Filmmaker Ava DuVernay on the Creative Process, and the Intersection of Art and Activism

The award-winning director discusses what informs her films, and what comes next

Ava DuVernay is currently shooting, writing and editing her television series, Queen Sugar.
Photographs by Scott Witter for Adweek

Ava DuVernay might be the most generous director of her generation. She’s impossibly busy. Currently, she’s shooting, writing and editing her television series, Queen Sugar, which just had its Season 3 premiere late last month on OWN. Plus, she’s in preproduction for her Netflix mini-series, Central Park Five. And, oh yeah, she’s got another documentary in the works (though she’s not ready to talk about that one yet). Plus, she’s got a few other TV shows cooking—a pilot, Red Line, at CBS, and a comedy reportedly based on Colin Kaepernick’s high school years. There’s also an HBO movie, Battle of Versailles. And then, of course, she’ll helm DC Comics’ New Gods. Did we mention she’s just finished her first stint as a jury member for the Cannes Film Festival? It’s the kind of busy that would overwhelm most people, but even with her chaotic schedule DuVernay always seems to make time to prop up other creators, to inspire young minds, to say thank you and to give someone a kind word even if they haven’t been as kind to her.

It’s a Saturday in early May, and DuVernay is in New York, location scouting for Central Park Five. She’s just finished seeing a play (Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero) and that evening she’ll accept a Glaad Excellence in Media Award for intersectional advocacy. Walking back to her hotel room, as we chat on the phone, she is stopped by fans multiple times. She greets each one not with annoyance or arrogance, which could be understood given her schedule and acclaim, but with kindness. Even though she’s pulled the phone away from her face, so that she can take a moment to really listen to people’s stories, her voice carries and a “Thank you, sir” and an “Appreciate it” make it through.

Scott Witter for Adweek

Once back, she says: “What a privilege to hear people talk about your work—and that happens to me every day.”

Her generosity of spirit might come from her impeccable sense of place and time. She understands that her work—whether it’s commercials or a documentary film or even a sci-fi fantasy—has meaning beyond entertainment, whether representational or historical. While she’s scored many firsts—recently, with A Wrinkle in Time, DuVernay became the first black woman to direct a film with a $100 million budget; with her upcoming film for DC, New Gods, she’ll become the first black woman to direct a big-budget superhero film—DuVernay is more interested in the doors those firsts could open for others and the change they could bring about in the industry.

“I’m a black girl from Compton. I picked up a camera for the first time when I was 32 years old. I didn’t go to film school. I’d been a publicist for all of my 20s, I’d been working to amplify other people’s films,” says DuVernay. “In no world could I imagine doing what I’m doing now.”

Adweek caught up with DuVernay, Adweek’s Creative 100 cover star for 2018, to find out about her creative process, how her history as a publicist has informed her filmmaking and what she wants to tackle next.

Adweek: You’re currently working on a mini-series for Netflix, Central Park Five, about the five teenagers who were wrongfully accused and convicted of raping a woman in 1989. What are you trying to accomplish with that narrative?
Ava DuVernay: At the time, in 1989 when the events were occurring, the story was very one-sided. They never really had a voice, whether it be in the press or the court of law. Their voices were coerced and contorted. The goal with this is to give those boys and their families a voice as it relates to this 30-year tragic story of justice ripped apart and obscured. This story is so much about humanity against systems, little black and brown boys against the halls of power and how they lost 25 years [of their lives].

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This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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