When considering the work of female filmmakers, Ava DuVernay is a name that stands out in the minds of many. Her achievements are overwhelming; she is the first African-American woman to win the Best Director prize at Sundance, the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Director Golden Globe, and the first black female director to have a film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. She has Emmys, Black Reel Awards, Independent Spirit Awards and countless nominations under her belt. In 2018, her film ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ will make Ava DuVernay the first black woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million.
In many ways, these facts are shocking – DuVernay should not have had to be the first to lay claim to these achievements. Regardless, her filmography paints a picture of true passion for the moving image. From short films to television specials, documentaries to biographical films, there doesn’t seem to be much that the filmmaker won’t try her hand at. As a director, writer, producer, marketer, and distributor, DuVernay is also involved in every level of the process – occasionally even making appearances in front of the camera (‘This is the Life (2008)’). The variety of her work represents not only an ability to adapt to various genres, but also the method by which she rose to fame. DuVernay did not go to film school, and instead practised her craft through lower-budget documentary filmmaking.
What makes DuVernay truly amazing, however, is her dedication to providing opportunities for others. Her arguable Oscar snub for Selma (2014) did not bother her; when questioned about this, she stated her discomfort at the ridiculous omission of David Oyelowo for Best Actor. The $20,000 prize she received as the recipient of Tribeca Film Institute’s Heineken Affinity Award was donated in full to her black film collective, which seeks to distribute and highlight the work of filmmakers of colour. She consistently uses her work in order to physically and artistically improve the industry for minority filmmakers.
And on top of all this, her films are pretty damn great to boot. Below, I take a look at four of them – ‘This is the Life’, ‘Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Selma’ and ’13th’.
Documenting Society: ‘This Is The Life’ and ’13th’
Duvernay’s work is fairly evenly spread across both the factual and the fictional – and, in some cases, a mix of the two. Both her debut feature and her latest work, however, fall firmly under the ‘documentary’ category, and both films illustrate the range of subjects that Duvernay is capable of tackling.
‘This is the Life’ was first released in 2008, at the Pan-African International Film Festival. The film concerns the thriving hip-hop movement that developed in 90s Los Angeles, using the legendary Good Life Café – a venue for young, alternative artists to explore their craft – as a focal point. Such a specific focus allows Duvernay to really centre in on the personalities behind the music, and the impact that the alternative hip-hop community had on their individual and artistic development. A series of interviews form the basis of the documentary, with interviewees including Myka 9, Medusa, Abstract Rude, Pigeon John, 2Mex and Ava herself. The variety of people that treasured Good Life Café is extraordinary, and Duvernay is sure to emphasise this influence along the way – stories, anecdotes, quotes, memories and past performances make up this love letter to a time and place that shaped the lives and careers of many.
‘This is the Life’ chronicles the small moments, the individual thoughts, and the hopes of a community dreaming of making an impact. Duvernay’s next feature-length documentary, 2016’s ‘13th’, takes these social themes and explores them on a much wider scale. This time, the focus is the US prison system, and the abhorrent rates at which black Americans are incarcerated. Society is once more the recipient of Duvernay’s gaze, but this time, her eye is fiercely critical. ‘13th’ explores motifs of slavery and the long demonization of the black American populace in order to investigate the current prison-industrial complex, mapping the journey from blatant legal racism (slavery, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow) to a more veiled legal racism (prison rates, police shootings, the war on drugs).
Such a wide variety of topics should be a challenge, but the film captures each historical point perfectly, balancing factual statements, evidence, and analysis to form its damning argument: from the very beginning, the white population of the United States has knowingly abused its black population. This is essential viewing for all, regardless of their existing knowledge of US history; ‘13th’ takes an expansive and complex topic and explains calmly – but strongly – the realities of a country seeped in exploitation.
Documenting Love: ‘Middle of Nowhere’
2012’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’ is a character study primarily; once more, Duvernay shows her strength in the depiction of people, communities, and relationships. ‘Middle of Nowhere’ tells the story of Ruby, a hardworking nurse who must emotionally support her husband through an eight-year prison sentence. From the offset, the synopsis suggests a bleak, potentially overtired picture of desolation, but Duvernay’s intricate handling of human emotion allows such a plot to stretch to far more than simply a depressing indie film. Hope is always tinged at the edges of Ruby’s actions as she moves steadily through her objectively difficult life. Backed up by a terrific performance from Emayatzy Corinealdi, it is hard not to root for our protagonist as she refuses sleep to ensure contact with her husband after night shifts. As her mother goads her over a fragmented family unit and a general atmosphere of disappointment, Ruby continues to stick to her own life ideals.
Regardless, she never becomes a martyr, especially when happy-go-lucky bus driver Brian (David Oyelowo) comes into the picture, and Ruby must choose between the steady path she has followed for so long, and a new, potentially brighter path. Morality is thrown into question, and though Ruby may have her own wavering viewpoint, Duvernay does not give the viewer the luxury of an easy answer. Happiness is never guaranteed, but then again, neither is sorrow; this is not a romance wrapped up in fanciful tropes. This is the story of a woman who must balance duties towards her career, her family, her husband and, finally, herself. Sure, the film is a slow burn, and not without faults – the pacing is occasionally a little too passive, the plotting a little too stagnant – but there’s so much beauty in the piercing humanity of these characters that its hard to criticise the piece heavily.
Documenting History: ‘Selma’
The name ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’ now carries a weight beyond what King himself ever could have imagined. Whether rightly or wrongly, his actions as a leader and the impact he had on the racial status quo of the United States has become almost a buzz-point of the country’s history – front and centre, the preacher from Atlanta will continue to be fictionalised over and over again.
Finding the truth in these situations is always difficult. Some would argue that all history is victim to at least a hint of fabrication; reality is not a stable concept, and even memory cannot be trusted. Luckily, ‘Selma’ never claims to be 100% fact. As all filmmakers are wont to do, DuVernay plays around with history in order to find the best story – and a fantastic story it is.
Spearheaded by a career-making performance from David Oyelowo (as King), ‘Selma’ recounts the 1965 voting rights marches. Beginning with Dr. King accepting his Nobel Peace prize, the film covers a fairly small period of time. This proves to be an advantage, as the film never skips over important events, but instead takes the time to establish the leading figures of the movement, and their individual perspectives. Figures who are sometimes sidelined in retellings are given their rightful dues here. King’s wife, Coretta, expresses her fear of the violence her husband may be exposed to – at the opposite end of the spectrum, Malcolm X criticises the Baptist’s peaceful methods. Student protestors SNCC, a grassroots movement focused on community development, also come into play heavily, and oft-overlooked civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper is portrayed by the iconic Oprah Winfrey.
‘Selma’ finds its core strength in the ethos behind its construction and the dedication DuVernay has to those who put their lives on the line to fight for basic human rights in 1965. ‘Selma’ is a love letter to those people, for all their faults and differences, and to a movement that reminds us of the need for protest in times of social inequality.
Documenting Fantasy: ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and a Blockbuster Future
After all of this, I’m delighted to say that DuVernay’s greatest may still be yet to come.
An established filmmaker she may be, but the director has seemingly (irritatingly) only just gained the trust of white Hollywood, with her next picture boasting a $100 million budget, the esteemed Disney trademark, and the promise of a keenly waiting audience – the screenplay is based on a 1962 novel of the same name. ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ will also mark her first step into sci-fi/fantasy. The film will revolve around fourteen-year-old Meg Murry, who must attempt to rescue her astrophysicist father from a distant planet.
The scale of this venture may be entirely different to DuVernay’s previous works, but here at Much Ado About Cinema, we’re more than confident that she can deliver the very best – as she has been for more than a decade.