Filmmaker Ava DuVernay: ‘I was like, “they’re doing this? I can do this”’ The director, producer and powerhouse on remaking Hollywood — and the question she asks men who want to work for her
Sunday, December 12, 2021
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay: ‘I was like, “they’re doing this? I can do this”’
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay: ‘I was like, “they’re doing this? I can do this”’ The director, producer and powerhouse on remaking Hollywood — and the question she asks men who want to work for her
Ava DuVernay floats out from her office in a full-length emerald dress, her skirt billowing around her, and greets me with a hug, apologising for making me wait. I’d arrived 15 minutes earlier at the headquarters of Array, the heart of the 49-year-old filmmaker’s expanding creative empire, but DuVernay was recording a guest segment for Kelly Clarkson’s daytime TV show. “I usually don’t wear this much make-up,” she explains, laughing. A little over 10 years ago DuVernay released her first feature film; since then she’s become a Hollywood powerhouse, writing, directing, producing and even distributing movies, her own and others’.
Her company’s campus sits in the mostly residential enclave of Historic Filipinotown, not far from downtown LA. There’s a 50-seater cinema and courtyard walls filled with colourful murals honouring women from the local community; by the gate a wrought iron sign is engraved with a quote from the poet Gwendolyn Brooks: “Art Urges Voyages”. “We came back to campus in June, and it’s 100 per cent fully vaccinated,” says DuVernay, as we walk across a courtyard. “I had to get back to work.
I kept everyone on payroll during the pandemic and we actually grew. There were six or seven new hires.” The idea of being the first at all these things, it actually makes me sad, because why am I the first this late in the game? From the outset, DuVernay has had bigger ideas than focusing on her own career. She’s a brilliant, versatile filmmaker, from her Sundance-winning romance Middle of Nowhere to her Martin Luther King biopic Selma, nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars, and the searing documentary 13th, an examination of the links between slavery and the US prison-industrial complex. Her Emmy-winning 2019 miniseries When They See Us, the story of the eventually exonerated Central Park Five, was a pacy drama that showed her commitment to highlighting historic injustice.
But she’s also an industry disrupter, determined to put a spotlight on the creative work of women and people of colour, to champion them as filmmakers and across the industry. This is about far more than diverse casting: DuVernay has played an outsized role in moving to the centre the stories and experiences of those we’re used to seeing at the margins.
As we drive into downtown LA, heading for a Brazilian place called Woodspoon, I mention one of her recent projects — the re-release on Netflix of Sankofa, a 1993 film by the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima. Feted at the Berlin Film Festival, the movie was originally ignored by US distributors and only found an audience because Gerima fought to release it independently.
DuVernay, who calls Gerima one of her artistic heroes, masterminded the restoration of the film. “It does get into a question of authenticated work,” says DuVernay. “You could have a successful, robust career serving black people . . . You could be a star in your community but not within the authenticated spaces. He’s 75 years old and the Academy is just looking his way.” DuVernay’s own success may seem meteoric, but she’s been in the film business for more than 20 years. After receiving her degree in African American Studies and English from UCLA in the mid-1990s, she worked in entertainment PR, setting up her own agency in 1999.
Watching filmmakers at work, and knowing there were stories she wanted to tell from a different perspective, DuVernay started to think about writing and directing herself. “I have always loved film, but I never thought I could do it,” she says. “But when I started working in publicity and being on set, I was like ‘They’re doing this? I can do this.’ . . . It was really observing directors, white men who were directing, and thinking, ‘I’m interested in what he’s doing, and I can do it too.’” She started off shooting documentaries and in 2010 wrote and directed her first feature,
I Will Follow, on a tiny $50,000 budget. At the same time, she founded a distribution company to release her work and that of other women and creatives of colour. Affrm (African American Film Releasing Movement Now) was rebranded in 2015 as Array, and today the company combines film and TV production, independent filmmaker support and releases, public and educational programming and a platform to support underrepresented professionals in the industry. The company started with DuVernay and two others; today, she tells me, there are some 40 staff, 90 per cent of them women.
“We do have five men. One of our interview questions is, ‘have you ever reported to a woman, and that woman reported to a woman at a company that the woman owned? And if so, then have you ever had a black woman boss?’ I just ask them straight out. You have to.”
We pull up to a little hole-in-the-wall place sandwiched between nondescript storefronts. Inside, it feels like I’ve walked into a friend’s apartment, furnished with things she’s nabbed from her grandmother’s house. We’re led to our little table with no fanfare by a friendly but harried server.
He slips us paper menus, tells us he’s manning the busy lunch hour alone, then rattles off the day’s specials. It usually takes me forever to decide at a restaurant. DuVernay gives the menu a once-over and asks our waiter his name. He says Diego.
She then orders appetisers for the table: a sample of the small plates, a mix of Brazilian street food, an order of yucca fries, some grilled prawns and a beet salad. She tells him we’ll be ready to order the main dishes by the time he brings the appetisers.
I ask DuVernay if she comes here often. She admits that she hasn’t been able to get away for lunch in a while, but she chose it because it’s a nice place and it’s owned by a black woman. It’s no surprise that even in picking a restaurant, she is intentional about highlighting the work and creativity of other black women.
DuVernay has blazed a trail herself: she was the first black woman to win the award for best dramatic director at Sundance, the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for director, the first black female director to direct a film with a budget of $100m (the fantasy adventure A Wrinkle in Time). “The idea of being the first at all these things, it actually makes me sad, because why am I the first this late in the game?” says DuVernay. “I don’t put it in my bio, and I don’t let people use it to introduce me at events if I have a say.
Because when I get picked as the first, I don’t think, ‘ooh, I’m the first!’ I think, ‘wow, there were a lot of people that got ignored, overlooked, underused and underseen in the path to my being the first acknowledged.’ I know those other talented people are there. So it means some institution or studio, or awards saw fit that I was going to be the first one they let in. I’m not happy about that reality.”
She pauses and sips her water. Then shakes her head slowly and adds: “And yet I’m not disparaging it. I know there’s value to winning Sundance and being the first black person to do all that stuff. I’m just saying I’m not internalising it. I’m using it but it’s not a badge of honour for me.”
We are meeting on the five-year anniversary of one of those firsts. Her 2016 documentary 13th, a film about race, justice, and the American incarceration system, was the first film by a black filmmaker to open the New York Film Festival, and the first documentary. She smiles when I mention it.
“What happened with 13th was extraordinary and meaningful, but one of the most significant things for me about that was just the number of young people who watched it. Netflix shows you the data. I mean we’re talking 16, 17, 21-year-olds worldwide, 190 countries, watching and telling their parents and teachers.
To be able to feel that swell of youth enthusiasm around something so important was fascinating and powerful.” Menu Woodspoon 107 West 9th Street, Los Angeles, USA Yucca fries $6 Beet salad $13 Mixed appetisers $12 Grilled prawns $14 Grelhas fish $17 Moqueca $27 Plantains $6 Pastel Portuguese $9 Coconut flan $7 Glass Windstream Chardonnay $13 Total (incl tax & 22% tip) $163.09 Diego returns with a trayful of appetisers, filling the table with small mismatched plates of potato and cod croquettes, kibe, plantains, coconut shrimp dumplings and grilled prawns. We put in our order for the main course. I order the moqueca, a traditional seafood stew with rice, and DuVernay gets the grelhas fish.
At the time of our meeting, DuVernay has seven different shows either streaming or in production, everything from Colin in Black and White, a drama series about the early life of former American footballer and activist Colin Kaepernick, to Naomi, a DC superhero show, Home Sweet Home, a reality programme about cultural exchanges between families, and Wings of Fire, an animated series that DuVernay tells me is like “Game of Thrones meets The Breakfast Club”.
I’m still catching up on Queen Sugar, the Louisiana-set family drama that airs on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN channel.
I think of ideas all the time,” says DuVernay. “But as I don’t take assignments, and I’m usually creating from scratch, that’s more responsibility. So I have to just really take my time now. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be more discerning . . . I like that idea today but will l like it in two years?” She admits that she did more than usual during the pandemic. “The pandemic was different because I rushed out with a bunch of new projects, because I was scared. I felt I needed to keep working. So now we have so much stuff . . . And if my name is on it, I’m doing it. I’m working on the final script, final music, I’m really in there.” Diego returns with our main dishes. DuVernay hands him the plate of prawns that are still locked in their shells and smiles. “This is too fancy. Can you open this for us? Tell the chef I’m from Compton and I don’t know how to do it.” He takes them away. DuVernay can’t emphasise enough how much she loves her work. I ask her what she does for fun and she tries to explain that the work is the fun. “I really love what I do everyday. To the point where people say, ‘you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re always working.’ But if you were working on the thing that was your highest dream, at the level where you got to choose what you wanted to do and you had the resources, well, that’s the window I’m in. I’m having a blast.”
Still, I’m curious about the challenges she must face in an industry that remains dominated by white men. I take a few spoonfuls of my stew and ask her flat out: “What’s it like being in an industry as a black woman trying to do all these things?’ She hesitates before answering and takes a few bites of the fish. I can tell she’s thinking how best to answer me. I also sense from her body language — she’s not looking at me — that it’s a question of which she’s not necessarily fond. She puts her fork down. “I think people dictate their own experience, not dictate how they’ll be treated, but dictate their own experience.” She lays out some options. “You can go into something like, it’s all against me. Because it is all against you.
And choose to be combative. Or you can say, it’s all against me but I’m about to break down these walls. Or it’s all against me and I’m just going to go along with the status quo and get mine, or it’s all against me but I’m going to turn it around.” I had seen the ugly hard side of [the industry] and worked within it for a decade before I started making films She looks me in the eye. “Our experience can’t be dictated by what we’re allowed to do or given permission to do. That was just a decision I made early on. Part of it was that I had worked in the industry as a publicist.
I had seen the ugly hard side of it and worked within it for a decade before I started making films. So I felt like I had my eyes a little more open than if I had come in at 25 years old making movies, and I’m grateful for that.” She returns to the conversation we were having in the car about Sankofa. “You know, it’s such a beautifully crafted film. The cinematography, the editing, the music selection. As black filmmakers we’re rarely asked about those things.
When I’m talking to a film journalist I’m usually asked about race or gender, but almost never things that a Chris Nolan or a Denis Villeneuve is asked about because their films are made by white men, and don’t seem to require as much questioning about the subject matter. So they get to answer questions about artistic choices and their craft. I’m rarely asked about that, and I don’t like it. I understand where it’s coming from but it’s an unevolved approach that many film journalists take when they are talking to filmmakers who are not the dominant culture or gender, to only zero in on the thing that is not about the dominant culture or gender.
So I’m asked all the black questions and black lady questions, and not about the shot or the performance, or the cinematography or the costume design. Practically never. It’s working at a deficit because they’re leaving a lot off the table.” Recommended Enuma Okoro ‘Sankofa’: the movie that teaches us to go back to the past We’ve been talking now for over an hour and I realise that she has barely glanced at her phone. She takes a minute to turn it over now, and scrolls quickly down a seemingly endless slew of new messages.
I catch Diego’s eye but when he comes around and offers the dessert menu, we can’t resist taking a look. We decide on a coconut flan with two spoons, although when it arrives neither of us can manage more than two bites. I pose one last question. “Ultimately, when you think about the work that you do, what do you hope for?”
She leans back away from the table and places one arm around the rim of the chair beside her, the emerald drape of her sleeves cascading down. “You know, when you’re promoting a movie you’re always asked, ‘What do you want people to take from this?’ But I’m not thinking of manufacturing an outcome.
I’m just doing the things I’m interested in and want to explore, that I think feel good and am excited to share with others. I trust there will be others who agree, or find something in the work that they are interested in too. The fun part for me is watching what people find.”
Enuma Okoro is a Life & Arts columnist Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
The celebrated novelist on Ireland’s turbulent 20th century — and tackling the life of Thomas Mann
When we meet at our allotted table, the first thing Colm Tóibín and I decide to do is go somewhere else. So we swap the restaurant’s echoing main dining area and take up residence in a private room. Here, framed by racks of wine, prints and dark wood, we will have peace to talk. Standing in the centre of Wexford, the harbour town on Ireland’s south-eastern coast, Green Acres has quite a back story.
A proud Victorian brick building, it once housed the practice of a local solicitor. Several generations on, his descendants have exchanged lawyering for hospitality and art. Downstairs a restaurant with wine shop and deli; upstairs a gallery. Its evolution is in keeping with the changing social and economic trends that have engulfed Ireland since Tóibín came here as a boy from his family home 12 miles up the road in Enniscorthy, a stepping stone towards a wider world. “This main street was an extraordinary paradise. There was a Woolworth’s . . . there was a bookshop,” Tóibín says, adding with a dramatic drawl: “It was exotic.” Tóibín, who spends his time between the US and Ireland, is back to promote his latest novel, The Magician.
A fictionalised life of Thomas Mann, it sweeps across the early 20th century, from buttoned-up Hanseatic Lübeck to lounging in the Pacific Palisades, Weimar and the twilight of democracy to the rise of Nazism and exile. There are high emotions and family bust-ups, suicides and critical acclaim. And at the heart of all sits Mann, methodically writing away from behind the closed door of his study, and forever wrestling with his gay identity. “He’s watching every moment, as a writer does, for something.”
Since his birth in 1955, in his life and writing Tóibín has also expanded far from the small world of provincial Ireland. After a stint in journalism he now has 10 novels to his name, including Nora Webster, The Testament of Mary and Brooklyn, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film; he is also a prolific essayist who works on two continents and has homes in several different countries.
Yet, Enniscorthy, where he has built himself a new “unfindable” house, is his retreat, his “real” home, his Heimat. As we peruse the menus and get the measure of our surroundings — a pink balloon floating under a chair nods to past revelry; an ornately decked table of yet more to come — Tóibín explains how coronavirus kept him away from Ireland. When the pandemic struck, he decamped to his boyfriend’s house in Los Angeles where he edited down the manuscript of The Magician and also wrote poetry. A waiter emerges to tell us about the specials and warn that the starters are actually “not really starters” as they’re very much on the large side.
“Well, we’re growing boys,” retorts the 66-year-old author, ordering up a pâté and chutney starter followed by Toulouse sausage with onion and mashed potato. As we’re by the sea, I opt for a chowder medley of prawns and salmon, followed by hake with herb crumb and tomato and asparagus cream.
Tóibín waves away the offer of wine, saying that he hasn’t had a drink in three years following chemotherapy treatment for testicular cancer; he wrote about this in a memorable essay for the London Review of Books that upset some with its frankness. So it’s sparkling water for him. Out of solidarity, it’s ginger beer for me. For Tóibín, the pandemic has also highlighted just how far his native country has come. “What you really notice coming from America is [the higher levels of vaccination in Ireland] . . . the anti-vax movement has not had any impact. That means the level of trust . . . is really high.” This, he adds, is not the case in California. It’s further evidence of how much the country has changed in his lifetime.
The oppressive grip of the Catholic church has been broken, taking with it deep-seated social attitudes; the economy has been transformed; the republic become more part of the European mainstream; old political allegiances are shifting. “There are countries where people got mobile phones who didn’t have landlines,” says Tóibín. “There was an element of that.” At the time of the 1983 referendum on abortion — which banned it and was only overturned in 2018 — Tóibín was part of a group of progressively minded Dublin journalists based around the current affairs magazine Magill.
By the time of the 2015 vote that legalised same-sex marriages, he was a New York-based academic cheering on a successful campaign whose highlights included a senior, conservative politician and later prime minister coming out live on air. While everyone thought [Mann] was the most buttoned-up, reserved, serious German, he was actually thinking about sex Toibin’s eyes sparkle as he recalls those days, his Irish accent flavoured with slight American cadences, all periodically punctuated with chuckles. It was, he says, an “extraordinary” achievement. It is also one that holds lessons for other referendum campaigns — notably Brexit — in the way it made the case through positive tactics, including mobilising the formidable forces within families to speak out.
Having made quick work of our starters — Tóibín confesses that the real treat for him is the chutney — it’s now time for our main courses. Deciding that solidarity is a fine thing, up to a point, I take up the waiter’s offer of “bone-dry Riesling” to go with my fish. Now, five years on from the referendum, Brexit has raised questions about the future of Northern Ireland, and spurred speculation of a cross-border poll on the question of Irish unification.
Meanwhile, the nationalist party Sinn Féin had the highest percentage vote of any party in the last election in the republic and may emerge as the largest party in Northern Ireland’s assembly elections next year. For Tóibín, who wrote an acclaimed book on the border, these are alarming developments. A century on from the Anglo-Irish treaty, which largely freed the south from direct British rule while confirming partition of the island, he argues that the two polities have become distinct entities.
Trying to merge the two risks further tensions, while putting the gains of recent decades at risk. And besides, there are practical hurdles around issues such as taxation, education and health. “What I’m saying is, this is a really complicated situation and it cannot be settled by referendum, as we know from Brexit . . . you could have a majority on one day and a minority a year later,” he says, adding that the government in Dublin has only ever wanted one thing: “stability on the island.” Menu Green Acres Selskar, Wexford, Ireland Y35 RW7C Chowder €7.90 Pâté €9.50 Seafood special €17.50 Sausage special €16.50 Pear and almond slice €2.75 Dr Bürklin-Wolf Wachenheimer Riesling €9.50 San Pellegrino €4.75 Herbal teas €2.50 Double espresso €3.75 Total €74.65 That is not the only threat of unwelcome change. The economic success and social change in the republic has downsides.
The bohemian Dublin of his youth is now under threat as the city has become more commercial. “At night in the Georgian city you look up and the attic rooms are just used for offices. They’re used by film companies or PR companies or HR companies or all the R companies,” he laments. Even in the worst years of the Troubles and amid economic distress and social repression, “you could have a whale of a time” in Dublin. “Longer orgasms, longer drinking sessions, more interesting people and an awful lot of fun in just speech,” he recalls. “I know that’s there still, but you can’t find a basement to live in where the space hasn’t been measured and you’re not being charged by the square foot.” Our waiter comes to see that we are alright.
“Everything is perfect,” answers Tóibín. And then we’re off down one of those Irish congenial diversions as it’s revealed that the waiter’s father has also written a few books, and that while he’s from Florida his family is actually from around here. “I’m a fish Meyler,” he declares proudly. “Oh my Lord, “ exclaims Tóibín, before going on to confirm that, in case there was any doubt, Meylers is “the most wonderful fish shop in the world, isn’t it?” There is then a brief back and forth about prawns and lobsters of times past, and a reminder on the side from Tóibín to me about how the name nods to Wexford’s distinctive Norman heritage. It’s a neat illustration of that expansive familiarity in Ireland, where regardless of distance — or even time — everyone appears to know everyone, and every place, in some roundabout way. Returning to the present day I decide to broach the Rooney question.
The Magician landed pretty much at the same time as Beautiful World, Where Are You, the third novel by millennial literary star Sally Rooney. Dublin bookstores displayed both in their windows, almost as counterpoints, expressions of different generations of Irish writing. Rooney’s success has energised a new generation of Irish writers and seen a host of publishers beat a path to Dublin in search of the “new Sally”. “I think that she tapped into something interesting,” says Tóibín, “which is just how globalised Ireland has become.” He adds that his students at Columbia are reading her work, young women are finding that the things that she and her characters are going through — in their relationships, with their bodies, with sex — are close to what they are going through. “It’s fascinating. If you just look at what’s not in her books, there’s nothing about nationalism.” And as for Catholicism, “No priests are coming to break this party up.”
Also there is no talk of a united Ireland, rather “it’s all about what French writer she’s reading or what trip she’s going on”. In other words, “there is no such thing as a confinement of a national border”. Yet there are some unintended superficial similarities. Both books have successful writers at their core. And as for worrying about foreign writers, Tóibín confesses that his fascination for Mann dates back to his own student days in Dublin in the early 1970s when “you went to Bergman films and Godard films and you had The Magic Mountain under your arm.” If you’re from Enniscorthy, lying in a hammock in a pomegranate tree is as far into the exotic as you’re ever going to get What changed since then was the subsequent publication of Mann’s diaries, which made clear the strength of his sexual feelings.
“In giving these very long lectures on Schiller and Goethe and all that, he was actually looking at the guy in the third row and thinking about him,” explains Tóibín. “While everyone thought he was the most buttoned-up, reserved, serious German, he was actually thinking about sex.” Mann was “a gay man in a repressed world” — albeit married to an “extremely intelligent” woman, Katia Pringsheim, a highly cultured feminist from a Jewish family that counted Wagner and Mahler as friends and with whom he had six children.
There are some similarities with Henry James, subject of Tóibín’s earlier novel The Master. “They were always working in code in some way or other.” The novel form, he adds, is “uniquely placed” to explore the “gap between the man who suffers and the man who creates”. Specifically in the case of Mann there are the tensions and contradictions between his Hanseatic stiffness and softness, between his conservatism and his later efforts to present himself as spokesman for a future democracy: the author of nationalist treatises during the first world war who made broadcasts for the Allies during the second world war berating his fellow Germans.
Some of this is captured in one of the most moving scenes in the book when in their Californian exile, Mann and Katia sit down to a concert of Schoenberg. As the music plays, the Mann character reflects on the contradictory emotions — sublime, violent, irrational — it stirs. It can take one way or another. It’s so very German, I tell him. He nods energetically before going on to explain it was actually part of a longer passage, which his editor demanded be cut for space reasons, while asking that the concert scene remain: “the aim was, whatever else happened in the book, that section was intact”. While the earlier chapters move along at a studied, Mann-like pace, the Californian section is a mix of bright colours, big skies and thousands of refugees from Mitteleuropa “all in a bubble, in a permanent argument with each other”.
Pretty much all of it is based on truth, though Tóibín has allowed himself the odd fictional note, such as the pomegranates transported from his own boyfriend’s house to the garden of Mann’s modernist villa. “If you’re from Enniscorthy, lying in a hammock in a pomegranate tree is as far into the exotic as you’re ever going to get,” he explains. Before heading down to Wexford I had spent a day in Dublin catching up with literary contacts. All asked me to make sure that I passed on their best wishes to the author — and suggested I make time for a longish meal. And indeed, after over two hours only now is our attention drawn to pudding.
Between the chocolate cake and banoffee pie nothing looks small. Tóibín, however, seems keen to explore. We end up agreeing on the compromise of sharing a pear and almond slice. Awaiting its arrival, Tóibín acknowledges other similarities between his own life and Mann’s. The writer from the provincial town (Lübeck/ Enniscorthy) who heads to the bigger city (Munich/Dublin); the death of the father at a young age; the foreign academic on an American campus; the fate of the widowed mother; homosexuality. “I think with the Mann thing, if you lose a parent early in your life you never know how to deal with that. You never give it enough thought. You often give it too much thought,” he says. “It’s so confusing as to what it means that at the time it occurs, you don’t deal with it at all.
Years later you think you’re OK and then you’re not.” The result is a state of “constant confusion over something that is deeply emotional with a lot of concealment, pretending you’re OK”. In that sense, isn’t The Magician a far more Irish story that it might seem at first sight? “I hadn’t thought of that, but it is a fully Irish novel in that sense of missing home from America, settling down in America, never becoming acclimatised in America and yes, everything being family.”
These are the “explorations that really preoccupy me,” says Tóibín. And he will do so in a sequel to Brooklyn, one of the projects he’s working on at the moment. More immediately, however, there are more media appointments and a flight to London to prepare for and we finally quit our cosy retreat. Minutes later, however, as I’m settling the bill I encounter him again, making another booking for a future dinner. Frederick Studemann is the FT’s literary editor BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2021
From politics, economics and history to art, food and, of course, fiction — FT writers pick their favourite reads in our annual round-up TÓIBÍN ON IRELAND’S BLOODY DIVISION As Brexit brings the Irish border into sharper focus, three books attempt to explain the complex process of the island’s partition