Smart. Warm. Easy-going. Funny. Soulful. Those aren’t words that most people use to describe filmmakers or Hollywood heavyweights. But perhaps that’s what makes writer/director/producer Ava DuVernay stand out because she’s all of those things. The first time I met Ava, seven years ago, she invited me to lunch. That’s right. A major industry publicist invited a young, journalism newbie to lunch in West Hollywood to pick my brain and get to know me. I was in shock, and then I realized what was happening. Ava DuVernay was extending me an invitation into a sisterhood of entertainment professionals who were black, connected and accomplished.
Years later, we jumped on the phone for this interview and it immediately transported me back to that lunch table in West Hollywood, yet one major thing had changed. Ava was no longer a film publicist, she was the first American-American woman to win Best Director at Sundance for her critically acclaimed film Middle of Nowhere. Wondering whether she had changed, whether that infectious laugh or beaming smile had somehow been tainted by red carpet flashbulbs, New York Times interviews, or an in-demand work schedule, I paused before posing my first question. “How are things going with you? Are you enjoying the ride,” I asked. First a laugh, then she responded, “Giiiirl! It’s all fun.” Yep, same warm and funny Ava.
Over the course of a half-hour, Ava unleashed her signature fast chatter to open up about her hit indie film, being called a ‘hero’ by film icons, getting pep talks from her dad, and navigating the film industry on her terms. Plus, as it turns out, she’s not getting caught up in the Oscar buzz.
CocoaFab: With the Spirit Awards nomination and the NAACP noms just recently, how does it feel to be recognized by so many people?
DuVernay: “The summer before last we made the film in LA for $200,000 in 19 days and everyone got about $100 a day. So for it to go to Sundance, then win Sundance, and then go to LA Film Festival then Toronto Film Festival, and now an amazing national tour, and then open number one at the independent box office, and be nominated for a Gotham and then win Gotham, and get Spiritsâ€¦ and the reviews, which were really unexpected; every phase of this has been really a big surprise. Everyday we’re like Whoa! It’s been a great year.”
CocoaFab: Oprah tweeted about the film and that garnered a ton of buzz. But what has been the best feedback you’ve received about the film, aside from Oprah?
DuVernay: “If I have to pull out one moment it would be when Julie Dash saw the film at Sundance and stood up in the audience and said ‘You’re my hero.’ It was such a crazy surreal moment, for someone like her to say that to me. It felt like an alternate universe. I talked to her more and I connected the dots between what she did at Sundance as the first black woman there with Daughters of the Dust, which she made independently. And to see myself here all these many years laterâ€¦ I sat down with Suzanne De Passe, who is the only black woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar for a screenplay (Lady Sings the Blues) in 1972; I was born in 1972. There has been no one in that space since then. To hear that she embraced the film was amazing. Diahann Carroll came to a screening of the film and sat front and center just two nights ago at Soho House and she talked about the connections she saw and the legacy. So for these women who have been trailblazers, for them to see something beautiful in my film, means a lot to me.”
CocoaFab: How has your life changed since January’s Sundance and since the film opened wide?
DuVernay: “It’s pretty much the same but there have been interesting moments where I will go some place and someone will say they saw me on a show or that they saw the film. I’ve also talked to Emayatzy and she was in the store wearing sweats just going to get Cheetos or whatever she actually gets, and someone said that they saw her in a film, and she was like ‘Oh no, I donâ€™t have any lipstick on!’ So it’s hilarious stuff like that. We’re all just living our regular lives as little independent filmmakers who made a little film that people like.”
CocoaFab: Do you think that your film and the AFFRM movement are changing Hollywood’s perspective of African Americans and indie films?
DuVernay: “I hope I’m seen as a part of it, as a catalyst but it’s been happening for a long time. Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, it’s happened before where there were lines around the block for black independent films. Then there were independent filmmakers in the ’90s with Spike, Matty Rich, John Singleton, all of these people.”
CocoaFab: What is your goal with the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement?
DuVernay: “I want to get back to the days where you had different views of African Americans that are not all comedies, that are not historical drama. What about contemporary dramas? We can be serious and explore what we look like as black people in this era and this moment. There are a group of us working in that space whether it’s me or Dee Rees, Barry Jenkins, Tanya Hamilton, or others.Â There is a cadre of us who are dedicated to showing our stories. So I am proud to be a part of that.”
CocoaFab: How have the conversations in boardrooms changed with your success?
DuVernay: “The success of Middle has allowed me to get phone calls returned and get into the rooms I want to get into, but I donâ€™t seek those and I donâ€™t go into rooms pitching. It’s a different posture than going in and saying ‘Hi studio, this is my script and here is my vision for it. Oh you donâ€™t like that, oh you want that person in it. Okay I can make those changes.‘Â That doesnâ€™t happen to me. I donâ€™t do that. It’s not like I’m hoity-toity, it’s just that I’ve learned through all of my years in the studio system what they want and I donâ€™t make films that they want. I make contemporary dramas that are very interior, they are very intimate and it’s just not in the purview of the studio system. And I understand that and I’m not complaining about that, but I’m also not going to go begging them to do something that is outside of their system. So I make my films my way, I love them, I feel very free in doing that.”
CocoaFab: I know you’re not the kind of person who’s just riding the wave of success. I’m sure there’s another project. What else are you working on these days?
DuVernay: “I’m juggling three projects now. I’m in post-production on a documentary for ESPN on Venus Williams that’ll be airing in the summer. I shot that this summer while we were promoting Middle of Nowhere. I have another project, which is a fashion project for a major brand that I shot this last week. And I’m in pre-production on the next feature film that I’ll be shooting starting in March. So it’s busy to say the least. I’m excited to be making the next one.”
CocoaFab: That doesnâ€™t leave much time to bask in the glory of awards season, especially if you’re shooting right after Oscars.
DuVernay: “I’m a former publicist who was involved in Oscar campaigns for my studio clients, Monster, Dreamgirls, Invictus, The Helpâ€¦ I know what it takes to win [Oscars] and there is a certain budget that goes along with raising awareness for a film to the level that you can get a nomination, and we never have that money. We just donâ€™t have that. Everything that has happened around the film has been organic and a miracle of nature. To be on these lists of critics, it’s really satisfying and there’s no expectations on my part that that materializes into something more.”
CocoaFab: So you’re not expecting or hoping for an Oscar?
DuVernay: “We’re just enjoying the love that we’re getting from the people that are seeing [Middle of Nowhere] and enjoying it.”
CocoaFab: How have you managed to juggle your personal life?
DuVernay: “My guy is very understanding and the family just knows that instead of talking everyday, they have to catch me on the run. I have a standing date with my dad every Sunday night at midnight. It’s funny, for maybe the past three years he drives a postal truck in Montgomery, Alabama so every Sunday night at midnight my time I call him and we talk while he’s driving through the back roads of Montgomery, Alabama delivering mail to the different mail houses. So there are different ways to stay in touch with family and friends. In fact, it’s a real testament to how much my loved ones care for me.”
CocoaFab: Sundance is coming up, is there anything that you’re looking forward to seeing this year?
DuDernay: “Yes, I cannot contain my excitement for this film Mother of George by Andrew Dosunmu. His films, if I could put them into a blender and drink them, then I would. They are just delicious. They are so scrumptious and nourishing to me, so I can’t wait to see that. A couple people have seen it and they’re like this thing is going blow your locks off. Also I really want to see Isaiah Washington’s film Blue Caprice; I hear his performance is amazing. I really want to see Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale, it’s with Octavia Spencer. Those are the three at the top of my list.”
CocoaFab: Will you celebrate the one-year anniversary of winning your Sundance Best Director award?
DuVernay: “Maybe! It was such a great moment. It’s nice to go back a year later and look back on my experiences. What a ride!”