Ava DuVernay is tucked in her car, having pulled over to answer my questions safely. She has just returned to Los Angeles from Oakland, where she moderated a panel with Alice Walker and filmmaker Pratibha Parmar.
She briefly took a call from her editor during our interview — and that conversation reminded her of her own writing process, which she admitted she hates.
“When you’re doing something that you really don’t want to do, you find any excuse to do something else,” she said. “Yesterday, I was in the middle of writing, and I looked up, and I was like, Oh, I need to clean that vent. And I actually got up, got a step ladder, and cleaned the vent as opposed to write in that moment.”
Still, DuVernay hadn’t made it home from the airport yet, and was already working — a testament to the ethic that drove her to write and direct two critically acclaimed independent films in two years.
In 2011, her first feature film, I Will Follow, drew praise, including that of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. In 2012, she became the first African-American to win the Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival for her second feature, Middle of Nowhere.
DuVernay isn’t letting grass grow under her feet. This year, she began work on Selma, a feature film which focuses on Dr. Martin Luther King’s three-month bus boycott campaign in 1965; she produced and directed Venus Vs, an ESPN documentary that details Venus Williams’ fight for equal prize money for male and female tennis champions; and she released two short films for Miu Miu and Fashion Fair.
Oh, and in the midst of all of this, she directed an episode of Scandal, airing Thursday.
Despite her busy schedule, DuVernay couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get involved with the hit ABC series. She directed “Vermont is for Lovers, Too,” which she teases “starts off with a scream and then it slows down then it warms up, and it gets warmer and warmer and then it’s flying and you’re like, Holy snacks. And then you’re gonna say ‘What?’ So it’s gonna start with a little bit of a shock then you’re gonna get comfortable and then, you know, you better hang on. That’s all I can say. That’s all I can do or else they’re gonna put me in the hole.”
Directing a show with such a visually distinct style — established by the pilot episode’s director Paul McGuigan (who, incidentally, also created the look of the BBC’s Sherlock) — has its challenges for a director who has her own way of doing things.
“I really just focused on the parts of the show that hadn’t already been established,” DuVernay said. “In this script, there are things that you’ve not seen before, a couple of relationships that you’ve not seen before, and a couple of circumstances and scenarios that haven’t been presented within the show before. And so those were the ones where I was able to stretch a little bit. Beyond that, my job was to create an episode of Scandal, so I really can’t bring my personal approach to it because I’m there to serve Shonda. And so that was a different muscle for me to exercise. Usually I’m the Shonda.”
DuVernay’s path to her very own Shondaland wasn’t easy. In a recent keynote speech at Film Independent Forum, DuVernay said that she stopped being desperate, waiting for others to open doors for her.
“I decided to do it without permission, to take what I had, which was 50 grand, and to write a script I could make for that amount of money,” she expanded. To cut down on cost, “I had to find a story that was a one-location story, and when I started to think about my own life and circumstances where I was kind of locked into one location, I thought of a time when I was taking care of my aunt who was dying of cancer.”
Much like DuVernay and her aunt, the characters in I Will Follow share a house — and the film was shot in 15 days.
DuVernay used that $50,000 from her personal savings plus a network of production resources from friends to bring the film to life, then distributed it through African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), which she founded for the sole purpose of releasing black independent films. AFFRM has released six films in three years, focusing on quality, not quantity, including Better Mus’ Come, a love story set against political and gang upheaval in 1970s Jamaica — it’s currently available to stream on Netflix.
After DuVernay’s second film, Middle of Nowhere, which she describes as a look at the prison-industrial complex through a romantic lens, garnered prize-winning attention at Sundance in 2012, she began receiving offers from television networks to create shows. She isn’t willing to pull herself away from filmmaking yet, but she said she finds inspiration in a seemingly unlikely person: “I really want to be like Mark Wahlberg whose name is on everything. It’s like, ‘OK. You’re EP on this show, this show, this show, like 19 shows on HBO,’” she laughs. “So you know, I can be the black female Mark Wahlberg, if that’s appropriate. So…maybe one day.”
DuVernay writes and directs her own features, but since much of her commissioned work, such as Venus Vs or “The Door” for Miu Miu, is done through her production company, she still has control over her cast and crew.
Despite not having that freedom with Scandal, DuVernay said that Rhimes encouraged her to use her own directorial voice.
“My job was to make [Shonda Rhimes’] vision a reality,” she said. “And so, in doing that, I really had to take myself out of it, but I was happy to do it. Within that, there were maybe about four instances where I was like, ‘Oh, we’ve never seen this before. Can I do this?’ and she’d go, ‘Yeah, do you.’”
Her own visual style is a bit different from the bright lights of Rhimes’ D.C. DuVernay confessed that she probably would’ve had everyone on Scandal “in the dark and pushed to the corner of the frame” if it were up to her. Though she later dismissed the idea that she has a signature, one could argue that the careful way she lights her African-American casts is one of the hallmarks of her work.
“I don’t appreciate seeing black folks that are unlit,” she said. “For example, although I really desperately want to work on Boardwalk Empire, I do not appreciate the way that Chalky White is not lit properly. And that doesn’t mean that he has to be over-lit. It means that’s a dark brother, and if he’s in a frame with a lighter-skinned person, you have to — you don’t automatically light for the lighter-skinned person and leave him in shadow.”
Still, she loves shadows. The lighting in Middle of Nowhere was “a deliberate decision to find the beauty of black people in dark spaces. You know, because a lot of black film that’s constructed by the studios have black people in bright places all the time, and always very brightly lit and sometimes it’s lovely and beautiful. If it’s a romantic comedy, it should be that way, but the story that we were telling with Ruby, the protagonist from Middle of Nowhere, began in the house, at the end of a long shift at the hospital, and when I walk into my house, the lights aren’t on. So what do I look like when that happens, right?”
DuVernay is passionate on the topic, picking up steam: “[T]he standard is ‘OK. A black woman is walking into a dark room. That’s not gonna fly. Turn a light on.’ Right? And we’ll say, ‘No. There’s natural light coming through the window and how do we shoot that so it’s just as beautiful as if all the lights are on?’ Or more beautiful. So those are the kinds of conversations [we have] and I just think it’s about really examining and pushing ourselves to go beyond the norms of how you light black folks, which is ‘turn on all the lights and hope it works.’”
One place where norms are being reconsidered is television. It sometimes seems like black women are being targeted with shows like Scandal and the surprise hit Sleepy Hollow, but DuVernay doesn’t agree. “I see some intentional shifts but it’s the same thing as when we talk about there are so many black films this fall. Well, really, there’s six. Put it in perspective. Yeah, there’s more than usual but when usual is zero then…well, you know… In the reality-TV realm, I’d say yes, there’s a very specific targeting of black women, but in terms of scripted, I don’t know that I’d agree that that’s the case.”
Included in those six black films DuVernay mentioned are Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years a Slave, and the recently released The Best Man Holiday, all of which have black male directors. DuVernay insists that there are black women filmmakers working, but haven’t yet reached the level of attention men have.
“They’re there,” she said. “Everyone’s talking about the films that are out this fall but they’re forgetting about Tina Gordon Chism’s film [Peeples] that was out for spring. They’re not including Kasi Lemmons’ film [Black Nativity], which comes out in December. They’re not including the sister [Chika Anadu] who just won BFI for her film B for Boy. You know, Dee Rees is putting out things. I’m working on stuff. Victoria Mahoney just finished with this TV gig for ASPiRE tv. Leslie Harris who did Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., she’s starting a film. Cheryl Dunye is working on stuff. I mean, everyone is working. Gina Prince-Bythewood just finished shooting her next film. So, yeah. There should be more black people, more women making things, but we’re not not doing it. It’s definitely happening and hopefully these filmmakers and many others that I know of that are doing things will spur more.”
The success of recent movies like The Help, Django Unchained, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and 12 Years a Slave brings complaints that too many acclaimed films with black casts rely on the black characters as victims of incredible racism. The works DuVernay listed by black women filmmakers don’t feature such explicit or violent aspects of black life — and also happen to be getting overlooked. In a way, these women filmmakers are filling a gap in the black film industry but aren’t gaining the same kind of traction as their black male counterparts.
However, DuVernay doesn’t see her filmmaking career as a way to answer what’s missing. She focuses on what she’s interested in and believes it’s all a part of one large story. It’s why she has done work in different formats like sports, music, fashion, makeup, and her feature films.
“It’s about the beauty and magnificence of black people. That’s a big story to tell.”