Can anyone actually blow up the Hollywood system? Ava DuVernay is about to find out.


Can anyone actually blow up the Hollywood system? Ava DuVernay is about to find out.
Story by
Photos by Marvin Joseph

There are three parking spaces outside Building 78 on the storied Walt Disney Studios lot. Director Ava DuVernay, scooting between editing sessions for “A Wrinkle in Time,” makes a point to stop and point out who they’re assigned to.

One is for her silver Mercedes. The others belong to “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler and “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. All three work under the same roof.

“We’re having a moment right now, but it’s only like six of us,” says DuVernay. “So it’s like the black building. You have three productions headed by black creators here, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Go behind the scenes with Ava DuVernay

Forgive us for starting this by focusing on race. But race, fairly or not, is one of the major story lines as DuVernay, 45, readies her big budget adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult classic. She is a black woman in an industry long ruled by white men. “Wrinkle,” which opens March 9, stars Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, but its heroine is Meg Murry, a character transformed by actress Storm Reid. In the book, Meg is white, 14 and lives in Connecticut. In the movie, she’s an African American teenager from South Central L.A.

“She’s just a black girl who has no super powers but ends up doing extraordinary things that she didn’t even know she could, and I relate to that,” says DuVernay.

It’s a bold reinvention that’s been almost overlooked in the pre-release hype for the film. From the moment DuVernay got the gig, so much about “Wrinkle” has been about the money, the headline echoing from the Atlantic to Vanity Fair of “the first woman of color to direct a $100 million film.”

Never mind that whatever the budget, DuVernay’s work speaks for itself.

The poetically paced beauty of 2012’s “Middle of Nowhere,” which cost $200,000 and won her the best directing award at Sundance. The sizzling “Queen Sugar,” a TV series that explores family dynamics, institutional racism and our modern media age. Then there’s the 2014 historical drama “Selma,” a project DuVernay revived from development limbo by rewriting much of the script and inspiring a remarkable performance from David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King. The $20 million movie scored with critics and at the box office. It also sparked what has become a deep friendship with Winfrey, who helped produce “Selma.”

“I see the rising of myself in her,” says Winfrey. “That’s what people are seeing. They see her courage, her bodaciousness, owning herself. In a way that reflects what you want to be the best of yourself.”

Even as her résumé grows, the work is hard to isolate from the larger vision. DuVernay hires only women to direct “Queen Sugar” episodes, and her company, Array, distributes films by women and people of color while also building community through screenings and digital campaigns.

Director Ava DuVernay on the set of 'A Wrinkle in Time.' (Atsushi Nishijima/Disney)

“Her mission is bigger than one film,” says Witherspoon. “I’ve never met a director like that. I’ve never had an experience where they’ve talked more about other people’s work than their own,”

DuVernay’s not looking to kick white men out of Hollywood. One of those white men, Spencer Averick, is her longtime editor and self-described “brother.” Her goal is to reshape the system so that everyone gets a chance.

And while it may sometimes feel like a grand stroke of luck, sitting with Oprah at the Golden Globes, turning Jay-Z’s latest jam into a star-studded video, DuVernay’s rise is no accident. It is about talent, long hours and the way you treat people. About not doing things the same way because that’s how they’ve always been done. Oh, and always remember: You may be the first to get a $100 million budget, but you’re not the first to deserve one.

These tenets have made DuVernay an inspirational figure even for those who wouldn’t know a key grip from a key chain. These admirers can tick off her firsts — first black woman to win a best director prize at Sundance, to be nominated for a best director Golden Globe, to have her film nominated for an Oscar.

“I don’t really know anyone in all of my life, and I’m 61, who has done what she’s done,” says law professor Anita Hill, who famously testified against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “It’s tragic that she’s the first. But she is the first, and we have to celebrate that.”

One evening last year, after DuVernay dazzled a packed auditorium at a talk with Questlove, a group of young black women huddled, raving about the director.

“I’m an attorney,” said Nneka Udoh, 36. “Hearing her speak, it gives me a lot of confidence to do just what she does. Which is to be true to herself. Not being afraid to stand up for what she believes in, stand up for her values and also be inviting about it.”

Growing up in Lynwood, Calif., Ava DuVernay and her sisters — Jina is on the right — often made accessories for go with their dolls. (Courtesy of Ava DuVernay)

All the possibilities

Steven Spielberg grew up making short films with his father’s 8mm camera. J.J. Abrams wrote a screenplay in college that made it to the big screen (“Taking Care of Business”). DuVernay had her dolls.

In their small house in Lynwood, Calif., DuVernay would recruit her sisters Jina and Tera to play Barbie on Saturday mornings. The family couldn’t afford doll accessories. So if the girls wanted something approximating Barbie’s dune buggy, they crafted it out of a shoe box. This was serious stuff.

“It was like, this is my side of the room, this is your side,” says DuVernay. “Then the stories started. I mean, my mom would go to work, come back on a Saturday, and we were still on the floor playing.”

DuVernay got her surname, but not much else, from her biological father. She doesn’t talk about him or his marriage to her mother, Darlene, which DuVernay says was abusive. He is, she says, “a stranger to me.”

It was her stepfather, Murray Maye, who died in 2016, whom she called Pops. He had a carpet and flooring business and was as soft-spoken as the California-born Darlene was a social sparkplug. The girls would watch in half-amused awe, every morning, as he ironed his jeans before heading to work.

DuVernay’s mother, Darlene, worked as a bank teller, human resources manager and ran a preschool while raising her daughters.
DuVernay called her stepfather, Murray Maye, Pops. He died in 2016.
DuVernay’s mother, Darlene, worked as a bank teller, human resources manager and ran a preschool while raising her daughters. DuVernay called her stepfather, Murray Maye, Pops. He died in 2016.

Darlene Maye, just 18 when she had Ava, worked as a bank teller, a human resources manager and ran a preschool as she raised her daughters. She taught them the sorts of lessons you won’t find in a Girl Scout manual. Jina, the middle sister, remembers one time they went to IHOP for breakfast and a man came out of the bathroom distressed, naked and collapsed on the floor. Instead of shielding the children, Darlene darted over with her leather coat. She covered the man up until help arrived.

“No manager did that, no employee did that,” says Jina, now the special collections librarian at Alabama State University. “And anybody on the side of the street, you’d give them money. Is there anything I can do for you? Is there any help that you need? That extra inch. She always did that.”

Her Aunt Denise taught DuVernay to love art. She was a nurse who never had any children. (DuVernay, who also says she doesn’t plan to have kids, has a boyfriend, whom she prefers not to name.) Denise took her niece to see a stage production of “A Chorus Line” and Warren Beatty’s three-hour Russian revolution epic, “Reds.” She also loved music, whether lecturing about the underappreciated genius of U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” or blasting Brahms.

“Like, you know, you walk into a house in Compton and there’s classical music playing,” says DuVernay. “People were like, ‘Turn that s— down!’ It’s like, you know, Bach or something. She’s like, ‘F— you!’ ”

From the start, DuVernay’s family loomed large in her work.

Aunt Denise’s struggle with breast cancer — she died in 2003 — inspired DuVernay’s 2010 feature debut, “I Will Follow.”

Her Los Angeles childhood, with the backdrop of hovering police copters and the tactical brutality in the era of Chief Daryl Gates, connected her to “13th,” the 2016 documentary centered on a justice system that targets people of color. It’s no wonder that her youngest sister, Tera, who works at Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit group made up of attorneys who defend the accused, helped out on that project.

“Selma,” DuVernay’s breakthrough, may be a historical drama about one of the country’s most famous civil rights campaigns. But for DuVernay, it was also personal. Murray Maye, the man she considers her real father, came from Alabama and, as a boy, watched the marchers pass.

In 'A Wrinkle in Time,' Mindy Kaling is Mrs. Who, Oprah Winfrey is Mrs. Which, Reese Witherspoon is Mrs. Whatsit. (Atsushi Nishijima/Disney)
DuVernay works with Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murry, on the set of 'A Wrinkle in Time.' (Atsushi Nishijima/Disney)
Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in a scene from the movie. (Atsushi Nishijima/Disney)
In 'A Wrinkle in Time,' Mindy Kaling is Mrs. Who, Oprah Winfrey is Mrs. Which, Reese Witherspoon is Mrs. Whatsit. DuVernay works with Storm Reid, who plays Meg Murry, on the set of 'A Wrinkle in Time.' Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid in a scene from the movie. (Photos by Atsushi Nishijima/Disney)

Everyone is equal on the set

Approaching midnight on a Friday, DuVernay pops out of her office at Disney and down the hall to see a pair of her staffers at their computers.

“Gosh,” she says. “What do you think? What’s your ETA?”

“Well,” one of them says. “It was 12. Now I’m going with 2 a.m.”

“What?” DuVernay says. “Can I get you anything? Pinkberry?”

“No, we’re okay.”

Back in her office, DuVernay is told that this is probably not standard practice. That it is unlikely Martin Scorsese has ever offered to make fro-yo runs for the crew.

“I mean, it’s 11:30 at night on Friday and both those women have children, so I’m just, like, sorry they have to be here,” she says.

This is the culture she creates. It comes from the dozen years she worked as a movie publicist before going into directing. She watched how people were treated on set.

“I very much try not to — and don’t — make it a habit of treating my actors differently than I treat the gaffer or the grip or the craft services manager or hair and makeup, because we’re all making the movie,” she says. “Because I used to be crew, and I would see the hierarchy and I always thought: I won’t do that. Because this is a grown man. I would see grips and gaffers and, you know, dolly grips pushing things around all day and being treated like s— and they would just remind me, gosh, that’s somebody’s father.”

That applies to how she builds a crew. Witherspoon says she has never, over 40 plus films, seen a team as diverse as the one DuVernay put together.

“I said, ‘How did you do that?’ ” says Witherspoon. “She said, ‘Whenever I was presented with an option, I was told there were no other choices for people for every job.’ She said, ‘I want to see every single résumé for every single job.’”

Her ability to find, elevate and keep talent can be seen across her staff. Averick, 39, studied film at San Francisco State University, but he had almost no experience when he took a job editing on DuVernay’s first film in 2008. Now he’s the lead editor on a potential Disney blockbuster.

Tilane Jones, 44, also met DuVernay in 2008. She started as an office assistant. Jones had left college early, but DuVernay could see she was organized, passionate and smart. Today, she’s
vice president of Array, which has so far distributed 17 films.

The friendships Oyelowo developed on the sets of “Middle of Nowhere” and “Selma” are unlike any before or since.

“She is literally like a blood sister to me,” he says. “That’s to do with her. It is by no means the norm. And it’s what she brings out in people.”

Even as DuVernay searches for new talent, she also doesn’t forget artists who came before her. Take Julie Dash, who directed 1991’s “Daughters of the Dust,” the first feature directed by an African American woman to get a theatrical release. After “Dust,” Dash struggled to get other films going. Last season, DuVernay not only hired her to direct “Queen Sugar” episodes, she has done her best to make sure Dash is also in the right rooms.

“Every event that she goes to, pretty much, she invites me,” says Dash, 65. “To her birthday party. The Essence awards. Living in Hollywood events. She understands it’s not about a single person being successful. It’s about a wave of women filmmakers having access.”

Actor David Oyelowo, center, locks arms with DuVernay, left, and Oprah Winfrey as they walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015. Winfrey became aware of DuVernay’s work after Oyelowo sent Winfrey a film he was in that DuVernay wrote and directed. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Calling Oprah

DuVernay didn’t go to film school, instead majoring in English and African American studies at UCLA. For a while, DuVernay wanted to go into journalism, but an internship at CBS News soured her. During the O.J. Simpson trial, she found herself assigned to a juror, which involved going through her trash cans.

The internship did give DuVernay a window into how publicists worked, and, after graduation, she took a job at a small firm, Bender Helper Impact. Before long, she founded her own agency and started working on films that included “Collateral,”
“Dreamgirls” and “Invictus.”

Making movies was never the plan. DuVernay’s debut, 2008’s “This Is the Life,” is a raw documentary about the hip-hop scene at a cafe she performed at as Eve. It was done simply to document a fleeting moment.

But “I Will Follow,” released two years later, marked a shift, as DuVernay realized she had stories to tell. The film took 11 days to shoot, cost $50,000 and featured a small, unpaid performance from Blair Underwood. He did the favor because of how hard she had worked as a publicist for his series, “City of Angels.”

As DuVernay moved behind the camera, she realized how much she had learned from hanging out on sets as Spielberg, Clint Eastwood and others directed. She beefed up her technique by religiously listening to directors’ audio commentaries on DVDs and taking private directing classes.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Omari Hardwick starred in 'I Will Follow' in 2010, a film that took 11 days to shoot. (Array)
David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in 'Selma.' (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)
Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Omari Hardwick starred in 'I Will Follow' in 2010, a film that took 11 days to shoot. (Array) David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in 'Selma.' (Atsushi Nishijima/Paramount Pictures)

Her next film, 2012’s “Middle of Nowhere,” marked an artistic leap as she told the spare story of Ruby, a nurse trying to cope with her husband going to jail. The film, which she made for $200,000, introduced her to Oyelowo. The British actor, in turn, brought the film to Oprah Winfrey when they were working together on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Winfrey was moved by the film and then Googled DuVernay.

“I loved her face, her warmth,” says Winfrey. “I loved her glasses, and I thought, I’m going to be friends with this person.”

That friendship has meant sharing birthdays with each other and also a table at the Golden Globes, where DuVernay snapped a selfie with Denzel Washington before watching Winfrey’s powerful speech. The relationship has also deepened away from the red carpet.

DuVernay turned to Winfrey during a vulnerable moment after “Selma.”

The film had been a huge success. After it, DuVernay expected offers to roll in. Marvel did talk to her about “Black Panther,” though she decided their visions didn’t match. Now, DuVernay found herself down in New Orleans, scouting locations for “Queen Sugar,” and feeling unsure of her next film.

“I need a movie, I need a movie, why am I not making a movie . . . why don’t I have what all my white boy counterparts have,” she remembers thinking. “He is the whipping boy for all this and he is such a nice guy, but how does Colin Trevorrow go from ‘Jurassic World’ straight into Star Wars, you know what I mean? From the little indie that we both did, sitting side by side at Sundance with our films in 2012, and goes from that to ‘Jurassic World’ to Star Wars, and I go from that to ‘Selma,’ and there is nothing else on the horizon? That didn’t feel good, and that had me in a depressed place. Not depressed, but just desperate. I felt desperate I was trying to make something happen.”

She called Winfrey, who was at home in bed. Immediately, she was struck by how down DuVernay sounded.

“I remember sitting up and putting on my glasses so I could hear better,” says Winfrey. “I realized this was a bigger moment than just friends on the phone having a conversation.”

Her message would be direct. DuVernay, she said, needed to stop feeling desperate. She couldn’t just take anything that came along. Her path was too important.

“It’s not about the phone calls, it’s not about your perception,” Winfrey said. “It’s about what you’ve actually come here to do. Look at where you are right now. You’re in New Orleans looking for locations to create from scratch this idea that you have for a television series. How many people have ever been able to do what you’re doing right now? And when you can relax into understanding that, there’s a bigger thing, bigger than you are?”

They spent two hours on the phone. The next day, after DuVernay joined her crew to start scouting for “Queen Sugar,”’ she got a pair of emails. One was from Spielberg’s production company asking her to consider making a film with Lupita Nyong’o. The other was from Disney about “A Wrinkle in Time.”

“I was like, what is that?” she says with a laugh. “Never heard of it.”

DuVernay at the 2015 NAACP Image Awards, where her film 'Selma' won best picture. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

‘A big swing’

The pressure should be unbearable. That first woman of color, the $100 million budget. That whole thing. DuVernay is asked about this as she walks across the Disney lot, sipping a smoothie, hustling from one meeting to the next. But before she can say anything, she shrieks with joy. She has spotted Blair Underwood sitting on a bench. He runs over to meet her with a hug.

“How’s the film going?” Underwood asks.

“Going well,” she says. “I’m going to call you to come watch it and give me some feedback.”

Then she’s back, heading toward her building.

The pressure, DuVernay says, is not necessarily the money. It’s the big idea driving “Wrinkle.” The reimagined Meg.

“It’s a big swing,” she says. “It is a fantasy where a black girl goes to another planet and saves the world.”

That “world” is a long way from the Edmund Pettus Bridge or Ruby’s bus rides in “Middle of Nowhere.” “Wrinkle’s” visual language is of sweeping landscapes, animated creatures bathed in bright colors and majestic costumes fit for a cast of celestials. DuVernay knows nobody would blink if Spielberg or James Cameron were behind the camera. But what about, as her Twitter profile reads, “A girl from Compton who got to make a Disney movie”?

“All of those guys,” she says. “They can build worlds. Will you respect my world? Me building a planet?”

The question lingers as she floats into her office and returns when, nearing midnight, DuVernay is asked what might happen if “Wrinkle” isn’t a smash. Does she worry that all of this — the magazine covers, the studio muscle, the platform — will disappear? She doesn’t miss a beat.

“If they won’t let me make films at a certain point, I can still make them indie. If I can’t make films, I’ll make TV. If I can’t make TV, I’ll do commercials. I’ll do the installation at the Smithsonian. I’ll do the Prada ad,” and she tails off.

It’s late and Ava DuVernay doesn’t sound particularly concerned about herself. Because just down the hall, she knows at least a handful of staffers are still working. She gets up, heads down the hall, and checks that they’re okay.

Ava DuVernay was unsure what her next directing project would be when Disney offered her the chance to take the helm of the $100 million film 'A Wrinkle In Time.' (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Credits: Story by Geoff Edgers. Photos by Marvin Joseph.