Born in 1972 in Long Beach, California, Ava DuVernay worked in film publicity and marketing, and established her own agency, before deciding to become a filmmaker. She helmed hip-hop documentaries and then released two feature films: I Will Follow (2010) and Middle of Nowhere (2012). She directed the Oscar-nominated historical drama Selma, which follows a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life during an urgent call for voting rights. With this critically acclaimed work, DuVernay became the first African-American female director to receive a Golden Globe nomination and have a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In 2016, she directed 13th, a documentary about the criminalization of African Americans and the U.S. prison system, which received an Oscar nomination for feature documentary.
Background and Early Career
Ava DuVernay was born on August 24, 1972, in Long Beach, California. Growing up with an entrepreneurial father who owned a carpeting business, DuVernay had an interest in rhyming and hip-hop and eventually attended UCLA. During the 1990s, she worked in film publicity before starting the DuVernay Agency, which specialized in movie marketing for African-American audiences.
While on the set of the 2004 thriller Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, DuVernay felt inspired to start making her own films. She initially released shorts like 2006’s Saturday Night Life and the documentaries This Is the Life (2008), which looked at alternative hip-hop artists, and My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop, which aired on BET in 2010.
That same year, DuVernay made her feature film debut as director and screenwriter with the drama I Will Follow, a poignant drama about a woman who is grieving over the loss of her aunt to cancer. The work put DuVernay on the map, with film critic Roger Ebert calling the outing, “a universal story about universal emotions.”
Sundance Award for 'Middle of Nowhere'
In 2011, DuVernay co-founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, a group dedicated to supporting the release and distribution of black indie movies. In 2012, the filmmaker released her second feature Middle of Nowhere. The film, starring Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick, Lorraine Toussaint and David Oyelowo, looked at an ambitious, conflicted woman whose husband is incarcerated. DuVernay won the director’s prize at Sundance, becoming the first black woman to do so.
The following year, DuVernay was called upon to direct an episode of the hit Kerry Washington drama Scandal and also released the ESPN documentary Venus Vs., which followed Venus Williams’ fight for pay equity for female tennis players.
Making History With 'Selma'
A planned biopic on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the first for the big screen, had eventually ended up with director Lee Daniels, with Oyelowo cast in the lead. But when Daniels chose to helm The Butler instead, the script for the project, written by Paul Webb, was set adrift, until Oyelowo convinced the French production company Pathé to bring DuVernay on board as director. Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt also came on board as producers, and DuVernay rewrote the script, although she didn't receive screenwriter credit due to previous contractual stipulations.
Selma, which opened in limited release at the end of 2014, follows the movement to secure African-American voting rights in Alabama during the mid-1960s. The film earned almost unanimous critical praise and was heralded as one of the year’s best. While the film was cited for its humanistic and nuanced portrayal of Dr. King, at the same time it stirred some controversy over its depiction of both King and President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Other historical figures depicted in the film include Coretta Scott King, Ralph D. Abernathy, James Bevel, Amelia Boynton, J. Edgar Hoover, Mahalia Jackson, John Lewis, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, George Wallace and Andrew Young Jr.)
DuVernay made further history with the work by becoming the first African-American woman to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director. Selma also received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture as well as for Original Song, with many viewers and critics questioning the Academy's decision to exclude it from other categories.
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” - 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified December 6, 1865
In 2016, DuVernay released a documentary entitled 13TH. She directed and co-wrote the Netflix film which takes it name from the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that abolished slavery. The film focuses on the evolution of the American criminal justice system, mass incarceration and race. 13th received an Oscar nomination for in the documentary feature category.
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