Filmmaker of the Year: Ava DuVernay

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Ava DuVernay

Paramount Pictures

The film Selma – or, more correctly, the film that would become Selma — has been in various states of creation and production for years. In 2008, screenwriter Paul Webb made Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch list, where his own story (screenwriting wasn’t just a second act career for the then-sixty-year-old, it was actually a third) helped market his Martin Luther King, Jr.-centric script, which was believed to be set for a snappy and soon production. In 2009, Lee Daniels signed on to direct the film, ultimately leaving the project to direct The Butler. It wasn’t until nearly three years after Daniels exited the project that a new director was announced for the feature.

Her name is Ava DuVernay, and she is our filmmaker of the year.

DuVernay’s professional background is admirably mixed – she graduated from UCLA in 1995, with a double major in English and African American studies, eventually parlaying her studies into a internship with CBS News during a particularly weird time in the history of American broadcast news. DuVernay’s budding interest in broadcast journalism was tested by the biggest story of the year – the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Eventually “disillusioned” with the work, DuVernay moved to film publicity, starting her own firm (The DuVernay Agency, later known as DVA Media + Marketing). DuVernay was extremely successful in her career, but by 2008, she made yet another move.

It should come as little surprise that DuVernay’s first film was a documentary – even in her narrative features, there is an immediacy and an intimacy to her work that recalls some of cinema’s most dynamic docs. After her first film (This Is the Life) and a series of music-centric pieces, DuVernay moved into narrative features with 2011’s I Will Follow. If you’ve watched the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, you’re likely already aware that I Will Follow put DuVernay quite firmly on the veteran film critic’s radar, and he continued to be a champion of her and her work until his death.

Ebert was, of course, right.

After a strong film festival showing for I Will Follow, DuVernay launched her second narrative feature, Middle of Nowhere, a drama that stars her eventual Selma lead, David Oyelowo. The indie feature was made for a shoestring budget – just $200,000 – and DuVernay and her cast and crew shot it in just under three weeks. The drama, which centers on a young medical student dealing with her husband’s eight-year incarceration, scans as a prime example of DuVernay’s style: personal, emotional, and run through with universal issues.

The film played at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where DuVernay earned the Best Director Award for her feature. She was the first African-American woman to do so.

DuVernay’s career post-Sundance win (and, hey, she picked up the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for it, too) is reflective of her interests and aims. DuVernay didn’t immediately throw herself into studio work or snap up a high profile directing gig for an existing property, she simply continued doing what she was doing. She directed a pair of short films. She helmed a Nine for IX documentary about Venus Williams. She directed an episode of Scandal. She donated the entirety of a sizable prize – $20,000 from the Tribeca Film Institute – to the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, also known as the AFFRM, a black arthouse film collective.

DuVernay moved forward, but she did it by staying true to herself.

Selma marked a tremendous step forward for DuVernay – if even by quantifiable terms, the film’s reported $20M budget was a big change for the indie filmmaker – but, as ever, DuVernay found the personal in a story about something universal (and, in the case of Selma, a story that many people already think they know). Though born in California, DuVernay has family in Alabama (specifically, she has family around Selma), and stories about her relatives stopping by to watch her make the film – from her father watching her film scenes on the Capitol steps, to her mother giving her (and the entire set) a cheery honk as she drives to work in Selma – have become instant trivia for Selma fans.

Of course, Selma isn’t even out yet – the film doesn’t arrive in limited release until Christmas Day, with a larger rollout to follow in January – but DuVernay has already shared it with a number of audiences, including an early screening at Los Angeles’ AFI FEST and other press-heavy premieres around the country. And share it she does. DuVernay’s personality – warm, witty, personable – makes her feel accessible, and her honesty and joy are obvious whenever she speaks about the film (having seen DuVernay chat at various film festivals in support of various films over the year, her charm and her passion remain fully intact).

Selma is a masterpiece and a major achievement. It is moving and rich and intimate, and although it’s ostensibly a biopic – one about a relatively small piece of King’s life, but one that is about his life nonetheless – the film isn’t bogged down with the trappings we’d expect from such a feature. DuVernay (and Webb’s script, and her cast, and her crew, the filmmaker would be the last person to take full credit for a film) gets to the heart of King, and she doesn’t balk at showing his less appealing attributes. DuVernay hasn’t just made a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the past, she’s made a film about a man and the present.

Selma is a vital feature, and Ava DuVernay is its vital creator.