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Ava DuVernay: The filmmaker behind ‘Selma’

“If you’re doing something outside of dominant culture, there’s not an easy place for you. You will have to do it yourself.”

Ava Marie DuVernay is an American director and screenwriter. At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, DuVernay won the Best Director Prize for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, becoming the first African-American woman to win the award. For her work in Selma, she created history again by becoming the first African-American female director to receive a Golden Globe nomination, and to have a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

DuVernay was born in Long Beach, California, to mother Darlene Maye, an educator, the oldest of the five children. Her father, Murray Maye, a businessman, is from Hayneville, Alabama, a small town between Montgomery and Selma. DuVernay spent summers in Hayneville, which she said influenced the making of Selma, as her father saw the Selma to Montgomery marches as a small child. She attended Saint Joseph High School, where she graduated in 1990. In 1995, she graduated with a B.A. from the University of California, where she double-majored in English and African-American studies.

While in college DuVernay became interested in broadcast journalism. As an intern for CBS News, she was assigned to help cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which made her became disillusioned with journalism. She decided to switch to publicity, and after graduation, worked as a publicist, at FOX, Savoy Pictures and other public relations firms for four years. At 27, she founded her own agency, The DuVernay Agency, later known as DVA Media + Marketing. The award-winning marketing and publicity firm has provided strategy and execution for more than 100 film and television projects by directors such as Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood. Working on movies by the likes of Spielberg, taught her the movie making process. She was on the set of Collateral (2004) the moment that she realized what she wanted.

“I just remember standing there in the middle of the night in East L.A. and watching Michael Mann direct and thinking, ‘I have stories.’ That was the moment I thought: ‘Wow, I could do this. I would like to do that.’ ”

In 2008, DuVernay made her feature directorial debut with the documentary This Is the Life, a history of LA’s Good Life Cafe’s arts movement. In 2010, she wrote, financed, produced and directed her first narrative feature, I Will Follow. She made the film in 15 days and “kept costs under $50,000 by staying in one location.” The family drama was hailed by critic Roger Ebert as “one of the best films I’ve seen about the loss of a loved one.”

In 2011, DuVernay co-founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), a group dedicated to supporting the release and distribution of Black indie movies. In the summer of the same year, she began production on her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere. At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, the film garnered the Best Director Award for DuVernay, the first African-American woman to ever win the prize. DuVernay also won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for her work on the film.

The following year, DuVernay was called upon to direct an episode of the hit Kerry Washington drama Scandal and also released the ESPN documentary Venus Vs., which followed Venus Williams’ fight for pay equity for female tennis players.

In June 2013, she was invited to join both the director’s and writer’s branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She is only the second Black woman, following Kasi Lemmons, to be invited to the director’s branch.

DuVernay directed and co-wrote Selma, a $20 million budget film produced by Plan B Entertainment, which chronicles Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the struggle for voting rights. The movie was released on December 25, 2014. Selma earned almost unanimous critical praise and was heralded as one of the year’s best. While the film was cited for its humanistic and nuanced portrayal of Dr. King, at the same time it stirred some controversy over its depiction of both King and President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Other historical figures depicted in the film include Coretta Scott King, Ralph D. Abernathy, James Bevel, Amelia Boynton, J. Edgar Hoover, Mahalia Jackson, John Lewis, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, George Wallace and Andrew Young Jr.)

DuVernay made history with the work by becoming the first African-American woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. Selma also received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and was rewarded with the best song prize. However many viewers and critics questioned the Academy’s decision to exclude it from other categories.

DuVernay is currently filming a love story set against Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.



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