In a cinematic world where white male film directors have traditionally ruled the roost since the Oscars began back in 1929, a relatively new girl on the block Ava DuVernay could be blazing a trail. And though falling just short of getting her maiden Best Director nod at this year’s Academy Awards, due on February 22 in Los Angeles, the 42-year-old still has her civil rights drama Selma nominated for the Best Picture.
Anyway, DuVernay has already created enough history to share at least some of the spotlight with the big shots. The PR guru-turned-filmmaker is the first African-American woman to take top directing honors at the Sundance Film Festival. Her indie drama Middle of Nowhere put DuVernay on the critics’ radars in 2012. And now, her first major movie Selma earned the LA-based director a groundbreaking Golden Globe nomination. But it was as far as it goes.
To be fair, despite the outcry at the lack of diversity, the Oscars do put some effort into embracing all kinds of talent, regardless of country of origin, sex or skin color. Last year, Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron became the first Latino to be crowned Best Director. Still, looking back at the previous nominees and winners, DuVernay stood little chance of making the cut from the get-go, at least statistically.
Only three black directors have been nominated for film industry’s most coveted prize. But John Singleton, Lee Daniels and, most recently, Steve McQueen all went home empty-handed. While out of the four women given the nod, only Kathryn Bigelow celebrated victory. In 2009, her Iraq war film The Hurt Locker famously humbled her ex-husband James Cameron’s 3D juggernaut Avatar.
Ms DuVernay was on the brink of improving these stats, but was left out in the cold, despite Selma basking in universal critical acclaim. The much-talked-about director is somewhat of a late bloomer. Hailing form a journalistic background, she later switched to publicity. And after 12 years spent, not wasted, running her own marketing company DuVernay, in her mid-30s by then, realized she’d rather make her own movies than promote other people’s films.
This is how the not-so-long road to recognition began. After getting a foot in the door with a couple of shorts, DuVernay conjured up her first feature, in 2008. Hip-hop documentary This is Life earned the up-and-comer her first prizes to lay the groundwork for future success. Two years on, DuVernay’s first fictional film I Will Follow had a limited run at the theatres.
The director took just 15 days off to shoot the emotional story of a grieving woman, and would make working on a tight schedule her trademark. The Sundance-winning Middle of Nowhere was just 19 days in the making, and even the $20-million Selma (quite a step up from Middle of Nowhere, which cost $200,000) was completed in just over a month, plus four months of post-production.
Selma is a historical drama that chronicles the 1965 bloody marches spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr., brilliantly portrayed by David Oyelowo, and resulting in the elimination of racial discrimination in voting in US. In her early films, DuVernay explores more personal themes of coming to terms and moving on, and lists her “matriarchal” family as one of the biggest influences on her directing career.
“My mother, grandmother, and aunts are huge figures in my life; most of my work so far has been focused on black women. My family emphasized following your heart. When I started making films, they really cheered me on. That's helped me move forward,” says DuVernay in an interview.
No wonder female activists take centre stage in DuVernay’s rendition of the history-changing protests. Lorraine Toussaint plays Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was one of the key figures in the events and actually invited Dr. King to come to Selma. Media mogul and one of the producers Oprah Winfrey also stars.
“Women make up half the population. How can you have a movement and the women are not there?” DuVernay says. “I knew of amazing women who may not have been amplified. They were the nurturers. There's no reason why we are made to be invisible.”
Having all but reached the pinnacle of her career, DuVernay remembers where she comes from and supports her fellow directors. As the founder of the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, she helps “distribute the work of black independent artists”.
DuVernay draws inspiration from “living, being a black woman walking around, observing people and asking questions”. She is herself a source of inspiration for everybody who gets the chance to work on the set of her films. Rapper Common went so far as to call the groundbreaking filmmaker a superhero. Unlike DuVernay, John Legend and Common did pick up a Golden Globe for their uplifting song Glory.
“Selma has awakened my humanity. And I thank you Ava. Ava you are a superhero. You used the art to elevate us all and bring us together,” Common said in his acceptance speech.
So, DuVernay lost out to the likes of Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater in the Best Director category, but her Selma movie is the “only black nominee” for this year’s Academy Awards. And just like her characters she is sure to emerge even stronger and fight on for her place among the greats.
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