5. A Filmmaker Against the Odds

Ava DuVernay on the set of "Selma."

Ava DuVernay on the set of “Selma.”

Ava DuVernay literally flipped the script. She went from promoting the films of others to creating her own. And she’s doing it big with big topics, big stars and big awards.

In just four years, DuVernay has become what she calls a “filmmaker against the odds.” She is the first African-American woman to receive the Best Director Award at the Sundance Film Festival, winning in 2012 for her second feature film, Middle of Nowhere.

Her latest film, Selma, chronicles the fight for voting rights and brings the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the big screen, perhaps for the first time as the focus of a feature film, she said. Selma, which opens today in limited release and nationally on Jan. 9, is up for four Golden Globe Awards. DuVernay has several best director nominations, and there’s already Oscar talk.

“It feels like the time is now and that this is a critical time for this film to be in theaters,” DuVernay said while in the nation’s capital for the Washington premiere, two days before the nationwide “Justice for All” marches. Like the current demonstrations, the protest in Selma, Ala., were sparked in part by the shooting death of a young man at the hands of a law enforcement officer.

Ava DuVernay says this photo describes how she feels today with the release of her film "Selma."

Ava DuVernay says this photo captures how she feels today with the release of “Selma.”

Daniel Oyelowo, who was already attached to the project to portray King, describes DuVernay as “incredibly talented” and says that he recommended her to direct Selma after their positive experience working together on Middle of Nowhere. The cast also includes Lorraine Toussaint, Carmen Ejogo, Common and Oprah Winfrey.

DuVernay, whose early work included an inside look at the LA hip-hop scene in the documentary This Is the Life and a feature film on loss, I Will Follow, has also worked on the small screen for ABC, ESPN, BET and TV One. Her TV work includes a documentary on Venus Williams and “Vermont Is for Lovers, Too” — one of the most scandalous episodes of Shonda Rhimes’ hit series “Scandal.”  

The California native is still promoting films, but in a different way.  She encourages fellow filmmakers to get more involved with distribution as part of a holistic process of creating art and connecting with audiences. That’s why she founded a multi-platform distribution collaborative in 2011 to help like-minded  people pool and “affirm” their efforts through AFFRM, short for the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.

Most of all, she motivates people to do what she’s doing — following her passion, going after her dream and making films into old age. — Yanick Rice Lamb