For a filmmaker from Compton, California, where children grow up without access to a movie theater, much less a viable pipeline for a future career in Hollywood, DuVernay’s hard-won gift is being able to ensure that those stories reach the masses. Much like Spike Lee, she honed early the rare ability to bull’s-eye the zeitgeist. “There’s a lot of really beautiful work that’s left by the wayside because it just hasn’t pierced through the cultural consciousness,” DuVernay says reflectively. “I’m really fortunate to be in a position now to make work that I love, with my own independent vision. And to have the kind of muscle to put it into the culture is a rarefied honor. It really is. Especially for someone that looks like me, someone that looks like us.”
Us is a word she uses quite a lot.
“What I love about Ava is that she dreams big and her dreams include so many other people, from her huge audience to her fellow filmmakers,” says Reese Witherspoon, who starred in DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. “She has cut her own path in Hollywood, and she is creating rooms for others to take up space, to create and thrive in. It’s so inspiring.”
Through her production and distribution company, Array, DuVernay not only creates worlds for underrepresented people to see themselves onscreen; she is creating opportunities for underrepresented storytellers to create their own, reverse-engineering the process. Just one example: She mandated that only female directors would be hired to shoot her popular television series Queen Sugar on OWN. “You can’t build the whole base of the table with everybody around the table, and then keep two chairs to include these other people,” DuVernay says. “In the building of the table, in the very way that it was built, it needs to have everyone involved.”
“She elevates everyone she works with to higher ground,” says Oprah, “creating opportunities for others simply by saying, ‘It can be done.’ She hires the most inclusive crews and casts the industry has ever seen on every set she runs.”
Compliments from Oprah aside, DuVernay admits to moments of insecurity. After trying her hand at fantasy (and managing to turn a profit on a $100-million budget—no easy feat), the mixed reception to A Wrinkle in Time triggered a humbling period of reflection for the filmmaker. “I was having a really hard time,” she admits. “I had become so used to a certain reception and acclaim that even when little girls and people around the world were telling me what they loved about the film—I was a little wobbly.”