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Ava DuVernay: Storytelling Her Way

Ava DuVernay is a woman dedicated to cultivating art and audience while utilizing her creative voice and perspective.

Following a screening of the award-winning film Selma and as part of their annual spring speaker event co-sponsored by A&O Productions, Multicultural Filmmakers Collective and Inspire Media, Duvernay recently spoke candidly to a packed audience about career, race, filmmaking, telling stories her way and trusting your own path.

The Compton-bred creative and UCLA graduate is without doubt a student of film, but not in the traditional sense.

“I had to cobble together a film experience myself,” she said.

Her study and knowledge of visual storytelling came from immersing herself into director’s commentary on documentaries and studying filmmakers during her career as a film publicist.

DuVernay will admit without hesitation, “I’m a film geek!”

And it isn’t that a single person or movie drove her fascination of films, she explains: “it was about what the film did to me.”

From her very first film, I Will Follow, to films made and stories told through the riveting Selma, DuVernay captures authenticity and creates art that makes you feel through visual aesthetics and engaging dialogue.

Today, her role has transitioned into one where her name is spoken in the same breath of praise as fellow content creators, Mara Brock Akil, Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, Debbie Allen and Gina Prince Bythewood, and her vision is in high-demand.

Following the Q&A discussion, JET had a few moments to talk one-on-one with the dynamic storyteller.  Among the topics, we discussed the wave of color faces in mainstream and how her company, the African American Film Festival Release Movement (AFFRM), a platform that assists independent filmmakers with theatrical and multi-platform distribution, is working to bridge the creative gap between art and audience.

Check out the visual interview above and in case you don’t have your earbuds on deck, we’ve got you covered below!

JET: During the conversation with students at Northwestern University, you spoke on art not being cultivated the way it should and attention not being paid to the art of storytelling.  With your projects and especially with AFFRM, how do you plan to get people to care more about the arts and supporting genuine storytelling?

AVA: I think so much of the time we’re talking about film and the challenges with inclusion in film and all this good stuff, we talk so much about the filmmaker, we need more filmmakers of color, more women and we do and in that conversation, you leave out the audience. Audience education. Audience cultivation, I mean I didn’t even know how to watch an independent film, I didn’t know how to watch a foreign film. I didn’t know how to read the subtitles I didn’t know how to do any of these things and talk about film afterwards – review a film in a critical way, all the things to look for and all of the beauty that can come out in a film that can illuminate your life and the way you think about things because as an audience member, I just never grew up with it, you know. I didn’t have a movie theater in the hood where I lived that played certain things. There was no one talking critically about film. I think, if you let Black and brown people and people who are traditionally left out of those conversations, as an audience, join in the film making process, it will change the kinds of films, filmmakers make, the reach of those films if you have an audience that wants it and is hungry for it. So a big part of what AFFRM is, is cultivating audience – bringing the audience in on the secret of ‘ film is really cool’, especially Black audiences who for so long – you get a couple films a year from the studios, when with the rest of mainstream culture there’s hundreds of films to choose from and so we’re trying to make that connection.

JET: And then it kind of goes with quality vs. quantity – in mainstream, we’re gaining eyeballs on Black culture due to television shows and making films – do you think it then becomes a challenge to keep the quality coming as oppose to people being so interested in just seeing color on the screen?

Ava: I think that’s a good question and something we should think about. I think though, we need to put it in context. We’re talking about five TV shows and we’re saying that’s a lot. That’s a lot more than there have been but really we are living in a false world if we think that’s a lot. So it’s – I’m not getting caught up in the hype of “this is a watershed” moment – this is so much going on because really ya’ll know and we know it’s truly, truly not a lot. There should be 9 Shondas, 7 Mara Brock Akils and there should be 100 Gina Prince-Bythewoods and 1,000 Dee Rees’, and ‘Bessie’! That shouldn’t be a big ‘oh my gosh there’s a Black woman, directing a Black woman!’ That should be…’oh it’s on’, you know what I mean? Until we get to that point where there’s Black people and Brown people and women and all types of people able to see themselves and it’s not such a spectacle when it happens, then we’re really still in an uneven place and all the talk is just that, there’s still a lot of work to do.

JET: What story is in your heart to tell now?

Ava: I don’t have one story that I’m longing to tell. I did and I made it. It was my very first film, I Will Follow and I really wanted to make Middle of Nowhere and I made that and then Selma got into my blood stream and I had to make it. I think it’s just a rolling thing and I’m excited to be in a space where I’m open and whatever I’m attracted to, I’m going to go do. I want to tell everything. I want to do science-fiction, action, romance, mystery, adventure… I want to do it all!

JET: Just telling stories!

Ava: Telling stories. Yeah!

JET: Do you have an earliest memory of a film that really made you feel and have that ‘Ah! that’s it’ moment?

Ava: Yes! I always talk about West Side Story is the first film that I saw that really made me say, ‘ Wow’ look at that. It’s a beautiful musical but it’s about a Mexican gang, a white gang and a love story in between. The funny thing about it is, now I know that, the people that were playing the brown people, most of them were in brown face (laughs) BUT, when I was a little girl and I saw it, I thought it was beautiful and I saw people of color on the screen in a really magnificent way for the first time. I remember watching it on TV, at my Aunt Denise’s house and thinking ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever seen.’ West Side Story, still my favorite!

JET: I watched your SXSW Keynote address and was drawn to your authentic nature and the way it comes across in your work. I was also really fascinated by your focus and ideal of the “intent of your attention.” Going forward in your journey how are you carrying that ideology with you and is there any struggle with identifying the “why” in your creation process?

Ava: I feel really in pocket right now. I can see where I want to go and I have a pretty good idea about the path. I do have a clear intention on what I’m trying to do and so I put my attention into all of that – like I say in that keynote and… aahhh I’m feeling good.