk-away muscle. So what I’ve gotten into is this trying to give everything a strong start. For Naomi, I went there, I prepped the pilot. I picked all the directors. I co-wrote the pilot. I co-created it. I’m in there. Once the foundation is strong, I can let go a little. That’s the new model.

To whom do you go for advice in the industry?

Recently, I reached out to Shonda and J.J. They were both very gracious. I asked really specific questions about the way that they work, not theoretical crap. I’m talking day-to-day. For major business, point-of-proof strategy stuff, I’m really fortunate that I can call Oprah.

Well, who wouldn’t be?

I understand that’s a privilege. The woman’s business acumen is chartless. And one thing about asking her for advice is that she’ll never tell you the answer. She’s going to tell you stories that are applicable, make you laugh, make you feel good, maybe make you cry. But, by the end of it, you’ll walk away with more of an understanding of where you want to go. Oprah would be the longest-running advice columnist in my newspaper.

Many turn to you to talk about inclusion, social justice or anything that falls under the umbrella of Blackness in Hollywood. Do you think your history as a publicist influenced the way you’ve navigated that aspect of your career?

I said no more panels a couple years ago. I don’t do the roundup stories anymore. Around the time of Mr. Floyd’s torture and murder, we were launching LEAP [Law Enforcement Accountability Project], so I did some talking publicly about putting in place as artists to meet the moment — just to feel useful, trying to get our rage directed in a certain place. But the time I saved on not doing all those panels and roundup stories, I’ve put into creating systems to combat the things that I have challenges with.

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DuVernay directing the Netflix miniseries When They See Us, which was nominated for 16 Emmys and won two. Courtesy of Netflix

One thing you’ve created is Array Crew, a database to diversify below-the-line crews. How has the rollout been?

We wanted to create a solid foundation for something that was lasting. It’s not about huge numbers. It’s about keeping this free for crewmembers, acquainting the industry members with how to use it and why using it is beneficial to all. We just launched an app, so the hope is to be this quiet, steady force for something that most of Hollywood, and certainly the general public, doesn’t care about. We want to expand people’s view of all the different jobs you can have on the set, to make that stuff cool.

It seems like there are so many jobs that a lot of people in the industry don’t even know about.

There’s room for everybody! My mom was going to set with me and said, “What does a greensman do?” So I asked her what she thought they did. “I don’t know, sounds like a gardener.” Bingo! They handle everything green. They take care of plants, and they bring it. That’s a job — and a good job, too.

You release Colin in Black & White later this year. What’s been your experience telling Colin Kaepernick’s life story, with him so involved as a producer?

It’s a deeply collaborative process, not much different than the way that I approached working with the Exonerated Five on When They See Us. We’re working with a nonlinear format. You’ll see it as not just a straight story, there’s nonlinearity and genre-hopping within the piece. All of those conversations and the experimentation were something that we did together.

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“It was eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand, tell me the story let me share with you what I’m thinking, now you tell me what you think,” DuVernay says of working with Colin Kaepernick. “It was a lot of that kind of togetherness.” @Ava/Twitter

I recently heard the music budget is quite large.

There are some pretty major cues in the piece. No specific creative reasons. It just turns out that some of the themes we’re dealing with have beautiful big songs, so you’ve got to pay.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I really want to make more movies. TV was a real blessing to have expanded our business. We’ve tripled in the television space over the last two years. But all I ever wanted to do is make movies. The rest of it has come in a really beautiful but unexpected way.

After making A Wrinkle in Time for Disney, you signed on to do New Gods for Warner Bros. Since that’s been shelved, do you think you’ll do something else in the blockbuster space?

I’m not seeking those out. I had my experience with Wrinkle, which wasn’t a horrible experience. It was an experience. I was an independent filmmaker with a very specific voice, working inside a large studio system with a lot of money. And that’s not an autonomous position. It’s just a different way of making films. Much different than making 13th or When They See Us. But I’m always flattered when the calls come through. I never take it for granted.

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Naomi marks DuVernay’s first series at The CW. She says the show, her first targeted at younger audiences, is “a Snickers that’s really a protein bar inside.” Boris Martin/The CW

At this point in your career, do you think that you could pull off something like 13th — in terms of the secrecy and just dropping it at a film festival, fully completed?

Totally could do it. I might even be doing it. Don’t put it past me. I hope I am fortunate enough to be able to, like you say, pull something like that off again because there’s no [better] time than when no one’s looking.

What’s the last thing that made you feel optimistic?

Over the past 18 months, I really hunkered down. I took it seriously. I went from the hotel to set, back to the hotel. So I was not hearing from people who engaged with our work. This past weekend, I went to Lowndes County, Alabama, for my Uncle Mickey’s 70th birthday. It’s not even a small town. It’s the country, so the whole community is there, right? A woman came up to me, telling me what Ralph Angel [Kofi Siriboe] and Darla [Bianca Lawson] should do on Queen Sugar and why it must be done. I was engaging in a full-throttle conversation about imaginary characters. That’s what our work is supposed to do! Move people, instigate thought and help people understand. If that doesn’t make you feel optimistic, then you shouldn’t be doing this.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.