Ava DuVernay

Ava Marie DuVernay (/ˌdjvɛərˈn/; born August 24, 1972) is an American filmmaker and film distributor. She won the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere,[1] becoming the first black woman to win the award.[2] For her work on Selma (2014), DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and also the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.[3][4] In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th (2016).

Ava DuVernay
DuVernay in 2015
Ava Marie DuVernay

(1972-08-24) August 24, 1972
Alma materUniversity of California, Los Angeles
Notable work

DuVernay's 2018 fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time, had a production and marketing budget between $150 million and $250 million, making her the first black woman to direct a live-action film with a budget of that size.[5] Although commercially unsuccessful, the film made her the first black American woman to direct a film that earned at least $100 million domestically.[5][6]

The following year, she created, co-wrote, and directed the Netflix drama miniseries When They See Us, based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, which has earned critical acclaim.[7][8][9][10]

Early life and education

Ava Marie DuVernay was born August 24, 1972 in Long Beach, California. She was raised with her four siblings by her parents Darlene (née Sexton), an educator, and Joseph DuVernay, Jr., also known as Murray Maye. She grew up in Lynwood.[11]

During her summer vacations, she would travel to the childhood home of her father, which was not far from Selma, Alabama.[12] DuVernay said that these summers influenced the making of Selma, as her father had witnessed the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.[13]

In 1990, DuVernay graduated from Saint Joseph High School in Lakewood.[14] At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), she was a double BA major in English literature and African-American studies. Ava is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. [15][16][17][18]


DuVernay's first interest was in journalism, a choice influenced by an internship with CBS News. She was assigned to help cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial.[16] DuVernay became disillusioned with journalism, however, and decided to move into public relations, working as a junior publicist at 20th Century Fox, Savoy Pictures, and a few other PR agencies. She opened her own public relations firm, The DuVernay Agency, also known as DVAPR, in 1999.[19]

Through DVAPR she provided marketing and PR services to the entertainment and lifestyle industry, working on campaigns for movies and television shows, such as Lumumba, Spy Kids, Shrek 2, The Terminal, Collateral, and Dreamgirls.[15][16][18][20][21][22][23]

Other ventures launched by DuVernay include Urban Beauty Collective, a promotional network that began in 2003 and had more than 10,000 African-American beauty salons and barbershops in 16 (20 since 2008) U.S. cities. They were mailed a free monthly Access Hollywood-style promotion program called UBC-TV,[24][25] the African-American blog hub Urban Thought Collective in 2008; Urban Eye, a two-minute long weekday celebrity and entertainment news show distributed to radio stations;[26] and HelloBeautiful, a digital platform for millennial women of color.[27]


In 2005, over the Christmas holiday, DuVernay decided to take $6,000 and make her first film, a short called Saturday Night Life.[18][28] Based on her mother's experiences,[18] the 12-minute film was about an uplifting trip by a struggling single mother (Melissa De Sousa) and her three kids to a local Los Angeles discount grocery store. The film toured the festival circuit and was broadcast on February 6, 2007, as part of Showtime's Black Filmmaker Showcase.[29]

DuVernay next explored making documentaries, because they can be done on a smaller budget than fiction films, and she could learn the trade while doing so.[30] In 2007, she directed the short Compton in C Minor, for which she "challenged herself to capture Compton in only two hours and present whatever she found." The following year, she made her feature directorial debut with the alternative hip hop documentary This Is the Life, a history of LA's Good Life Cafe's arts movement, in which she participated as part of the duo Figures of Speech.

In 2011, DuVernay's first narrative feature film, I Will Follow, a drama starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, was released theatrically. DuVernay's aunt Denise Sexton was the inspiration for the film.[28] The film cost DuVernay $50,000 and was made in 14 days.[21] Roger Ebert called it "one of the best films I've seen about coming to terms with the death of a loved one."[31][32] I Will Follow was an official selection of AFI Fest, Pan-African Film Festival, Urbanworld and Chicago International Film Festival.

In the summer of 2011, DuVernay began production on her second narrative feature film, Middle of Nowhere, from a script she had written in 2003 but could not get financed then.[28] The film had its world premiere on January 20 at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it played in U.S. dramatic competition.[33] It garnered the U.S. Directing Award: Dramatic for DuVernay. She was the first African-American woman to win the prize. DuVernay also won the 2012 Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for her work on the film.[34]

DuVernay was commissioned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture to create a film about African-American history. Her August 28: A Day in the Life of a People explores six significant events that happened on the same date, August 28; it debuted at the museum's opening on September 24, 2016. The 22-minute film stars Lupita Nyong'o, Don Cheadle, Regina King, David Oyelowo, Angela Bassett, Michael Ealy, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, André Holland and Glynn Turman. Events depicted include William IV's royal assent to the UK Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, the release of Motown's first number-one song, "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvellettes, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 I Have a Dream speech, the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the night Senator Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.[35]


DuVernay directed Selma, a $20 million budget dramatic film produced by Plan B Entertainment, about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.[36] The movie was released on December 25, 2014 to critical acclaim.[37]

She made uncredited re-writes of most of the original screenplay by Paul Webb in order to emphasize King and the people of Selma as central figures.[38][39] In response to criticism by some historians and media sources who accused her of irresponsibly rewriting history to portray her own agenda, DuVernay said that the film is "not a documentary. I'm not a historian. I'm a storyteller".[40]

The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song, but not Best Director, at the 2014 Academy Awards. The lack of diversity among the Oscar nominations for 2014 was the subject of much press,[41] especially on Twitter.[42] This film was the only one directed by a person of color that was nominated for the 87th Academy Awards. The award for Best Original Song went to "Glory" from Selma.[43][44] DuVernay said that she had not expected to be nominated as director, so the omission did not really bother her; but she was disappointed that actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King, was not nominated as Best Actor. She said that the obstacles to people of color being represented in the Academy Awards were systemic.[42]


In July 2016, the New York Film Festival made the surprise announcement that 13th, a documentary directed by DuVernay, would open the festival. Until the announcement no mention of the film had been made by either DuVernay or Netflix, the film's distributor.[45] Centered on race in the United States criminal justice system, the film is titled after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery (unless as punishment for a crime). DuVernay's documentary opens with the statement that 25 percent of the people in the world who are incarcerated are incarcerated in the U.S., and argues that slavery has been effectively perpetuated in the U.S. through disproportionate mass incarceration of people of color. The film features several prominent activists, politicians, and public figures, such as Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and others, who discuss such issues as convict leasing, the war on drugs, and disproportionate arrests, convictions and sentencing of minorities.[46]

It was released on October 7, 2016 on Netflix.[47] 13th garnered acclaim from film critics and has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 94 reviews. The critical consensus says: "13th strikes at the heart of America's tangled racial history, offering observations as incendiary as they are calmly controlled."[48] In a review from Awards Circuit, Angela Davis said "13th is probably the most important movie you'll ever see." [49] In 2017, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Oscars;[50] DuVernay became the first black woman to be nominated by the academy as a director in a feature category.[51] The film also won a Peabody Award in 2017[52] and a Columbia Journalism School duPont Award in 2018.[53]

A Wrinkle in Time

In 2010, it was announced that Disney carried the film rights to the 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time.[54] Following the success of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Disney announced the hire of Jeff Stockwell to write the screenplay for Cary Granat and his new Bedrock Studios. Cary Granat had previously worked with Disney on the Chronicles of Narnia and Bridge to Terabithia films.[55] On August 5, 2014, Jennifer Lee was announced as the screenwriter, taking over from Stockwell, who had written the first draft.[56][57] On February 8, 2016, it was reported that DuVernay had been offered to direct the film, and she was confirmed as director later that same month.[58]

A Wrinkle in Time began filming in November 2016. DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of over $100 million, and the second woman to do so after Patty Jenkins (who directed Wonder Woman).[5]

The film was released in March 2018 and brought in $33 million its opening weekend, second at the box office behind Black Panther.[59] Following Disney's Q2 earnings report in May 2018, Yahoo! Finance deduced the film would lose the studio anywhere from $86–186 million.[60]

Upon release, the film received mixed reviews, with critics "taking issue with the film's heavy use of CGI and numerous plot holes" while "celebrating its message of female empowerment and diversity."[61]


In 2010, DuVernay directed three TV documentaries. The first, two-hour concert film TV One Night Only: Live from the Essence Music Festival, was a mix of live performances and behind-the-scenes vignettes. It aired August 28, 2010 on TV One and showcases the U.S.'s largest annual African-American entertainment gathering, the Essence Music Festival. In 2010 it was held July 2–4 in New Orleans.[62] Two days later, BET premiered its first original music documentary, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop, a 41-minute long history of female hip hop artists.[63]

On Thanksgiving 2010, TV One showed DuVernay's 44-minute documentary special Essence Presents: Faith Through the Storm, about two black sisters who reclaimed their lives after personal devastation during Hurricane Katrina. "It was done for a client, for Essence. They wanted to talk about how faith helped them through, that was very important to them. So it is interspersed with gospel music, images of Katrina, their home and family."[64]

ESPN commissioned DuVernay to produce and direct Venus Vs., a documentary on Venus Williams's fight for equal prize money. This was to be included in their film series Nine for IX, which aired on July 2, 2013.[65]

DuVernay also directed the John Legend episode of the performance-and-interview series HelloBeautiful Interludes Live, which was shown September 14, 2013 on TV One as the series' broadcast premiere.[27] She also directed the eighth episode of the third season of the political thriller television series Scandal. The episode, titled "Vermont is for Lovers, Too", premiered on November 21, 2013 on ABC.[66]

In 2015, DuVernay executive produced and directed the CBS civil rights crime drama pilot For Justice, starring Anika Noni Rose.[67] It was not picked up for distribution.

That same year, DuVernay announced she would be creating and executive producing the drama series Queen Sugar, based on Natalie Baszile's novel.[68][69]

Queen Sugar premiered September 6, 2016 on Oprah Winfrey Network to critical acclaim and positive reviews.[70] DuVernay wrote four episodes and directed two. On August 1, 2016, the series was renewed for a second season ahead of its television premiere; it aired in a two-night premiere on June 20 and June 21, 2017.[71][72] The series was renewed for a third season on July 26, 2017.[73] In August 2018, OWN renewed the series for a fourth season, which premiered on June 12, 2019. [74] [75]

On July 6, 2017, it was announced that Netflix had given the production When They See Us a series order consisting of four episodes. The series was created by DuVernay, who served as executive producer, co-writer, and director. Other executive producers credited, include Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Rosenthal and Berry Welsh. Production companies involved with the series consisted of Participant Media, Harpo Films, and Tribeca Productions.[7] The series premiered on Netflix on May 31, 2019. Upon its release, the miniseries received critical universal acclaim.[76][77][78][79][80][81][82][83][84]

On June 25, 2019, Netflix announced that the miniseries had been streamed by over 23 million viewers within its first month of release.[85] It has received a record number of 16 nominations for Emmy Awards for writing, directing, and acting for stars and supporting actors.

Advertising and music videos

In 2013, DuVernay partnered with Miu Miu as part of their Women's Tales film series.[86] Her short film The Door starred actress Gabrielle Union and reunited DuVernay with her Middle of Nowhere star Emayatzy Corinealdi. The film premiered online in February 2013[87] and was presented at the Venice Days sidebar of the 70th Venice International Film Festival in August.[88]

Also in August 2013, DuVernay released, through Vimeo,[89] a second branded short film entitled Say Yes.[90] The film was sponsored by cosmetic brand Fashion Fair and starred Kali Hawk and Lance Gross with Julie Dash, Victoria Mahoney, Lorraine Toussaint and Issa Rae appearing as extras.

In 2015, Apple Music and their ad agency Translation hired DuVernay to helm a series of three commercials starring Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson and Kerry Washington. The first ad, Chapter 1, premiered during Fox's Emmy broadcast on September 20, 2015.[91] Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 debuted in November 2015 and February 2016, respectively.[92]

Her music video for the Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé song "Family Feud" premiered December 29, 2017 on Tidal.[93]

Film distribution and production

In 2010 DuVernay founded African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), her own company to distribute films made by or focusing on black people. DuVernay refers to AFFRM as "not so much a business, but a call to action."[94] Although she sees building strong business foundations for films is a priority, DuVernay has said that she stresses that the driving force of the organization is activism.[95] In 2015 the company rebranded itself under the name ARRAY, promising a new focus on women filmmakers as well.

DuVernay also owns Forward Movement, a film and television production company.[95]

Future projects

In 2013, she announced development on a narrative feature film entitled Part of the Sky and set in Compton.[96]

In 2015, it was announced that DuVernay would be writing, producing, and directing a fictional account which will focus on the "social and environmental" aspects of Hurricane Katrina while including a love story and a murder mystery.[97] David Oyelowo was said to be part of the project.[98]

In 2018, it was announced that DuVernay would be directing a New Gods film for the DC Extended Universe.[99] On May 29, 2019, DuVernay announced that she and Tom King will co-write the film.[100]

On October 29, 2018, it was announced that DuVernay would be working with the estate of Prince to direct a biopic covering his entire life for Netflix.[101] However, in August 2019, it was announced that DuVernay quit as director due to “creative differences.” [102]

Other work

In September 2013, DuVernay started a podcast series called The Call-In,[103] a series of phone conversations recorded by AFFRM of Black filmmakers of feature narrative and documentary work.

DuVernay, in a keynote address[104] at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival,[105][106] shared that she was the seventh choice of people asked to direct Selma[107] and described her experience at the 2015 Oscars, while being an honor to be able to attend, it was just "a room in L.A."[108]

In February 2018 it was announced that DuVernay, along with producer Dan Lin and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, had launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund. The fund's mission is to promote inclusion and provide an opportunity for under-served communities to pursue a dream in the entertainment industry.[109]

Since May 2019, DuVernay has cohosted The Essentials, a weekly film series on Turner Classic Movies, with Ben Mankiewicz. DuVernay has appeared in wraparounds each Saturday night on the channel, discussing a wide range of films, including Marty, Ashes and Embers, Harlan County, USA and La Pointe Courte.[110]

Style and themes

Michael T. Martin says, "DuVernay is among the vanguard of a new generation of black filmmakers who are the busily undeterred catalyst for what may very well be a black film renaissance in the making."[95] He further speaks of DuVernay's mission and "call to action" which constitutes a strategy "to further and foster the black cinematic image in an organized and consistent way, and to not have to defer and ask permission to traffic our films: to be self-determining."[95]

Personal life

DuVernay is private about her romantic life. She has been linked to rapper Common, who starred in and wrote music for the 2014 film she directed.[111]



Year Title Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer
2010 I Will Follow Yes Yes Yes
2012 Middle of Nowhere Yes Yes Yes
2014 Selma Yes Uncredited Executive Nominated- Golden Globe Award for Best Director
2018 A Wrinkle in Time Yes No No

Short films

Year Title Credited as
Director Writer Producer
2006 Saturday Night Life Yes Yes No
2013 The Door Yes Yes Yes
Say Yes[112] Yes Yes No

Documentary films

Year Title Credited as Notes
Director Writer Producer
2007 Compton in C Minor Yes No Yes
2008 This is the Life: How the West Was One Yes Yes Yes
2016 August 28: A Day in the Life of a People Yes Yes Yes Documentary short
13th Yes Yes Yes Nominated- Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature


Year Title Director Writer Executive
2013 Scandal Yes No No Episode "Vermont is for Lovers, Too"
2015 For Justice Yes No Yes Unaired TV pilot
2016–present Queen Sugar Yes Yes Yes Creator;
Writer (4 episodes)
Director (2 episodes)
2019 When They See Us Yes Yes Yes Creator
4 episodes
The Red Line No No Yes

Documentary series

Year Title Director Writer Producer
2010 TV One Night Only: Live from the Essence Music Festival Yes Yes No
My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women and Hip Hop Yes No executive
Essence Presents: Faith Through the Storm Yes Yes Yes
2013 Venus Vs. Yes Yes No
HelloBeautiful Interludes Live: John Legend Yes No No


Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes
2015–2016 Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 Yes No No Apple Music

Music video

Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes
2017 Family Feud Yes Yes Yes Music video for Jay-Z ft. Beyoncé

Awards, nominations, honors

  • In 2012, Variety featured DuVernay in its Women's Impact Report.
  • In June 2013, she was invited to both the director's and writer's branches of AMPAS.[113] DuVernay was only the second black woman, following Kasi Lemmons, to be invited to the director's branch.
  • DuVernay became the inaugural recipient of the Tribeca Film Institute's Heineken Affinity Award, receiving a $20,000 prize and industry support for future projects. DuVernay donated all the money to AFFRM, the black arthouse film collective she founded.[114]
  • In June 2015, Duvernay was honored as part of Women in Film Crystal + Lucy Awards with the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award.[115]
  • In April 2015 DuVernay was chosen as one of Mattel's "Sheros" of 2015. A custom-made one-of-a-kind Barbie in DuVernay's likeness was produced. The doll was auctioned off with the proceeds given to charity.[116] Due to high demand, a collectible version of the doll was produced and sold in December of that year.[117]
  • In 2016, DuVernay was named to Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders[118]
  • In 2017, DuVernay became the first black woman nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, for her film 13th.[119][120]
  • In 2017, DuVernay was the recipient of Smithsonian Magazine's American Ingenuity Award for Visual Arts.[121]
  • In 2018, DuVernay won Entertainer of the Year at the 49th NAACP Image Awards for her work in 2017.[122]
  • PETA declared DuVernay and actor Benedict Cumberbatch to be the Most Beautiful Vegan Celebs of 2018.[123]
Year Award Category Work Result
2011 African-American Film Critics Best Screenplay I Will Follow Won
2012 Black Reel Awards Best Screenplay Nominated
Best Director Nominated
NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Independent Motion Picture Nominated
Sundance Film Festival Directing Award Middle of Nowhere Won
Grand Jury Prize Nominated
Film Independent Spirit Awards Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award Won
Humanitas Prize Sundance Film Nominated
African-American Film Critics Best Independent Film Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Picture Nominated
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Woman Screenwriter Nominated
Women Film Critics Circle Josephine Baker Award Won
2013 Black Reel Awards Best Director Won
Best Screenplay Won
Best Film Nominated
Gotham Awards Best Feature Nominated
2014 Online Film Critics Society Award Best Director Selma Nominated
Black Film Critics Circle Best Director Won[124]
Central Ohio Film Critics Association Best Director Won
Breakthrough Film Artist Won
Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award Best Director Nominated
Georgia Film Critics Association Best Director Nominated
Breakthrough Award Nominated
Golden Globe Award Best Director Nominated
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Director Nominated
Best Woman Director Won
Female Icon of the Year Won
Critics' Choice Movie Awards Best Director Nominated
Satellite Awards Best Director Nominated
Film Independent Spirit Awards Best Director Nominated
African-American Film Critics Association Best Director Won
Black Reel Awards Black Reel Award for Best Director Won
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Director Nominated
Online Film Critics Society Best Director Nominated
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Awards Best Director Nominated
2016 Grammy Awards Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media Nominated
Alliance of Women Film Journalists Best Woman Director 13th Won
Outstanding Achievement by a Woman in the Film Industry Won
Black Reel Awards Best Film Nominated
Best Feature Documentary Won
Critics' Choice Documentary Awards Best Director (TV/Streaming) Won
Women Film Critics Circle Best Woman Storyteller (Screenwriting Award) Won
Courage in Filmmaking Won
2017 Academy Award Best Documentary Feature Nominated
Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special Won
Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming Nominated
Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming Won
2019 TCA Awards Program of the Year When They See Us Nominated
Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Miniseries and Specials Nominated
Primetime Emmy Awards Outstanding Limited Series Nominated
Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special Nominated
Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special Nominated

DuVernay test

The "DuVernay test" is the race equivalent of the Bechdel test (for women in movies), as suggested by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in January 2016, asking whether "blacks and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories."[125] It aims to point out the lack of people of color in Hollywood movies, through a measure of their importance to a particular movie or the lack of a gratuitous link to white actors.[126]


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