What do you do when you become the first African-American woman to win the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival? You keep working, says independent filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who is hell-bent on not letting the hype take her off her game.
DuVernay won the coveted award for her film Middle of Nowhere, which debuted last month at the film festival. DuVernay's love for film was cultivated by her aunt, Denise; their relationship is touched upon in her critically acclaimed movie I Will Follow. DuVernay, a former publicist, has merged her success in both professions to create an independent film-distribution company — African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement, in order to affirm the value of black stories told by filmmakers of African descent.
DuVernay's journey from publicist to filmmaker has been admittedly nontraditional, yet it is her ability to make films based on "instinct" and surrounded by close friends whom she trusts that helps her maintain her integrity. The energy and emotion invested in DuVernay's films resonate with audiences of all backgrounds.
DuVernay is more interested in continuing to make good documentary and fictional films than she is in basking in the afterglow of her historic win. She talked to The Root about her award, what it means for other black women filmmakers and what's next for the Los Angeles native who is taking the independent-film community by storm.
The Root: What was it like when you heard your name called for best director?
Ava DuVernay: I was shocked. I can't really think of a time in my life when I've been shocked — that word applying to me. I thought to myself, "What is happening right now?" It was such a long shot — not even a long shot, because a long shot would assume that I was in shooting range. This wasn't even a long shot because I wasn't even there mentally — I wasn't even in the moment because I wasn't waiting for my name to be called. I was chilling.
It was a long ceremony, and I was sitting with my editor and producer, and they're both great friends of mine. We were literally there to watch the unfolding of the awards to the popular people who were going to get it. The win was not expected — it was a surreal moment.
I do remember the reaction in the room — half shocked and half excited. I remember seeing the women and people of color in the audience very hyped. The women and black and brown people were on their feet applauding. Definitely everyone else was like, "Who is that and was she even at the festival?"
TR: How were you received in Los Angeles once people found out about your historic win?
AD: Try L.A. and the world. My phone was like a vibrator — it literally started going off from the moment the announcement was made that I had won for best director. People I know from all over the world started texting, tweeting and congratulating me.
I must say, the response from my community has been overwhelming and beautiful. Every black blog, website — so many tweets and Facebook posts, and all from a positive place. I felt like I got a big hug from my community. It lasted for about a week, and I had to get back to work.
It's like when a relative embraces you too long and you have to break away and go to work. It's the same with this win at Sundance. I definitely could have stayed in the safe place and warm embrace, but knew that I needed to get back to work, so I did.
TR: What does your win mean for the career trajectory of black women filmmakers?
AD: I don't think it means much in that regard. I see it as a personal, beautiful thing for me. It's a confidence builder for someone that didn't go to film school, that started making films from the outside in and is still on the outside and happy to be there. I'm really making films on instinct and a set of tools that are untraditional because I don't have the vocabulary or experience that a lot of other people have in this business at this age. So to have this tip of a hat that says, "We see you and that's good work," means a lot, wherever it comes from.
What does it mean on a larger scope? Not much. We might start to lose track if we put too much into these honors and prizes, because the only thing that matters is the work. I'm not on some new age humility kind of vibe, but realistically it doesn't mean that much for black women filmmakers.
We've seen people who have won Oscars in the past for extraordinary performances, but what does it mean now? It's a personal triumph, but does it equate to forward movement for black filmmakers, black people and the culture? I think not.
I'm interested in making sure that this isn't a wave where people are saying, back in 2012 this woman won this award, and now what? I just want us to keep making films. So I would say that it would probably offer another trivia answer.
I may be wrong — it may inspire a young black man or woman to pursue film, but changing the direction of black women filmmakers is a little idealistic.
TR: What's next for Ava DuVernay?
AD: Next for me, in the next few weeks I'm going to announce my next AFFRM film by a filmmaker I really love and whose work I'm proud to distribute. I'm also polishing my next script, and my intention is to shoot that script this year. The money is raised — it just depends on talent availability and my availability. Middle of Nowhere, which is the film we took to Sundance, will be released in the fall. More work, which is a good thing.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.