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Episode 12: Ava DuVernay Has a Vision for a Truly Diverse Film Industry

Ava DuVernay was a total film nerd growing up in Compton, CA; now she’s a bonafide Hollywood icon. Before making it big with films like Selma, 13th, and A Wrinkle in Time, Ava made her mark exploring themes and characters inspired by her own life. Join host Ashley C. Ford to learn how Ava uses her influence to make the film industry more inclusive, in front of, and behind, the camera.

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Blue hands hold a book with four colorful film strips coming out of the book. Illustrations by Niki Usagi

Ava DuVernay was a total film nerd growing up in Compton, CA; now she’s a bonafide Hollywood icon. Before making it big with films like Selma, 13th, and A Wrinkle in Time, Ava made her mark exploring themes and characters inspired by her own life. Join host Ashley C. Ford to learn how Ava uses her influence to make the film industry more inclusive, in front of, and behind, the camera.

Read Episode 12 Full Transcript Below


ASHLEY [VO]: I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into The Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.

ASHLEY [VO]: It’s our season finale y’all, and we have something really special for you to close it out. Don’t worry though, there’s more Into the Mix in the works – more on that at the end of the episode.

[MUX]

Before we get to our interview today, I want to tell you about an essay by the late, great bell hooks. If you’re not familiar with her work, bell hooks is prolific. She’s known for writing about how race, class, and feminism intersect.

In 1992, she wrote about her experience going to the cinema in an essay called “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.”

That word “gaze” – as in, to gaze upon – is a helpful way of thinking about how we engage with art and media. When you watch a movie, you are basically seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. And you, the viewer – you have your own gaze that’s informed by your life experiences.

bell hooks says the gaze is powerful, especially for those who have the privilege of being behind the camera. Because they’re the ones who decide which stories get told. And she was tired of the demeaning ways white filmmakers depicted Black women. (3nd - “privilege”

[MUX]

From Gone with the Wind to The Help, Black women on screen have too often been in the background as nannies and servants. Even when we are in leading roles, in movies like Harriet or 12 Years a Slave – some critics have noted Hollywood’s tendency to award films that have Black women trapped in subservient roles.

[MUX ends, silence for a beat]

A woman with long braided hair, wearing a black long-sleeve shirt. Her left arm is hold up in front of her near her chin, which is adorned with a black ring on her middle finger.
Writer, Director, & Producer, Ava DuVernay

ASHLEY [VO]: My guest today uses her gifts and platforms to up-end that history.

AVA: Some directors are grounded by, you know, being a leader and being kind of the singular voice. And my grounding as a director is being a strong center for a circle of people, um, and amplifying all of their voices. And it’s really all about as bell hooks said, the power of looking and trying to direct that gaze to places that are a bit off of the beaten path.

[...]

My name is Ava DuVernay, and my purpose is to be a good human being for the time that I’m allowed to be one.

[MUX]

ASHLEY [VO]: Ava DuVernay. She’s a filmmaker, TV producer, and award winning director of films like Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle In Time, – and series like When They See Us, Colin In Black & White, Queen Sugar, and Cherish The Day. She’s made history more than once: first Black woman to direct a film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and first to win best director at the Sundance Film Festival. So many firsts for one woman.

But before she was a Hollywood icon, she was a little girl who loved movies, growing up in Compton – a city just a few freeway exits south, but worlds away from Tinseltown.

A young girl sits with an older woman on the bus as they pass a “Cinema” sign. Sitting behind them on the bus are various movie characters, including Danny and Sandy from Grease, a pirate, and a singer. Illustrations by Niki Usagi

AVA: I became interested in film at an early age through my aunt, Denise Sexton, who worked as a nurse and just was an advocate and lover of the arts.

And she passed that along to me. And One of the things that we loved to do together was to see movies.

And the community that we lived in, in the Compton, Linwood area of Los Angeles had no movie theater. To this day, it still does not have a movie theater. And um, so we would have to take the bus out to some of the outlying suburbs to see movies.

And that love affair, with movies continued on to this day.

ASHLEY [VO]: As an adult– Ava spent the first part of her career as a film publicist. A self-described film nerd, she loved getting to spend time on set seeing how everything came together.

AVA: I was able to watch directors direct and cinematographers shoot, and writers, screenwriters on the set and thought, ‘Wow, I really like this side of the business.’ So it really came from a craft perspective, which is something that I think is important for people to understand.

So often when I as a Black woman artist, Black woman filmmaker, I’m asked about my work, I’m asked about the work in the context of its political. You know, kind of cultural import, but you have to remember, we’re also just filmmakers who just love movies. And so for me, that’s where it started.

And once I saw the power, uh, that we wield as storytellers in film, then you start to think, Oh, how can I use this power for good? But that for me came after just being a film nerd.

[MUX]

ASHLEY [VO]: When Ava finally did decide to get behind the camera, she explored and elevated stories familiar to her. First with a short film in 2006 called Saturday Night Life, about a single mom in Compton, whom Ava says was inspired by her own mother.

Then she made a documentary in 2008 called This is the Life. It’s about The Good Life Cafe, a Black-owned health food store and performance space in LA. It was a home for the underground West Coast hip hop scene in the late 80s and early 90s. Ava was active in that scene in her college years.

It was around this time she founded her own production company, ARRAY, with the mission to advance social justice through art and film. From there she made her first full length film in 2010, called I Will Follow. It was inspired by her beloved Aunt Denise.

In these early films, you can see themes that appear in all of her work: Black womanhood, Black families, motherhood, and people surviving racist institutions. Her directing trademarks like close ups and low, rich lighting show how much she’s honed her style over the years.

AVA: I think in the early years it was less about vision and less about trying to manifest any kind of, you know, mission or mandate. It was really very pure. Like it is for my white male counterparts who get into making film without having a mantra, a mission, a vision. You just wanna tell stories. For me it’s really a question of who you’re making the film for and, uh, I’ve really come to understand that I make the films for myself.

[MUX]

2012 was a turning point for Ava. Her second full length film, Middle of Nowhere, was a major critical success and earned her the Best Director award at Sundance.

It tells the story of a woman dealing with the day-to-day realities of having an incarcerated spouse. As one New York Times film critic wrote, quote: “Ava DuVernay is after something exquisitely simple in “Middle of Nowhere”: she wants you to look, really look, at her characters.”

Remember when bell hooks said there’s power in the gaze? This is what she means.

The characters weren’t caricatures – they felt like real people. People Ava had grown up with, people she loved.

AVA: I tell the story to satisfy myself and in satisfying myself. I’m satisfying myself as a Black person, as a woman, as a Black woman.

But within that, there’s universality in the specific.

I watch The Godfather? I have nothing to do with those people. But, gosh, it’s really interesting. I’m watching Titanic? I’m never gonna be her and she’s never gonna be me. But I cry at the end! It’s something universal in there. So why wouldn’t my experience not be universal? Who says that that couldn’t be? Well, a whole industry, a whole curriculum, a whole institution of, you know. The legal system, like everyone says that my experience is not relevant to anyone else, but I know from experience that’s not true because it works the other way.

I’m trusting that if I like it, an audience will join me, and like it too. The question is, is that gonna be a big audience or gonna be a small one? [laughs] And you have to be comfortable enough, uh, in your work, uh, to take that risk.

ASHLEY [VO]: After the break, we’ll hear more about how Ava uses her influence to pave the way for others.

[AD-BREAK]

[MUX IN]

ASHLEY [VO]: After cementing herself as a Director to watch at Sundance, Ava had a string of high-profile projects.

At the Oscars, her film Selma was nominated for Best Picture in 2014, and her documentary 13th was nominated for Best Documentary in 2017.

Her series When They See Us–based on the exonerated Central Park 5–was nominated for 16 Emmys in 2019.

And then there was A Wrinkle in Time. I saw A Wrinkle in Time in theaters, mouth agape, astounded by the way Ava brought one of my favorite childhood stories to life, not to mention a flying Reese Witherspoon and a titan-sized Oprah.

Throughout her documentaries, historical dramas, or children’s fantasy, Ava’s vision stays the same: to create movies that celebrate Black people and our stories. (2nd or 3rd) -1st had a noise

One film critic even coined the phrase “The DuVernay Test” - it’s a riff on the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test checks whether women on screen have interests outside of the men in their lives. The DuVernay test checks whether a movie humanizes characters who aren’t white. The ask? do the Black and brown people on screen have fully-realized lives, instead of being in service to the white characters’ stories? In Ava’s films, the answer is always and emphatically yes.

[MUX]

ASHLEY [VO]: Here’s what I love most about Ava: she spreads the love. And the opportunities. And the mentorship, and success.

In 2016 she worked with Oprah Winfrey to develop the TV series Queen Sugar – a drama about family and legacy on a large sugarcane farm. Now in it’s 7th and final season, the series navigates Black identity, intergenerational trauma, police brutality, and the ripple effects of chattel slavery on American history.

Behind the camera, it was an opportunity for Ava to spotlight other women filmmakers.

AVA: When we started to think about how to build Queen Sugar, you know, I wanted to build it in the likeness of filmmakers who I thought would approach the material in the same way that I would.

And as I was doing that, the names that kept coming up were women, Women of all kinds. So I approached Oprah Winfrey and I asked her, If she would be open to the idea of hiring an all woman directorial team, not as a mission, but because all the, all the directors I was interested in happened to be women.

And that has turned into, you know, 42 directors, um, helming, 88 episodes of television and these are legendary women filmmakers who, um, had not traditionally been invited into the space of television, and so they are a part of it as well as independent filmmakers of all stripes, um, who we invited into the Queen Sugar Sisterhood.

And as our show comes to and end this season after seven seasons, you know, it’s, it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.

[MUX]

ASHLEY [VO]: Ava’s mission both on and off film sets is to advance the careers of filmmakers like her. Her nonprofit, ARRAY Alliance, provides grants, mentorships and educational opportunities to people from historically marginalized communities who want to work in the film industry. They even made a database of creators from every level of filmmaking - gaffers, cinematographers, hair and makeup, you name it. Now nobody in Hollywood can claim it’s impossible to find diverse crew members–Ava’s company has the contact sheets to prove it.

A hand on the right of the frame holds a film strip that extend to the left side of the frame and becomes colorful. The stripe shows a person signing, a person reaching, a hand holding makeup brushes, and a woman crying. Illustrations by Niki Usagi

She does this all with the goal of diversifying film sets and ultimately, telling stories of people who’ve historically been left out. It reminds me of something bell hooks wrote about the oppositional gaze: “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality.”

AVA: You know you talk about bell hooks and the power of looking. I think a big part of that equation as we contemplate her words and, and encounter that material, is looking at what? You know what I mean? How do we really diversify what we’re looking at? How do we push past what’s being put in front of us.

Array Alliance’s focus is really about disruption.

You know, working in our industry, we see a lot of interlocking systems that are very close to the ways that political and social systems, legal systems exist in, in the world, writ large. There is, um, limits to who is allowed in, how you can move once you’re in and how things move and behave.

So that’s what really the space that Array occupies is, is to say, Look at this. Look at that. Have you heard about this? Did you know about these indigenous filmmakers over here? You haven’t seen it. Let us show you this.

ARRAY Alliance is really trying to look at all the different parts of the filmmaking process to upend what has traditionally been very static.

ASHLEY [VO]: And that’s where Ben & Jerry’s comes in…

[MUX]

AVA: Oh my gosh. They just handed me. They just handed me. I’m gonna cry. They just handed me the first pint. It’s cold in my hands. Wow. Look at that. Look what you did.

You know, Ben and Jerry’s, the reason why I was really interested in this collaboration is just because it is a company that has stuck to its guns and really amplified its morals throughout the process. You know, there’s no wavering about what they believe in. They’ve defined it, they’ve stated it, they’ve stuck by it.

And um, uh, I think it’s extraordinary.

ASHLEY [VO]: This year, Ava collaborated with Ben & Jerry’s on a flavor to benefit her non-profit, ARRAY Alliance. It’s called, “Lights! Caramel! Action!”, available now.

AVA: And a portion of these proceeds go back to ARRAY Alliance for all of those programs that I was talking to you about. And yeah, just excited about this and grateful to Ben and Jerry’s for being on the ride with us.

It speaks to the power of allies and allyship. You know, you really, uh, cannot underestimate what it means to have folks standing with you. So I always tell people, Find your tribe. Find your tribe. Find the people that you can support and who will support you.

And I think some people are animated by the next big thing. I’m animated by a vision of myself as an old lady calling “action” and “cut” as I please, on the kinds of work that I enjoy, in the way that I want. That is the vision for myself that I have, and that keeps me going. And in order to get there, I have to invest in myself and people around me so that we can all be old and jolly together.

ASHLEY [VO]: I hope to see you there, Ava.

[MUX]

ASHLEY [VO]: That’s it for Season 1 of Into The Mix. Whether you’ve been here since the beginning, or this is your first time tuning in – thank you for listening!

Don’t worry. Season 2 is already in the works, and honestly? We think you’re going to love it. We’re going deeper into issues that are important to us: police accountability, cannabis justice, climate justice, voting rights. It’s going to be ambitious and joyful, and we can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, now would be a great time to go back and listen to season 1. In case you missed our interviews with John Legend, Big Freedia, Patti Smith – so many good conversations.

Keep an eye on this space. And thanks for listening.

[CREDITS]

ASHLEY [VO]: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and A-B-F Creative.

Thank you to ARRAY Alliance, and Ava DuVernay and her team for the opportunity to collaborate.

We had help from sensitivity reader, Tiara Darnell.

This episode was written by Bethany Denton, with production help from Ken Miles

The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Bethany Denton, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.

The team from A-B-F Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann and Jake Miller. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro, Sanjana Mahesh and Chris Miller.

I’m Ashley C Ford. Thank you for listening.