These days, having one job is a rarity: just ask media moguls like Jay-Z. For many, that old school mentality can keep you from going after a dream you were convinced couldn’t translate to reality. Fortunately, visionaries like Ava DuVernay didn’t let that stop them. As Sundance Film Festival’s first African American woman to win the “Best Director” award, she’s a notable example of what it means to work from the ground up.
A California native and University of California graduate, DuVernay’s career in the film industry actually started on the business side. As head of the DuVernay Agency, the Academy member was sought after by Hollywood giants (Clint Eastwood, Bill Condon) to create marketing plans for their projects- a skill she applies to her own films today.
“I definitely integrated a lot of the organization communications skills from being a publicist,” she tells Vixen. “You’re working on 12 or 13 clients and projects at any one time, so that multitasking is really helpful as well as being able to communicate with talent. Definitely serves me well as a director.”
Unlike her director counterparts, Ava opted for an unconventional type of film education. Since she couldn’t afford noted film schools like USC and AFI, Ava’s classroom was all of the resources she could acquire on her own.
“I did everything from taking classes at the local community college and local theaters to reading screenplay books to directly theater locally to watching directors DVD commentary. Anything that I could do to learn and eventually, I made my first documentary,” she says of her self- education. “It was a cumulative effect of a lot of stuff and attempts to gain as much information as I could. I wouldn’t say it was any one thing in particular. It was a lot of studying and trying to figure out how to make a film.”
Part of Ava’s appeal is her ability to fulfill her audience’s needs and leave them wanting more. Also, as one of a handful of African American female directors in the industry, her influence as both an artist and business woman is paving the path for other up and comers. With AFFRM, the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, Ava uses her business and artistic savvy to bring black independent films to theaters across the country.
“I decided to do it because I was making a film that does not have a clear a path to reach an audience. There are a lot of beautiful films sitting in the drawer of their directors. There’s no studio that wants to put it out, so we came together to find a way to get these films to people who might like them.”
Since its 2011 inception, the distribution collaborative has released over 6 films, including Venus VS., a documentary about the life and career of Venus Williams, which debuted to stellar reviews and a standing ovation at the LA Film Festival.
The director, who counts Julie Dash and Charles Burnett as some of her favorite filmmakers, is most excited to see the progression of African Americans in the entertainment industry. Although people like Kerry Washington, Mara Akil and Gabrielle Union are paving the way for black female entertainers, DuVernay says there’s still a lot of work to do.
“I’m not a black actress, so I can’t speak on their experiences, but as a black director who makes films about black women, I’ve relied on their talent and I just hope more of our sisters that have an incredible skill set are able to show what they can do in a more wide range. I think one of the challenges is repetition, the same kind of roles. Things that are un-nuanced- that doesn’t really give a lot of complexity, caricatures or flat portrayals. These are all things that black artists, directors and writers have to work together to change.”
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