It's 8 a.m. in Santa Clarita and Ava DuVernay is thinking about fate. We're on the set of Disney's A Wrinkle in Time, the film adaptation of the much-loved fantasy story that she's directing. Here in DuVernay's trailer, a framed photo of James Baldwin below the television stares out to the couch where we are sitting. She wonders aloud if it's possible to be "meant for something." Then, muted commercials for Queen Sugar appear on the flat-screen TV, coincidentally promoting the recent television series the director created for Oprah Winfrey's OWN channel.
"I believe in fate," she says in her confident rasp.
DuVernay's breakthrough 2014 film, Selma, earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best director, the first for a female African-American auteur. And she says fate connected her to British Nigerian actor David Oyelowo, the lead in her film portraying the life of Martin Luther King Jr. DuVernay gets animated telling the story, adjusting and readjusting her legs on the couch.
"He's on this plane next to someone who happens to have one of my scripts [Middle of Nowhere] and asks David — since he's an actor — if he should invest in this independent film."
She explains that Oyelowo had seen DuVernay on CNN talking about her small distribution company, Array, the week before. Then he read the script while on that flight and immediately called DuVernay for a part. "That doesn't just happen by coincidence!" she says with a laugh.
That kind of kismet in the film world is a distant long shot — but the story is true.
On the phone from New York City, Oyelowo later told me that the connection he had with DuVernay was immediate and unspoken. Before they even met, he felt they shared a bond. "When I read Middle of Nowhere, there was something so unashamedly complex, nuanced and poetically lyrical about her writing."
In that film, a woman, Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi), navigates life in Compton after her husband goes to prison; Oyelowo plays the bus driver who tries to woo her. Aside from telling a vital story about the women left behind in the African-American incarceration crisis, Middle of Nowhere exhibits bold flourishes and artistic confidence. Compton is also where DuVernay grew up.
After Middle of Nowhere, Oyelowo was cast in Selma, fulfilling an actual dream he had years ago that he would play MLK. He brought DuVernay on to direct. She reworked the script for Selma, slimming the glorification of LBJ and granting more emotional weight to Oyelowo's character — exactly as he had envisioned he would play MLK. The speeches DuVernay crafted for Oyelowo are so breathtaking that even people who actually marched with the civil rights leader thought they were the original words.
While fate played a role in DuVernay's relatively swift ascendancy in filmmaking, her subtle brilliance is what has driven her success. In college, DuVernay didn't even study film. She studied African-American history at UCLA before working in journalism and starting her own film publicity company. She was 32 before she directed her first short film, and she proclaims that she would have been happy continuing to make small movies for small a udiences.
"Every filmmaker wants to be making indies, because you have control. But they're afraid of losing all this," she says, waving her hand in exaggerated grandiosity at this luxury trailer, where the sun has just broken through the clouds, revealing the loop of a Magic Mountain roller coaster in the distance. DuVernay's indie career is on hold; she's now heading a $100 million Disney adaptation of the young-adult classic A Wrinkle in Time.
"I don't want to put too much of a burden on Ava's shoulders," Chaz Ebert says on the phone from the rogerebert.com offices in Chicago, "but I think what she is doing will transcend the world of film and TV. I think that she is one of the people who will actually help bring more empathy and compassion into this world."
Chaz met DuVernay through her husband, the late critic Roger Ebert, who championed DuVernay's earliest feature, I Will Follow.
Chaz was moved by DuVernay's speech at Roger's funeral: "She said he was a force of goodness, always reaching out to all people, no matter your color. That's Ava, too."
Every person I talk to for this story uses words like "a force" to describe DuVernay. Sometimes it seems her status as an inspirational figure might overshadow the artistic integrity of her work.
In most interviews, journalists ask about African-American culture, about philosophy, about everything but the act of making films. Few ask her about actual filmmaking, like how she approaches actors, or whether she blocks out scenes with intense rehearsing or chooses a more organic approach. That's why she hosts a podcast, The Call-In, where she dials up African-American filmmakers and asks the questions they never get asked. This shoptalk fills a void, a receptacle for the knowledge held by marginalized artists.
Julie Dash says she saw from the start that there was something special about DuVernay's films. Dash would know; she's a pioneer of lyrical black cinematic stories from women's perspectives, exemplified in her now-remastered, Sundance award–winning feature Daughters of the Dust (1991).
"I just happened to be in the audience when Middle of Nowhere was screening at Sundance," Dash says. "I was overwhelmed by her confidence — you can tell when a director is confident from how they take their time and let a scene unfold. I usually don't say anything at these public screenings, but I was the first person to grab my mic, and I said, 'You're my hero. This film is brilliant.'?"
One scene of Middle of Nowhere returns to me often: Ruby's lying down on the bed, rolled over on her side. In the background, there's a blurry movement, as if someone is behind her, but we've already seen she's alone in the room. This is the specter of the imprisoned man she loves, a literal shadow of his former self forever living only in her memory. DuVernay's portrayal of that emotional burden through abstraction shows confidence as a director, and it's why the film took honors at Sundance: She's a director who takes chances.
Two years ago, when she was screening Selma, DuVernay got calls from both the Smithsonian and Netflix to make movies. On her weekends, she discreetly made a 22-minute short for the Smithsonian called August 28: A Day in the Life of the People, starring Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. In her free time, she made 13th.
Lisa Nishimura, head of Netflix Originals, says DuVernay's ability to break down big subjects into easily digestible, beautiful bites is unrivaled. "I told her to think about a subject she wanted to cover, and she called me back and laid out this conceit that was so big it didn't fit in the room" — a survey of the centuries-long institutional enslavement of African-Americans.
DuVernay has the rare ability to break down onscreen a subject as complex as the racist history and reality of America's centuries-long campaign against African-American men, implicating politicians, courts and prisons. In 13th, DuVernay dissects institutional systems, and the rhetoric that has long obscured their functions, and draws a tight timeline of one event leading to the next that's revelatory in its clarity. The documentary tracks this history from the Civil War to the 2016 election, emphasizing how Nixon's "tough-on-crime" Southern strategy sent out a dog-whistle call to racists that would resound through generations, with even Democratic presidents resorting to tough talk about cracking down on "criminals" (read: African-Americans) to secure the votes of fearful populations.
DuVernay's interview subjects in the film include thinkers like Van Jones, who shares her read of the history, but also the likes of Newt Gingrich, who gleefully recounts how he stomped out "soft liberals" with policies that militarized our police. DuVernay says she's "curious" about Gingrich's thinking. And sometimes he said something that surprised her, like when he stated that he thought crack and cocaine should have been treated as equal drug offenses. To get that answer, she had to sit across from him, look him in the eyes, and say, "What do you think?"
"My mother taught me empathy," DuVernay says. "I remember once when a boy broke into our house when my mother was home. The police went and caught the guy and brought him back to the house in the back of a cruiser. They asked my mom if it was him, and she said, 'Yes.' But then she went to the window, tapped on it, and the boy looked at her, and she said, 'You're gonna be OK.'?" The pained look on her face is one of someone who has just traveled back in time, who's reliving a memory to learn from it again. "That's who raised me, that woman, who would go to the boy who broke into the house and tell him, 'It's gonna be OK.'?"
DuVernay's phone buzzes. She picks it up and announces that she has to dash back to set, asks if I have everything I need, ever hospitable and thoughtful. In the short time we've been chatting in her trailer, texts and voicemails have been pouring in. Ava DuVernay is direly needed — everywhere, it turns out.