An Afternoon with Ava DuVernay

Ava DuVernay riveted the crowd of 10,000 women at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Tuesday, October 2, 2019. Interviewed by author and award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee, the groundbreaking filmmaker touched on many important topics.

She wanted the audience to know that there are different histories, and that while some are pushed to the forefront and considered fact, others have been hidden and oppressed—but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There is not only one history. DuVernay said she doesn’t feel like history has been stolen. She said it can’t be taken. It’s always there, and she sees it as one of her responsibilities to bring these histories forward.

A few moments before DuVernay took the stage, author Jesmyn Ward called her “fearless.” She responded to that by acknowledging that the word fearless is a complicated word, but that to her, it really means to “fear less.” She now fears less than she did in the past, as her experiences have helped her to understand her position in this world. She admits that when she walked on a set in the early days of her career, which was full of white men in unions, she got the vibe of, “Who’s this young black woman trying to tell us what to do?” Even in those situations, she said she always tried to think about what she can bring to the situation that they can’t, like, “Oh, I’m from Compton!” She encourages other women to lean into what they know, rather than fearing what they don’t know.

Imposter syndrome often gets associated with women. Even though men also have that fear, they are not as connected to it. Why? DuVernay said men are raised in a privileged position within their households and communities. In her industry, which is white- and male-dominated, she said there are a lot of “fan boys.” These are men who love everything the male filmmakers do. She said women don’t really have “fan girls.” The fan boys descend and protect male filmmakers like a pack, and DuVernay would like to see that more for women filmmakers. She’d like women to be much more demonstrative with support to create a sense of belonging. #avasfangirls

“I don’t have children. That’s by choice. I just never wanted them,” DuVernay said. “When I started to make films, I loved them so deeply. They bear my name in the same way that a child carries on your legacy. All of your hopes are there. For me, I put that into my work. My films are my children.”

Even though DuVernay had a pretty extensive body of previous work, many people got to know her with her film “Selma.” Most recently, she became the first African American woman to join the $100 million film club with her Disney film, “Wrinkle in Time.” With this film, she said she wanted to see “a little black girl fly and save the universe.” She said she had never seen that, and the stories that we tell ourselves make up the way that we behave and what we believe about ourselves. DuVernay sees this film that talks about morals and strengths, things she wants to impart, as one of her contributions to the next generation.

DuVernay also created “Queen Sugar,” which is now in its fifth season on the Oprah Winfrey Network. DuVernay found the work to be a real entry point for conversations on race and ways to move forward in a more positive manner. She said movies and TV allow us to sit down and talk. “For those of you who don’t know, ‘Queen Sugar’ is a very black show,” DuVernay said. She said it touches on a lot of issues that need introspection within the black community. She was nicely surprised when a Vietnamese man approached her and said, “Let me talk to you about Ralph Angel.” She said it’s always an honor when something she’s made sparks a conversation on race.

DuVernay noted that the film industry that she works in was built on D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which is a violently racist film, but it also had innovations, jump cuts, and camera movements and key elements of filmmaking that audiences had never seen before. “Imagine being in an audience with all of this great filmmaking and innovation, but it’s racist,” DuVernay said. When something is built on a shaky and diseased foundation, it’s struggling with the genesis of itself. DuVernay said it’s a struggle to add women and people of color to all parts of the industry. She said they are doing it, though, and the industry is not dealing with it well. She said certain people are holding on really tightly to the old ways. “That’s my rant about Hollywood,” DuVernay quipped.

“You have to choose if you are going to use your powers for good or for ill,” DuVernay said.

“If I get my chance at the microphone, I want to say something with meaning. I have chosen my path. People say, ‘She’s always talking about black people or women,’ and yeah, I am. That’s just as valid as you talking about white boys.”

How does she deal with death and injustice? “My weapon of choice is my voice,” said DuVernay. She said she feels empowered when she is dealing with difficult topics because she gets to be the storyteller. She’s aware that the story has been told one way for a very long time, and now she gets to tell it another way. That’s something she embraces.

“You are limiting your ability to be great if you think greatness only looks like you,” DuVernay said. If you’re using the same people over and over, put some new people in. You get a more “robust, fully formed film” in the end.

“What is a better feeling than someone coming up to you and saying, ‘You changed me?’ That fuels me,” said DuVernay.

You can watch much of DuVernay’s work on Xfinity X1 or the Xfinity Stream app, including:

Plus, just say “When They See Us on Netflix” or “13th on Netflix” into your X1 Voice Remote.

You can also watch interviews and video clips about DuVernay on X1 by saying “News About Ava DuVernay” or “Ava DuVernay on YouTube.”