It’s time to hop on the Ava DuVernay bandwagon before it leaves you in the dust. Thanks to her beautiful film Selma, which focuses on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the 42-year-old filmmaker just made history: DuVernay is now the first African-American woman to ever earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. An Oscar nomination is sure to follow.
Before Selma hits theaters on Christmas Day, get to know all about this game changer.
DuVernay quit a successful career in publicity to pursue directing full time.
Although she dabbled in journalism, at one point interning for CBS News, while going to school at UCLA (from which she earned a B.A. in English and African American studies), DuVernay immediately went into film publicity after graduation. After briefly working for Savoy Pictures, she created her own company, The DuVernay Agency, in 1999 with the mission to link with African-American audiences. That exposure to film the world, namely projects with Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Clint Eastwood, Raoul Peck, and Gurinder Chadha, is what sparked her to pursue filmmaking. (According to the New York Times, she realized her dream on the set of Collateral.)
“While I was constantly stressed out, I really enjoyed [publicity]. It was that proximity to filmmakers, being on sets and seeing how it was done that demystified the process for me,” DuVernay told Makers. “But when you’re actually watching people that you represent, and that you’re close to make films, you’re like, ’That guy’s a jerk. He’s making this film? I can do this.’ And so that is kind of how it started. And yeah. I just ran with it.”
Her directorial debut was the 2008 documentary This Is the Life.
Growing up in Lynwood and then Compton, Calif., DuVernay took an avid interest in the hip-hop scene, going so far as to make it the subject of her first film. In This Is the Life, DuVernay focuses on the development of the genre in the 1990s, specifically looking at the influence of emcees who came up through the legendary Good Life Health Food Centre’s weekly open-mic.
In 2011, DuVernay founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to distribute select black independent films in theaters.
Rather than simply showing black-theme films at film festivals, AFFRM screens films in various cities with the promotion of festival organizations. The goal is to make sure viewers nationwide, not just cinephiles, have access to the movies. Through AFRM, DuVernay released her debut narrative feature, I Will Follow, in 2010, and her Sundance hit, Middle of Nowhere, in 2012.
Below, DuVernay discusses her personal connection Selma, and her excitement about the film’s release:
Middle of Nowhere made her the first African-American woman to win the fest’s Best Director Prize.
Described by DuVernay as “a look at the prison-industrial complex through a romantic lens,” Middle of Nowhere centers of a med school student who’s set off on a path of self-discovery as she copes with her husband’s eight-year prison sentence. A critical hit, the film hits close to home for DuVernay, who witnessed this same struggle among her peers in Los Angeles.
Selma went through seven years of development hell before it landed in Ava DuVernay’s hands.
Written by Paul Webb, the film saw several different directors since 2007, namely Stephen Frears, Paul Haggis, Spike Lee, and Lee Daniels. In the middle of this process, DuVernay was hired as liaison between the King family and the production. (One of the main reasons it took so long to begin production was the difficulty to contextualize King’s life.) When Daniels dropped out of the project, the film’s lead David Oyelowo, who plays King, suggested his Middle of Nowhere director take the reins. With her previous films being low-budget indie passion projects, DuVernay learned to work a $20 million studio picture, successfully streamlining the film and turning Selma into one of the most positively received movies of the year.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]