Born: Ava Marie DuVernay
Date of Birth: August 24, 1972 (age 46)
Birth place: Long Beach, California, U.S.
Height: 1.67 m
Parents: Darlene Maye, Joseph DuVernay, Jr.
Alma mater: University of California, Los Angeles
Notable work: Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us
Ava Marie DuVernay (/ˌdjuːvɛərˈneɪ/; born August 24, 1972) is an American filmmaker and film distributor. She won the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere, becoming the first black woman to win the award. For her work on Selma (2014), DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and also the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th (2016).
DuVernay's 2018 fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time, had a production and marketing budget between $150 million and $250 million, making her the first black-American woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of that size. That film also made her the first black-American woman to direct a film that earned at least $100 million domestically. The following year, she created, directed, and co-wrote the Netflix drama miniseries When They See Us, based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, which earned critical acclaim.
Early life and education
Ava Marie DuVernay was born August 24, 1972 in Long Beach, California. She was raised with her four siblings, by her parents Darlene (née Sexton), an educator, and stepfather, Murray Maye. She grew up in Lynwood, California.
During her summer vacations, she would travel to the childhood home of her stepfather, which was not far from Selma, Alabama. DuVernay said that these summers influenced the making of Selma, as her father saw the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.
In 1990, DuVernay graduated from Saint Joseph High School in Lakewood. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she was a double BA major in English literature and African-American studies.
DuVernay's first interest was in journalism, a choice influenced by an internship with CBS News, where she was assigned to help cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial. DuVernay became disillusioned with journalism, however, and decided to move into public relations, working as a junior publicist at 20th Century Fox, Savoy Pictures, and a few other PR agencies. She opened her own public relations firm, The DuVernay Agency, also known as DVAPR, in 1999.
Through DVAPR she provided marketing and PR services to the entertainment and lifestyle industry, working on campaigns for movies and television shows such as Lumumba, Spy Kids, Shrek 2, The Terminal, Collateral, and Dreamgirls.
Other ventures launched by DuVernay include Urban Beauty Collective, a promotional network that began in 2003 and had more than 10,000 African-American beauty salons and barbershops in 16 (20 since 2008) U.S. cities, which were mailed a free monthly Access Hollywood-style promotion program called UBC-TV, the African-American blog hub Urban Thought Collective in 2008; Urban Eye, a two-minute long weekday celebrity and entertainment news show distributed to radio stations; as well as HelloBeautiful, a digital platform for millennial women of color.
In 2005, over the Christmas holiday, DuVernay decided to take $6,000 and make her first film, a short called Saturday Night Life. Based on her mother's experiences, the 12-minute film about an uplifting trip by a struggling single mother (Melissa De Sousa) and her three kids to a local Los Angeles discount grocery store toured the festival circuit and was broadcast on February 6, 2007, as part of Showtime's Black Filmmaker Showcase.
DuVernay moved on to documentaries, because they can be done on a smaller budget than fiction films, and she could learn the trade while doing so. In 2007, she directed the short Compton in C Minor, for which she "challenged herself to capture Compton in only two hours and present whatever she found." The following year, she made her feature directorial debut with the alternative hip hop documentary This Is the Life, a history of LA's Good Life Cafe's arts movement, in which she participated as part of the duo Figures of Speech.
In 2011, DuVernay's first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, a drama starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, was released theatrically. DuVernay's aunt Denise Sexton was the inspiration for the film. The film cost DuVernay $50,000 and was made in 14 days. Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films I've seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one." I Will Follow was an official selection of AFI Fest, Pan-African Film Festival, Urbanworld and Chicago International Film Festival.
In the summer of 2011, DuVernay began production on her second narrative feature film, Middle of Nowhere, from a script she had written in 2003 but could not get financed then. The film had its world premiere on January 20 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in U.S. dramatic competition and garnered the U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic for DuVernay. She was the first African-American woman to ever win the prize. DuVernay also won the 2012 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for her work on the film.
DuVernay was commissioned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a film about African-American history. Her August 28: A Day in the Life of a People explores six significant events that happened on the same date, August 28; it debuted at the museum's opening on September 24, 2016. The 22-minute film stars Lupita Nyong'o, Don Cheadle, Regina King, David Oyelowo, Angela Bassett, Michael Ealy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, André Holland and Glynn Turman. Events depicted include William IV's royal assent to the UK Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, the release of Motown's first number-one song, "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvellettes, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the night Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
DuVernay directed Selma, a $20 million budget film produced by Plan B Entertainment, about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. The movie was released on December 25, 2014 to critical acclaim.
She made uncredited re-writes of most of the original screenplay by Paul Webb in order to emphasize King and the people of Selma as central figures. In response to criticism by some historians and media sources who accused her of irresponsibly rewriting history to portray her own agenda, DuVernay said that the film is "not a documentary. I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller".
The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song, but not Best Director, at the 2014 Academy Awards. The lack of diversity among the Oscar nominations for 2014 was the subject of much press, especially on Twitter. This film was the only one directed by a person of color that was nominated for the 87th Academy Awards. The award for Best Original Song went to "Glory" from Selma. DuVernay said that she had not expected to be nominated as director, so the omission did not really bother her; but she was disappointed that actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King, was not nominated as Best Actor. She said that the obstacles to people of color being represented in the Academy Awards were systemic.
In July 2016, the New York Film Festival made the surprise announcement that 13th, a documentary directed by DuVernay, would open the festival. Until the announcement no mention of the film had been made by either DuVernay or Netflix, the film's distributor. Centered on race in the United States criminal justice system, the film is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery (unless as punishment for a crime). DuVernay's documentary opens with the statement that 25 percent of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the U.S., and argues that slavery has been effectively perpetuated in the U.S. through disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color. The film features several prominent activists, politicians, and public figures such as, Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others.
It was released on October 7, 2016 on Netflix. 13th has garnered acclaim from film critics and has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 94 reviews. The critical consensus says: "13th strikes at the heart of America's tangled racial history, offering observations as incendiary as they are calmly controlled." In a review from Awards Circuit, Angela Davis said "13th is probably the most important movie you'll ever see." In 2017, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Oscars; DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated by the academy as a director in a feature category. The film also won a Peabody Award in 2017 and a Columbia Journalism School duPont Award in 2018.
A Wrinkle in Time
In 2010, it was announced that Disney carried the film rights to the 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time. Following the success of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Disney announced the hire of Jeff Stockwell to write the screenplay for Cary Granat and his new Bedrock Studios. Cary Granat had previously worked with Disney on the Chronicles of Narnia and Bridge to Terabithia films. On August 5, 2014, Jennifer Lee was announced as the screenwriter, taking over from Stockwell, who had written the first draft. On February 8, 2016, it was reported that DuVernay had been offered to direct the film, and she was confirmed as director later that same month.
A Wrinkle in Time began filming in November 2016. DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million, and the second woman to do so after Patty Jenkins (who directed Wonder Woman).
The film was released in March 2018 and brought in $33 million its opening weekend, second at the box office behind Black Panther. Following Disney's Q2 earnings report in May 2018, Yahoo! Finance deduced the film would lose the studio anywhere from $86–186 million.
Upon release, the film received mixed reviews, with critics "taking issue with the film's heavy use of CGI and numerous plot holes" while "celebrating its message of female empowerment and diversity."
In 2010, DuVernay directed three TV documentaries. The first, a two-hour concert film TV One Night Only: Live from the Essence Music Festival, a mix of live performances and behind-the-scenes vignettes, which aired August 28, 2010 on TV One, showcases the U.S.'s largest annual African-American entertainment gathering, the Essence Music Festival, which in 2010 took place July 2–4 in New Orleans. Two days later, BET premiered its first original music documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop, a 41-minute long history of female hip hop artists.
On Thanksgiving 2010, TV One showed the 44-minute documentary special Essence Presents: Faith Through the Storm about two black sisters who reclaimed their lives after personal devastation during Hurricane Katrina. "It was done for a client, for Essence. They wanted to talk about how faith helped them through, that was very important to them. So it is interspersed with gospel music, images of Katrina, their home and family."
ESPN commissioned DuVernay to produce and direct Venus Vs., a documentary on Venus Williams' fight for equal prize money for their film series Nine for IX, which aired on July 2, 2013. DuVernay directed the John Legend episode of the performance-and-interview series HelloBeautiful Interludes Live which was shown September 14, 2013 on TV One as the series' broadcast premiere. She also directed the eighth episode of the third season of the political thriller television series Scandal. The episode, titled "Vermont is for Lovers, Too", premiered on November 21, 2013 on ABC.
In 2015, DuVernay executive produced and directed the CBS civil rights crime drama pilot For Justice starring Anika Noni Rose. It was not picked up for distribution. That same year, DuVernay announced she would be creating and executive producing the drama series Queen Sugar, based on Natalie Baszile's novel.
Queen Sugar premiered September 6, 2016 on Oprah Winfrey Network to critical acclaim and positive reviews. DuVernay directed two episodes and wrote four. On August 1, 2016, the series was renewed for a second season ahead of its television premiere which aired in a two-night premiere on June 20 and June 21, 2017. The series was renewed for a third season on July 26, 2017.
On July 6, 2017, it was announced that Netflix had given the production When They See Us a series order consisting of four episodes. The series was created by DuVernay, who served as executive producer, co-writer and director. Other executive producers credited, include Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Rosenthal and Berry Welsh. Production companies involved with the series consisted of Participant Media, Harpo Films, and Tribeca Productions. The series premiered on Netflix on May 31, 2019. Upon its release, the miniseries received critical universal acclaim. On June 25, 2019, Netflix announced that the miniseries had been streamed by over 23 million viewers within its first month of release.
Advertising and music videos
In 2013, DuVernay partnered with Miu Miu as part of their Women's Tales film series. Her short film The Door starred actress Gabrielle Union and reunited DuVernay with her Middle of Nowhere star Emayatzy Corinealdi. The film premiered online in February 2013 and was presented at the Venice Days sidebar of the 70th Venice International Film Festival in August.
Also in August 2013, DuVernay released, through Vimeo, a second branded short film entitled Say Yes. The film was sponsored by cosmetic brand Fashion Fair and starred Kali Hawk and Lance Gross with Julie Dash, Victoria Mahoney, Lorraine Toussaint and Issa Rae appearing as extras.
In 2015, Apple Music and their ad agency Translation hired DuVernay to helm a series of three commercials starring Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson and Kerry Washington. The first ad, Chapter 1, premiered during Fox's Emmy broadcast on September 20, 2015. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 debuted in November 2015 and February 2016, respectively.
Her music video for the Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé song "Family Feud" premiered December 29, 2017 on Tidal.
Film distribution and production
In 2010 DuVernay founded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), her own company to distribute films made by or focusing on black people. DuVernay refers to AFFRM as "not so much a business, but a call to action." Although she sees building strong business foundations for films is a priority, DuVernay has said that she stresses that the driving force of the organization is activism. In 2015 the company rebranded itself under the name ARRAY, promising a new focus on women filmmakers as well.
DuVernay also owns Forward Movement, a film and television production company.
In 2013, she announced development on a narrative feature film entitled Part of the Sky and set in Compton.
In 2015, it was announced that DuVernay would be writing, producing, and directing a fictional account which will focus on the "social and environmental" aspects of Hurricane Katrina while including a love story and a murder mystery. David Oyelowo was said to be part of the project.
In 2018, it was announced that DuVernay would be directing a New Gods film for the DC Extended Universe.
On October 29, 2018 it was announced that DuVernay would be working with the estate of Prince to direct a biopic covering his entire life, for Netflix.
In September 2013, DuVernay started a podcast series called The Call-In, a series of phone conversations recorded by AFFRM of Black filmmakers of feature narrative and documentary work.
On March 14, 2015, DuVernay gave a keynote address at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. In the speech, she shared that she was the seventh choice of people asked to direct Selma and described her experience at the 2015 Oscars, while being an honor to be able to attend, it was just "a room in L.A."
In February 2018 it was announced that DuVernay, along with producer Dan Lin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, had launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund. The fund's mission is to promote inclusion and provide an opportunity for under-served communities to pursue a dream in the entertainment industry.
Style and themes
Michael T. Martin says, "DuVernay is among the vanguard of a new generation of black filmmakers who are the busily undeterred catalyst for what may very well be a black film renaissance in the making." He further speaks of DuVernay's mission and "call to action" which constitutes a strategy "to further and foster the black cinematic image in an organized and consistent way, and to not have to defer and ask permission to traffic our films: to be self-determining."
Awards, nominations, honors
In 2012, Variety featured DuVernay in its Women's Impact Report.
In June 2013, she was invited to both the director's and writer's branches of AMPAS. DuVernay was only the second black woman, following Kasi Lemmons, to be invited to the director's branch.
DuVernay became the inaugural recipient of the Tribeca Film Institute's Heineken Affinity Award, receiving a $20,000 prize and industry support for future projects. DuVernay donated all the money to AFFRM, the black arthouse film collective she founded.
In June 2015, Duvernay was honored as part of Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards with the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award.
In April 2015 DuVernay was chosen as one of Mattel's "Sheros" of 2015. A custom-made one-of-a-kind Barbie in DuVernay's likeness was produced. The doll was auctioned off with the proceeds given to charity. Due to high demand, a collectible version of the doll was produced and sold in December of that year.
In 2016, DuVernay was named to Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders
In 2017, DuVernay became the first black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, for her film 13th.
In 2017, DuVernay was the recipient of Smithsonian Magazine's American Ingenuity Award for Visual Arts.
In 2018, DuVernay won Entertainer of the Year at the 49th NAACP Image Awards for her work in 2017.
PETA declared DuVernay and actor Benedict Cumberbatch to be the Most Beautiful Vegan Celebs of 2018.
The "DuVernay test" is the race equivalent of the Bechdel test (for women in movies), as suggested by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in January 2016, asking whether "blacks and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories." It aims to point out the lack of people of color in Hollywood movies, through a measure of their importance to a particular movie or the lack of a gratuitous link to white actors.
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