Ava DuVernay isn’t up for an Oscar this year, but it’ll probably still be a satisfying evening for the acclaimed director: She had a hand in or actively championed five films nominated for awards — genre-spanning works that take us from rural Rajasthan to South Central Los Angeles.
In a year with one of the most diverse slates of nominees ever, Ms. DuVernay’s influence is unmistakable. After a relatively brief time in the movie industry establishment — less than a decade — Ms. DuVernay has emerged as a powerful champion of talented, younger, mostly Black filmmakers. Bit by bit, she’s building the Hollywood she wants to see.
It’s not easy to change entrenched norms in any industry. But being an outsider who has risen to a powerful position offers a particular perspective. Instead of fighting for your spot in the hierarchy by punching down, you can increase your influence by extending a hand.
“I think in 20 years we’re going to have a generation of filmmakers of color who all got to where we are because of Ava,” said Kris Bowers, a 32-year-old Black composer and filmmaker who is among Ms. DuVernay’s protégés, and who co-directed The Times’s Op-Doc “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” an Oscar nominee this year. (I helped produce the film for The Times.) “She’s reached out to us and said, ‘I can see in you what you can’t see for yourself — or maybe you can, but you’re still exploring — and I’m going to give you the tools to grow and flourish in it.’ I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”
The work often amounts to a second, unpaid, job for Ms. DuVernay: signing on to films as executive producer, promoting younger filmmakers on her own platforms, and hosting events to set them up for success. Last year, Ms. DuVernay became a governor in the director’s branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that controls the Oscars — a perch from which she can do even more to diversify Hollywood’s notoriously white and patriarchal infrastructure, from within.
Not that this is how she wants to spend her time.
“It is not something that I relish,” Ms. DuVernay told me last week in an interview from the set of a pilot she’s directing. “I don’t want to have to make big statements when I pick a director. I don’t want to have to put on special programs to teach people literacy about films that are not handpicked by Hollywood and spoon-fed to them.
“I don’t want to do anything but just make my own stuff. I would like to be like my white male counterparts who just make beautiful, handmade films.”
But there’s a big problem here to solve, as proclaimed by the #oscarssowhite campaign that started in 2015 when Ms. DuVernay’s signature feature, “Selma,” was shut out of Best Actor and Best Director nominations. And as with many elite institutions, exclusivity is no longer doing Hollywood any favors. So Ms. DuVernay is rolling up her sleeves and doing the work that the industry should be desperate to accomplish to stay relevant.
“The only way to get through the door is if it’s open — and it’s certainly not open, but with each person that goes through, it moves a little bit more,” Ms. DuVernay said. “So the more we can open it when it’s our time, the easier time folks will have coming in to actually do their work, and then, hopefully, soon it will be wide open. And we’ll build a new house.”
That door was barely open 20 or 30 years ago, so Ms. DuVernay, now 48, didn’t make her own film until age 32 — a 12-minute short she made over a holiday break. She funded it herself with $6,000.
The path didn’t get easier, so she improvised. She couldn’t get distribution for her work, so she became a distributor. She didn’t have Black colleagues to work with, so she nurtured and hired them. She couldn’t afford a publicist, so she did her own P.R. She knew the traditional path to acclaim and awards was via movie theaters, but their limited locations and expensive ticket prices also made them exclusive and hard to break into, so she became an early adapter to streaming platforms instead. She rose.
In 2014, only 7 percent of the directors of Hollywood’s top 250 films were women. So when Ms. DuVernay launched her television series, “Queen Sugar,” on the Oprah Winfrey Network that year, she decided to hire only women directors. In February, she launched a database to help film productions hire underrepresented crew members.
The five Oscar-nominated films that she was involved with this year show the fruit of her efforts: She was an executive producer on “A Concerto Is a Conversation” and “The White Tiger,” and she provided under-the-radar support — including appearing on panels and helping with promotion — for “Time,” “A Love Song for Latasha,” and “Two Distant Strangers.”
In 2017, I watched Ms. DuVernay’s intervention firsthand, when I was helping to produce Op-Docs here at The Times. We published a film, “Alone,” by a young filmmaker, Garrett Bradley. Ms. DuVernay invited Ms. Bradley to direct an episode of “Queen Sugar.” She later made her a unit director on her film “When They See Us.” And when Ms. Bradley’s film started to get Oscar buzz, she asked Ms. DuVernay for support.
Ms. DuVernay offered to host an event for the then-unknown director, squeezing it in over Thanksgiving weekend, the only available slot. Bradley’s film didn’t get the Oscar nod then, but last year, Ms. Bradley had a new documentary, “Time,” which Ms. DuVernay again pitched in to promote. Now, Ms. Bradley is an Oscar nominee, in the Best Feature Documentary category.
Last year, I watched Ms. DuVernay do the same for Mr. Bowers. They connected in 2019 when Ms. DuVernay hired him to score “When They See Us,” a breakout role that set him up for his first Primetime Emmy nomination.
“She’s one of the few filmmakers that I’ve worked with who has made me feel safe to be fully myself, and see that as an asset,” said Mr. Bowers. “Going deep into what that means as a Black composer, as a Black man, it’s interesting to think about other experiences where I didn’t feel as safe with my Blackness. With Ava, I feel like I can, and should, express all sides of myself in my work.”
He reached out to Ms. DuVernay to executive produce “A Concerto Is a Conversation,” which he made with Ben Proudfoot. Again, she said yes — signing up for more panels, more interviews, more time. No money. Mr. Bowers was nominated this year as well, for best documentary short.
In just six years, #oscarssowhite has had a striking impact on the academy’s leadership — and Ms. DuVernay’s role shows that if you lead pushback on the establishment, you can emerge as a leader of that establishment.
“The power has to be wrested from the folks who’ve had it for too long, because it’s not being freely given,” said Ms. DuVernay. “We’re not going to get there through hopes and dreams. It’s got to be through shattering the system, and creating a new way.”
Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is an editor, writer and producer in Opinion.
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